While watching a World Cup game recently, I was struck by how often the people in the stands had their phones up to take a picture. There was one moment, when an important free kick was about to take place, that they panned to the crowd in the lower level behind the goal and it was a sea of horizontally arranged cell phones. I couldn’t even see the people behind them.
I’ve done it myself. Haven’t we all? In fact, I participated in the very same scene when I was in the stands for a game where Messi was taking a free kick. I got a killer (blurry) picture of the ball going in.
I know it is normal in today’s culture, but isn’t this odd behavior? We paid so much money to go to the game so we wouldn’t have to watch it through a screen. And there are a million cameras at the World Cup. Do we think we might capture a better one than anyone else?
Anyway, this got me thinking. The wall of cell phones at live events, concerts, historical sites, parks, even our own couches must have something to do with our values. It must be hinting at what we treasure most.
My first conclusion is that this obsession with taking pictures has to do with ownership. I want to say I was there. To prove it. To tangibly hold a stake in it. I want to show someone my picture as evidence of the great thing I participated in.
If I told someone I was at a World Cup game, is it that much less real than if I show them my picture? It might be. Sure, I could download a (much better) picture and tell someone I was there. But there is something in us that needs to own our place, needs to have something that belongs to us to connect us to the event we are celebrating.
The irony is that in the quest of ownership, we often miss the event itself. In a social media age, we are trying so hard to show people we were there. So hard, we often forget we are there. Our minds are already going to what this will look like on Instagram and the masses who will be compelled to ‘like’ it.
Perhaps we’ve dumbed down our deep desire for ownership into a kind of performance. An image. A mask. And one that prevents us from truly being present, from appreciating reality in front of us.
Tied closely with the desire for ownership is our deep longing for significance. We want people to say ohhh and ahhhh in response to who we are and what we are doing.
This is an extension of ownership. It is the same reason we wear lucky hats or sit on the same spot on the couch when our team is winning. We want to believe we are a part of it. An important part. We are searching for meaning.
We want to tell people we were at the game, and we want to show them. In our celebrity/fame/sports crazy world, we are hoping some of the significance placed on these types of people and experiences will rub off on us.
It’s the same reason I look for celebrities and filming locations on the streets of NYC. I don’t really care about any of it. But to tell people I saw Justin Timberlake on the street makes me feel important, significant, and meaningful. I know I’m borrowing from his fame, but the shadow and the attention are enough to hint at the meaning I so desperately desire.
Fear of the Temporary
The third facet of this, I think, is that we are terrified of the temporary. Life is so hard and tragic, we want to capture the greatest moments in hopes we can relive them forever.
I’ve never looked at that Messi photo since the day I posted it on social media. But the taking of it and the knowledge that I have it somewhere makes me feel like the moment is not lost, not forgotten, not gone.
In an ever-changing world, we have a subtle fear that the best moments will pass and be forgotten too quickly. So we try to enshrine them in our phones. We try to make them eternal.
Once again, the irony is that trying to take the forever photo might actually hijack the live experience. I won’t see or appreciate the sights and sounds in the stadium if I am glued to my phone’s screen, trying to frame the perfect flash of the lens.
In the end, all of this is hinting at a desire in my life for more. I want to live a life of purpose. I want to own my choices and feel confident of my place in this world. My photos aren’t going to do any of this for me. But that probably won’t stop me from pulling out my phone the next time something incredible starts to happen.