Ground Rules

When Not to Take a Selfie

In the wake of the Obama selfie firestorm from Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, a commonsense guide to taking selfies.

Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty

I’m old enough to remember when Selfies at a Funeral was a thing. It was a Tumblr, to be precise, so buzzworthy and relevant that by November 13, it was featured on Good Morning America. The site still exists, but on December 10, 2013, it took its own life: “Obama Has Taken A Funeral Selfie,” reads the final post, “So Our Work Here Is Done.”

How did we get here? It wasn’t quite a selfie that POTUS snapped, and it wasn’t exactly a funeral, but still: roping in the Danish and British prime ministers for a snap at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service? It’s one thing to snag the Pope for a quick groupie, but this is ridiculous. Don’t believe me? Look at the look on FLOTUS.

Yet how, in this age of protean trends and indecipherable jargon, are we to draw the line? Who is to tell us when to selfie and when to abstain? It’s enough to busy a subreddit—but there’s nothing to stop us from laying down some ground rules now.

Rule #1: Don’t Be Zelig

In one of the strangest films of the original Me Generation, Woody Allen’s titular character Leonard Zelig made fictional fame as a boring everyman whose desire to fit in thrust him front and center throughout decades of world history. Want to take pictures of momentous events? Have at it. Want to take pictures of yourself? Go nuts.

Just, please: don’t do both at the same time.

It’s not just the First Lady who’s going to frown on that kind of multitasking. To the disgust and delight of the New York Post, a woman recently snuck in a selfie against the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge—and a suicidal man atop the landmark. News or duckface? Choose one or the other, but choose.

Rule #2: No Tragicomedy

That brings us to another elementary law. No matter how random or obscure a misfortune, you’re hurting humanity if you step in front and smile. As Romney son Josh learned Thanksgiving night—after posing in front of a crashed car, minus the four people he pulled from the wreck—that’s a rule you can’t break even if you took a bad situation and made it better.

There’s one exception, and it’s a big one: making light of something awful that happened to you. Lost a fight with a possum? Flooded your laptop? Perhaps you just bandaged a self-inflicted injury with some scotch tape and crazy glue. Selfie away. If you can laugh about it in good conscience, we want to laugh too.

Rule #3: No Uncanny Valleys

If you’re in robotics, prosthetics, or animation, you’re no stranger to the “uncanny valley”—the creeped-out feeling we experience when something lifeless seems only sort of lifelike. Well, in the selfie valley, it works in reverse: show us parts of your body in a way that makes them seem less than human, and our stomach churns.

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An example? I thought you’d never ask. Fortunately, there’s a Tumblr for that: My personal favorite—by which I mean least favorite—is the still-underrated phenomenon of selfie claw hand. Think carefully before contorting your wrist or pulling up your knees: Do I now resemble a food, an animal, or an animal made into food? If so, put the phone down.

Rule #4: Total Commitment

If you look bored, nobody wants to see your selfie. If your selfie is so boring it manifestly bores even you, nobody wants to see it. Selfies live or die on their ability to involve us, even for an instant, in whatever it is you’re up to. Try our patience, even for an instant, and we’ll hate you forever. Or, y’know, forget you exist.

Rule #5: No Public Romance

Sexting gets a bad rap, and deservedly so. But did you realize it’s mostly because nobody wants to see what you’re sending a love interest? Free pornography is readily available across the internet. So are romantic comedies. If you want to immortalize a cute, sexy, or amorous moment with a significant other—or even yourself—keep it private, or use one of those cool, convenient, and completely revolting couples apps.

There’s really only one exception here. If your family member or loved one is under the weather, go ahead, selfie.

Unless, of course, a war is unfolding behind you. Or you’re making a twerk face. Or someone’s thighs look like sausages. Or you just don’t seem into it. Or…