I realized the word “selfie” had, in some circles, all but replaced the word “photo” during the long weekend I spent entrenched in the world of YouTube fandom at VidCon. Though the mobs of mostly teenage girls would, when I asked them why they had come to the conference, say they wanted to meet their favorite YouTube celebrities, the chief prize was a collection of selfies that featured their favorite YouTube celebrities as props.
They would muscle through crowds with their arms already outstretched, camera in hand, in “selfie stance,” so that all a YouTuber need do was slip into the frame and smile. At one point, I saw Sam Pepper, a 25-year-old with about 2.2 million YouTube subscribers, construct a “selfie line” in which he arranged girls shoulder-to-shoulder, each with her arm outstretched in the aforementioned selfie stance, and then popped his face between each pair of heads long enough for the girls to snap photos.
Apparently this phenomena isn’t restricted to teenagers in Anaheim.
“Nowadays, no royalist will allow an encounter with a Windsor to pass without recording every second of the experience on a mobile phone or trying for the ultimate prize of a ‘selfie’ with royalty,” The Telegraph wrote in a Monday report. It noted that Her Majesty finds it “strange” to be met with a wall of mobile phones whenever she looks up, and misses eye contact.
Selfies are, in this context, not so different from an autograph. They are proof that you’ve encountered someone notable. But selfies also convey a shift in fame.
Celebrity used to be a one-direction act: A famous person signs an autograph by herself for you to keep. Now, it’s participatory: Celebrity and fan take a photo together, and the fan broadcasts it to a network of people who, for whatever reason, thinks she’s just as important, if not more important, than the celebrity. Selfies give the fan as much presence in the meeting’s memento as they do the YouTube star or the queen.
In that sense, I agree with the Queen that the selfie boom does change some things, a condition initially known as “strange.” Does that make the selfie instinct bad? I’m not so sure.
It’s not as though people are focusing on themselves to the exclusion of everything else. When in December, a research team randomly selected and analyzed 20,000 to 30,000 Instagram photos from each of five cities, it found that only 4% of those photos were actually selfies. And it would be difficult to argue that pre-selfie crowd contact with celebrities was sincere and fulfilling. And if you’re actually sitting down to tea with the queen and you don’t put your phone down, the problem is you, not selfies.
Fans who seek selfies with celebrities want to share their experiences with their own fans (even if that’s just their Facebook friends). Maybe that diminishes the energy of a raving fanbase, but all of the famous YouTubers who I spoke with at VidCon actually liked the odd symmetry to the new fan relationship. “We are firm believers in, we should all be the same,” said Rafi Fine, one half of the Fine Brothers, a YouTube duo with 9.8 million subscribers to their main channel. “And I want them to be able to meet us, and I want to meet them, but we don’t need to be so excited, because we’re all on an equal playing field. I think in the future I want it to be that the creator and the fan are together in this, not feeling like we’re above them.”
In any celebrity-created crowd, numbers prevent actual quality time with every fan. But is there a more efficient way to be together than pausing to share a self-portrait?