Selfies after the earthquake in Nepal: What do these selfies say about ourselves?

A man takes a selfie at the historic Dharahara Tower. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
A man takes a selfie at the historic Dharahara Tower. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Are people really taking selfies of in front of Nepal’s Dharahara Tower, which is now in ruins after last week’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake? Yes, they really are.

The devastating earthquake has now claimed more than 5,000 lives. Meanwhile, people are taking selfies of themselves surrounded by the destruction left behind. Earlier this week, photos of people taking pictures of themselves in front of the tower ended up online and immediately sparked outrage earlier this week. This is not the first time selfies of people in sad settings have made people angry. Back in late 2013 the Tumblr Selfies at Funerals went viral, and there was Selfies at Serious Places and the Facebook page With My Besties in Auschwitz etc., etc., etc.

If our selfies are a reflection of ourselves, what do all these photos say about us -- and what drives us to do it?

“There are a few motivations here,” W. Keith Campbell, an expert on narcissism, said in a phone interview with Yahoo Canada. “Some are narcissistic, ‘Hey, check me out. I’m so cool,’ and some are ‘Look how bad this is.’”

The selfies in Nepal were presumably intended for friends and followers to see. Now that the images have been disseminated to the public at large, it’s impossible to know the true motivations behind each individual’s selfie, Campbell, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, points out. Indeed, some people featured on blogs like Selfies in Serious Places have offered sincere apologies and coherent explanations for their selfies. In the case of the Nepal selfies the Associated Press has reported many of the selfie-takers are locals, not tourists, documenting the devastation of their community.

There are a few motivations here. Some are narcissistic, ‘Hey, check me out. I’m so cool,’ and some are ‘Look how bad this is.'

—W. Keith Campbell, narcissism expert

“I try not to judge, lest I be judged,” said Campbell, who has written several scientific articles and books on narcissism. “Some might be communicating to loved ones: ‘Hey, I’m alive.’ They could just be celebrating being alive.”

Even with giving the people who took selfies in Nepal after the earthquake the benefit of the doubt two social media experts agree with Campbell that all selfies are rooted in being self-involved. This is nothing new as we are all by our very nature self-involved, says Alfred Hermida, author of the new award-winning book Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters.

We’ve always been making selfies, even if they weren’t called that. Among the oldest known artworks in the world are hand stencils and many famous artists such as Vincent Van Gogh painted several portraits of himself throughout his tortured life. Humans have always had an urge to make self-portraits with whatever tools we had at our disposal, it’s just a lot easier now, says Hermida. All anyone needs to document “I was here” these days is a smartphone with a camera.

“This whole selfie phenomenon is part of the me, me, me culture. People want attention,” said Eric Li, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia, who has studied social media behaviours.

People always have, and always will want, attention, says Hermida, who is also an associate professor at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.

It’s how we go about getting that attention that differs. Some people post selfies in disaster zones to get attention, while some post mean comments about other people’s selfies to get attention, notes Hermida.

Want to avoid becoming an Internet meme and the target of scorn for strangers on the World Wide Web? The experts recommended thinking before clicking and posting. And Li suggests lowering your phone for a moment to think of other people first.

“Is this respectful of the dead? Is this respectful of the family members of the dead?” asks Li.

Those are some good questions to ask yourself before snapping a selfie at a deeply sad place, such as the Auschwitz concentration camp or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or in front of the recently destroyed Dharahara Tower.

Do you agree taking selfies is inherently self-involved? Have you ever taken a selfie you’ve later regretted? Let us know below in the comments.