Imagine this scenario. You are the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (for now) and are talking to Barack Obama, one of the most important people on the planet, about Russia and Ukraine.
What you decide together will have major consequences for world politics and for the standing of your respective nations.
Do you: (a) raise your specific concerns about the international situation and persuade him to take them into account; (b) listen carefully to the plans he suggests and endorse them; or (c) tweet a photograph of your *serious face* to your 6,000 followers, with the message: “I’ve been speaking to @BarackObama about the situation in Ukraine. We are united in condemnation of Russia’s actions”?
Few would select option (c), you would think, because it would create the impression that you were more worried about your appearance than what is developing into a grave crisis, and it would suggest to your followers that you don’t really trust them to work out that you were considering the best strategy and were party to negotiations, without proving it to them with a snapshot of your furrowed brow. But (c) is exactly the answer that David Cameron picked this week. #Epicfail.
What was Cameron thinking? Of course it was the act of a not-so-savvy social media aide, an act that was instantly lampooned in hundreds of parodies, making the PM look a bit silly when the intention was, I assume, to make him look important and sincere, in a way that we, the common people, and especially the young, who get all this internet stuff, would understand.
As a political strategy designed to make someone look statesmanlike, it’s not quite what Frank Underwood, arch-manipulator in the US version of the House of Cards TV series, would plot.
Countless people responding by taking selfies posed in the same way as Cameron’s and posted them on to Twitter. The meme included comics; random people holding animals to their ear; a dog on a phone; and the actor Sir Patrick Stewart, head tilted towards a tube of antibacterial hand wipes.
When you are mocked by the captain of the USS Enterprise, you should know you haven’t quite achieved the impression management you were aiming for.
I’m not outraged. I know Cameron’s team don’t really think that social media is more important than international diplomacy. I’m not even insulted that they think we, the witless public, need a picture and 140 characters to explain all that difficult stuff about foreign places currently in the news. I am a bit embarrassed for them, that’s all.
It is another sign of a government trying to look in charge and in touch – keeping up with trends on the interweb – and failing. If they respected the office of government, and the public, surely they wouldn’t try quite so hard to promote simplistic messages online.
David Cameron is not the only one to use Twitter, or who appears to want to be part of the phenomenon of the selfie – taking a photograph of yourself and uploading it on to social media. The Pope’s been at it; posting a selfie posing with young fans. In fact, Oxford Dictionaries named “selfie” the Word of the Year last year, calculating that its usage across the internet had increased a massive 17,000 per cent, a figure which must have risen exponentially since.
But perhaps the most infamous selfie is from when Barack Obama (and David Cameron again) were snapped by and alongside the Danish prime minister at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. They appeared quite unlike the political leaders they are and more like, well, normal people. Posing for your own photo and sending it around – basically, stroking your own ego – when you should be sitting quietly and thinking about the life of someone else, is the sort of thing the average person might do.
Maybe that was the intention. It seems to have been in the case of the comedian and actress Ellen DeGeneres, who tweeted herself in a selfie taken by Bradley Cooper, at the Academy Awards – the Oscars – surrounded by a roll-call of red carpet stars: Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, Lupita and Peter Nyong’o.
The picture of them all is the most famous selfie in the world, displacing the one of Barack Obama and Michelle, which had the caption: “Four more years”, after winning a second term, and which had been retweeted, then, 778,424 times since 2012. DeGeneres’s selfie has been retweeted more than three million times, which is a record.
Photographers are everywhere at the Oscars. Film stars are rarely out of the spotlight, even in the course of a normal day, so this photo, and the way it was uploaded online, with no retouching and no careful posing, appears different to the usual fancy snaps; much more spontaneous and fun – the sort of shot I might take at a party with friends. But I don’t want that from A-list film stars. And I will never believe it was not staged – some have pointed out that the winner of the night was Samsung, whose mobile device was used for the stunt.
It seems as if celebrities, the political class and even the Pope are desperately trying to look and act like us, and have been for too long. Ever since “Call me Tony” Blair sipped from a mug of tea and took off his tie, there has been an aping of the everyday and the informal which now infects the high echelons of office and fame. But they aren’t like us. They are wealthy, well-known and very influential people.
Some of them even do something important. And whilst I didn’t vote for these particular politicians, many did. They are elected. They won their office. So really, they have no need to get down with ordinary folk, or pretend they live and do the same things as you and me. They just need to get on with their jobs. I would respect them more if they knew their place.
So here is my advice. Dave, Barack, Pope Francis and Ellen: tweet no more. Your reputation will improve if you #bintheselfie.