It was her stillness which caught my attention. She sat on the grass with an almost statue-like absence of motion. Slowly she raised an expensive, complicated digital camera until it was positioned in front of her face, the colour display angled towards her. She was staring not just at the lens but at the mirrored image of herself on the digital screen.
She’d taken daisies from the lawn and woven them into her dark hair, studding it with little bursts of white. She looked into the camera, the adjustments of her pose and expression so slight as to be almost unnoticeable. There was such concentration on her face, as if nothing would stand in the way of capturing herself, in that moment, in exactly the manner she wished to remember it.
I would guess she was, at most, nine years old.
A girl of similar age – her sister or a friend perhaps – sat a short distance apart amid the daisies and the grass, seeming not to notice the delicate, focused act of composition taking place just a few yards away.
Other families sat on the grass around them, with all the paraphanelia of a British bank holiday weekend in the countryside: picnics and pushchairs and jackets ‘just in case’. The setting was a farm shop and cafe, where visitors can pick their own produce or sample local dishes served on brightly coloured crockery.
I was just passing through – it’s our local farm – on my way to collect some fruit and vegetables for dinner. As I walked home, I couldn’t help wondering about the culture in which such concentration is given to achieving so specific a look at such a young age.
It would seem to have its roots in several developments:
- Firstly, the existence of channels which thrive on celebrity selfies: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They have brought with them a sense that personal brand is something you can control and monetise for yourself, if only you can convince enough followers. It would be highly unlikely and shocking indeed to imagine a nine year old allowed to cultivate such an image, but that misses the point: they will already be aware and influenced by the use of such channels by celebrities so prominent in popular culture.
- The commoditisation of powerful digital tools for image capture and enhancement. Here we have a nine year old entrusted, without supervision, with a camera that would have been unaffordable to all but professional photographers just a few years ago.
- The acceptance of digital documentation as a permissable activity in company. How quickly times have changed that it is no longer weird to see a nine year old sitting apart from her family, totally engrossed in perfecting her own image in digital form.
User stories like these are at the heart of the unique MEX approach to understanding digital experience. We never expected them to provide fully formed answers, but they prompt us to begin the exploratory sequence which eventually illuminates our event programmes, publishing, podcasts and consulting. The discipline of capturing them reinforces what it is to be ‘user-centred’ throughout the design process. The unifying factor is that each of these stories (they’re part of an ongoing series) results from observing unfiltered behaviour without any of the bias introduced when users know they’re being observed or ‘tested’.
This particular story led to a further discussion with my fellow MEX collaborator Alex Guest. We tried to understand the incident’s significance and develop it beyond this specific individual and age group into how it might inform our future work on diverse digital challenges ranging from identity to creativity and communication.
Alex took a slight different path, focused on the way in which the resulting image might be used as social vocabulary and the degree to which this behaviour was simply being transferred from analogue media:
Beyond the creative drive first to arrange the daisies, and then to capture the moment, I wonder if the motivation – in this, and even in most, cases – for selfies is really about exploring and defining one’s identity, rather than the quest for fame and money? Whatever the daisies in her hair represented to her, she was, I hypothesise, trying out how it felt to have that characteristic associated with herself.
The picture then works in two ways. She can see a representation of herself and better judge how she feels about the identity she has tried on, and also to seek approval from others. Social media here is the enabler for a two-way communication: e.g. she can say: “This is me”; and her correspondent has the opportunity to confirm: “How pretty!” The response, whether a thumbs up, a single word, or a longer sentence, will convey to her not only approval, but who it is that approves. The approval itself communicates ‘I’m your friend’. However, its absence would suggest the opposite, especially if such absence of approval persists.
It’s also worth considering how the picture was disseminated: 1-2-1 services would naturally enable much more intimate conversation.
Of course, there’s always the chance games are played: a friend might say ‘I like’ publicly, but separately and privately disapprove to others in their social circle: “Did you see what she put in her hair??!” There is also the very real possibility of open disapproval.
It seems to me that ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose’. The exploration of identity, and the seeking and granting of approval are aspects of life, particularly, though not uniquely, at a young age. Only the tools have changed and, as you say, the behaviour to put those tools to use.
I’d guess, given her age, the photo was probably unlikely to make it beyond the digital camera and into the wider world…yet. Most families I know with kids that age are not ready for them to have social media or even email accounts of their own until a bit later.
Alex’s focus on pre-existing behaviours caused me to reconsider the degree to which the girl’s actions were prompted by digital novelty. It also led off to a tangent about the nuances of how the resulting selfie might have been used, the role of parental oversight and why she was using a dedicated digital camera rather than a smartphone:
The behaviour itself would seem to have its roots in the timeless exploration of identity, as you say, but I wonder to what degree it is now influenced by the prolific use of selfies she would have been exposed to by older siblings, parents, media etc..?
It also raises the question: how does this influence parental oversight as ‘gatekeepers’ of the internet connection? Perhaps they are happier for her to play with an expensive digital camera, knowing it has no direct channel to sharing on social media, than they would be letting her loose with a less expensive or delicate smartphone? Apple’s iPad Mini and iPod Touch often seem to fit into this category: starter experiences for younger kids, because they explicitly don’t have cellular connectivity. Yet that feels more like a parental mental block than effective supervision, as these days you can do everything through WiFi that might once have required a cellular number.
I have a seven year old nephew – who is arguably more adept than his parents with technology – but if I want to share something with him, it is my brother I email, not my nephew directly. It is only just getting to the point where I’ve started to think, “When is it appropriate for him to have his own digital presence and what form will his first ‘marker’ in the digital world take?” An email address or a mobile number would seem to be low down the list of priorities: perhaps this is the first generation which will stake their digital territory with new methods, whether it be Snapchat or an avatar in a VR experience?
Browse the MEX archive for additional user stories, ranging from children to grandparents and from cities to countryside.