Crowdsourced toys: get your Lego thinking hat on

A couple of weeks ago we looked at an example of crowdsourced art. Today I want to show you an example of crowdsourced toys: Lego. Yes, the traditional, brick-y, plastic-y toy producer of our youth has turned out to be one of the most innovative companies in the market. And their most game-changing innovation of all? Turning to their market for toy design.

In 2008 Lego launched Lego Cuusoo (“My Lego Wish” in Japanese, or so I’ve been told) in collaboration with the ideas crowdsourcing company Cuusoo (perhaps more on them in another post), to collect ideas from its fans for a new collection of Lego designs. Although the initial site was only available in Japanese, in 2011 the international Lego Cuusoo was launched, and in April of this year, the concept became the more pronounceable Lego Ideas.

medieval marketplace lego set

A medieval marketplace, under review

The idea is this: anyone can submit a Lego pack idea to the platform. The ideas are then voted on by the community (=anyone who’s interested, which in the last count was about 600,000 people). If an idea reaches more than 10,000 votes, the Lego team considers producing it for retail distribution. The creator receives 1% of the net sales revenue.

The advantages are pretty obvious: not only does Lego get access to a huge bank of creativity, that also happens to be aware of incipient trends and marketplace gaps. It also gets to effectively pre-market test an idea. If an idea receives a lot of votes, it’s likely that it will sell well. There is in effect a significant built up demand by the time the product hits the shelves. Lego gets a more profitable product launch, and we get funkier Lego packs to play with test our building skills.

This is one of the most recent product launches, on shelves in the US since last month:

Lego Research Institute

21110 Research Institute, on shelves but good luck finding an affordable one

Female scientists. You have a paleontoligist, a chemist and an astrologist. They each come with a figure, a pack of tools, and their respective workspaces. I want this set. Seriously.

Except that I can’t have one because it sold out of everywhere almost right away. Sniff. It is available from some re-sellers at about 7x its initial retail price of $19.99, but I don’t think that I can go there… Meanwhile, I can get my dose of the antics from a hilarious Twitter account which describes the trials and tribulations of the trio:

LegoAcademics Twitter account

Follow @LegoAcademics on Twitter!

Other excellent ideas (in my opinion) that ended up getting produced through Lego’s crowdsourcing scheme are:

Minecraft Lego:

Minecraft Lego set

The Ghostbuster kit, complete with car and figures:

Ghostbuster Lego kit


Some interesting options currently under review:

The Big Bang Theory Lego set, complete with figures and Leonard and Sheldon’s living room (and even the Rubik’s cube tissue box and a miniature Lego Death Star!) – Lego people, please produce this one:

Big Bank Theory Lego kit

Dr. Who:

Dr. Who Lego kit

An Apple store (the brand, not the fruit… product placement, much?)

An Apple Store Lego kit


Some possibly interesting options currently in the voting process (sign up and vote here!):

From the film Frozen:

Frozen Lego kit

From Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (I’m a huge Terry Pratchett fan, I voted for this one!):

Terry Pratchett's Discworld Lego kit

Lord of the Rings:

Lord of the Rings Lego kit


And some that got a lot of votes but were rejected:

Sherlock Lego (inexplicable, really…)

Sherlock Lego kit

The Adventure Time Project (my kids would definitely have bought this!):

Adventure Time Lego kit

The Legend of Zelda:

Legend of Zelda Lego kit

From Portal, the video game (there was also a project for League of Legends):

Portal Lego kit


Far from being relegated to the toy bin with the rise of video games, the Lego brand has (with the odd dip here and there) managed to maintain its relevancy and appeal in an electronic age. Rather than bank on increasing sales to the younger generation, it seems to have focussed on broadening its appeal to all ages and social groups. I personally know several adults who salivate over the traditional kits (ok, me included, I’m seriously thinking of buying myself one for my birthday). And the new designs coming out are breaking ground for their niche appeal that at the same time has a broad support base. And therein lies a very important key to success in this social age. Apart from the advantages of crowdsouring the ideas that we already discussed, another significant win is any marketer’s dream: the fan base is most definitely engaged.

Beacons in supermarkets, or How to hold a smartphone and a basket at the same time

This week I want to go back to beacons, this time in supermarkets. Do you like supermarket shopping? Now that I’m getting older and more mellow (yes, really!), I don’t mind it so much, but when I was younger and in even more of a race against time, I hated it. Hated it. I love cooking, I just hated the shopping. And I confess that, in spite of coming from the e-commerce world, I liked food shopping online even less, all that page navigation, and the lack of textures and shapes…

Now we have a technology that could make supermarket shopping fun, fast, and almost like a game. Beacons.

I wrote earlier about the potential of beacons in retail, and supermarkets are a subset of retail, so why the re-hash? Because the characteristics of supermarket shopping are quite different from the rest of the sector. The clients have different objectives, the logistics are a huge part of the process, and the marketing is even more challenging. Beacons are helping to change the way we shop in all retail sectors, perhaps none so obviously as with supermarkets.

beacons in supermarkets

image via

It starts before you walk in the door. Almost all large supermarket chains in the US and Europe have apps for your smartphone, but most for now are limited to helping you manage your shopping list, and to sending you coupons and generic marketing messages. The precision that beacons offer, knowing exactly where you are in the store, will change that. Some chains are now experimenting with mobile platforms that link the apps to beacons (InMarket in the US with Safeway and Giant Eagle, Proximus here in Spain with Carrefour). The roll-out so far is slow, but the possibilities are very interesting indeed.

With beacons at the supermarket entrance, the store knows when you walk in, and can send you a cheery greeting and an invitation to open the app. You will probably get a couple of promotional messages (3-for-2 on crackers, welcome to our Week of the Banana), and then, perhaps, a really useful function. If the app knows your shopping list, it could plot the most efficient route through the aisles, so you could get out of there faster. And re-order your shopping list for you so you know what to pick up as you go along. Beacons and a nifty algorithm can take a huge part of the “where-do-I-find?”-related stress out of supermarket shopping.

But, obviously, the supermarkets don’t want you to get out of there faster. They want you to linger and spend more. Beacons are also changing grocery marketing. Positioned in every aisle, they know where you are, and can send you information about special offers in the aisle you’re at. If the app knows your typical shopping list, or products that you have bought in the past, it can send you coupons for products that it knows you might want to save on. Sure, you’d probably buy these products anyway, but if the store can bring forward the next purchase, its cash flow improves. And who hasn’t fallen for the “if you buy two, you get one free!” every now and then?

beacons in supermarkets

image via

Beacons could allow supermarkets to encourage more time in the store in a more effective, fun way. Games, perhaps? Scan five products beginning with “c”, then go to customer service to pick up your free bar of chocolate, for instance. Or a message like “warm baguettes coming out in 10 minutes!”.

Cross selling? The supermarkets could send you dinner ideas, according to where you are, or what’s already in your basket. Say you’re standing in front of the dried pasta, and a recipe for cheese lasagna appears on your phone screen. Preparation time only 30 minutes, excellent, so you head on over to the cheese aisle to pick up the ricotta and mozzarella.

As for finding products, I would so love to know where everything on my list is! Beacons and a comprehensive directory can help with that. Customers can type in the product they’re looking for, and see on the little map on their phone screen where it is and how to get there. No more running around for half an hour looking for the self-raising flour. The supermarket where I shop in Madrid has the sugar in the coffee aisle, not with the baking goods, go figure.

Supply management can become more efficient. Beacons can send alerts to the warehouse when a shelf section is almost empty. And can help plan an efficient re-stock, according to the location, the rate of depletion and the time of day.

And beacons can tell management so much about customer behaviour once in the store. Where do they go first? How long do they linger? Where do they spend the most time? All of this information can be broken down by customer profile. And the more the chain knows about its customers, the more targeted and less intrusive are its marketing messages. Let’s face it, the supermarkets have to do marketing. And if what they know about you helps them to only send you messages that might actually save you money or time, that’s definitely preferable.

The supermarkets could also earn advertising revenue from brands. Coca-Cola, for example, could send ads directly to customers who are in their aisle, via the supermarket app. That level of targeting would be much more cost efficient for the big brands than the blanket coverage of traditional media, as people are much more likely to pick up a six-pack, even on impulse, if they are actually in the store.

ads via smartphones in supermarkets

image via

It does require a significant overhaul in the supermarket chains’ software systems, but the potential cost savings are significant, and client retention is especially important in an increasingly competitive sector. Beacon use is perhaps even more appealing to small supermarket chains or even individual stores that can’t compete with the big advertising budgets of their mega-competitors, for the competitive advantage that targeted marketing can give them. Obviously the smaller stores wouldn’t need nifty functions like aisle navigation, but beacons can help to create a loyal community of coffee-lovers, or local residents. Registered clients can receive information not just on special offers but also on events (new bean tasting session! live music in the bookstore next door on Saturday!), and birthdays can be remembered (swing by for your free cup of coffee!).

The big inconvenience is physical. To really take advantage of all that beacons in supermarkets can offer, we would need to keep our phone on and in our hand the whole time, with another hand free to tap when required. As anyone who has tried to shop with small children will tell you, both hands free is a luxury that not all of us can enjoy. Now, if the supermarkets can at the same time come up with a nifty contraption that supports your phone at a comfortable height without impeding your movement radius, that would be a good marketing gimmick…

Twitter in the classroom, or Participation in 140 characters or less

When I was a little girl at school learning history (never my best subject), we would sit in the classroom while the teacher talked at us, summarising and embellishing the subject we were supposed to have read up on in our text books. He or she often asked questions, to see who in the class had a) done the reading, b) was not asleep and c) wanted a good grade at the end of term. I generally spent most of the class doodling in my notebooks, usually historical characters in dramatic situations (you see, I actually like history, I just found the classes mind-numbingly boring).

If only I could sit in on a history course today. Enriched with videos, interactive maps, virtual visits to historic sites, the classes would be worth paying attention to. I imagine it would be like watching the History Channel, for credit.

Or actually, even better. One of the most fun aspects of online learning, be it media articles, MOOCS or videos, is the commentary. It’s like a cross between a fun university coffee room debate, and an intellectual chat room. Actual physical class participation, if I remember correctly, was boring and at the same time intimidating. Again, if I remember correctly (and I am probably being too harsh here), students would rarely raise their hand, and if they did, it was usually to ramble on about nothing much in particular. If no-one raised their hand and someone was called on, the usually-incorrect and often-incoherent mumble that passed for an answer was a waste of everyone’s time, including the teacher’s, who had no other way to provoke participation or to check if we were paying attention.

twitter in teaching

photo by Raffi Asdourian, via Spotlight (click for source)

Now, drumroll, the two worlds can converge. Welcome to the concept of Twitter in the classroom. Not as a distraction, as a learning tool. “How can you learn in 140 characters or less?”, I hear you ask. Right, so perhaps “learning tool” is stretching it a bit, but Twitter can enhance class participation to such a level that the students get more involved, pay more attention, and “own” their opinions and doubts. That makes the learning more meaningful, interesting and relevant.

Here’s a good example of how Twitter was used to foster class comment:

Bear in mind that this was back in 2009. Since then, more and more university and high school classrooms are incorporating this social network into the teaching platform. Students tweeting or messaging in class has always been a problem – are we looking at a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” strategy here? No, it’s much more than that, it’s simply realising that the way we communicate is different, especially with the younger generation. The mind-set is different, expectations are different. As we’re seeing with the shift in mainstream media, being talked at, transmitted at is no longer enough to hold the young’s attention. If indeed it ever was, teachers over the decades have struggled to find ways to engage a class, to get them interested enough to participate, to ask questions, to argue. (And if they’re tweeting about the class, it’s less likely that they’re tweeting about other things…)

As the protagonist of the above video says at the beginning, of her 90-student history class, Twitter emerged “as a way to pull more students into a class discussion that I ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do in 50 minutes with that many people.” Not everyone joined in, only about 30-40 students, but even that is a huge improvement on the 3-4 that usually dominated the conversation.

Students interviewed about the experiment pointed out that while before the thought of speaking up in front of a large group was embarrassing, with the screen as a shield it was so much easier. Normally shy people could put their views forth, the quiet ones could be “heard”. As one of the students in the video said, ““trying to pipe up and be heard over everyone else can be a little intimidating.” It seems that using social media removes the social factor of class participation, and relegates it to the realm of ideas and interpretation.

Social aspect aside, what about the learning? How can you learn and tap at the same time? How can you get a message across in 140 characters or less?

It’s not about learning through Twitter, although that certainly is possible. It’s about communication and connection. It’s about getting people to be interested enough to participate, because then the learning starts. It’s about mental stimulation, and creativity.

The big advantage of Twitter is its limitation. In 140 characters or less, there’s no room for waffle. Let’s face it, that’s attractive. Not only do you need to condense what you want to say, and take care with the words you choose. You also have to convey more with less. And, the brevity makes Twitter comments easily digestible. No actual “reading” involved, you can save that for the course assignments. You can skim, with as little effort as listening would cost you, and there’s less risk of time-wasting verbiage.  And, in doing so, you can get a good sense of what your students or classmates are thinking, what they understand, what they’re worried about. In the standard classroom, that’s very difficult to get.

And, it provides a convenient and even entertaining class record. The teachers can then use Storify or a similar platform to curate the most interesting tweets, and publish them on the class’ Facebook page or Pinterest board (more on Pinterest and Facebook in the classroom later). We all like to be singled out, selected for publication if you will, so there is another incentive to come up with quotable insight.

After the class, the teacher can easily reply to interesting comments, correct something, or even start a dialogue or a (concise) debate. This would get students excited about the next class. Engagement increases, the level of interest goes up.

Twitter makes it easy to share resources (yes, other sites do as well, but we’re talking about Twitter here, and it is one of the easiest). Students can tweet links to resources they think their peers would find useful, with the appropriate hashtag label to make it easy to search for later.

Twitter can also be used for class activities other than feedback and collaboration. It is ideal for condensing ideas and summarising concepts. Asking students to summarize a character, historical figure or scientist in 140 characters is stimulating and fun, as is asking them to submit tweets in that character’s voice. What would Queen Elizabeth I have tweeted the day of her coronation? What would Jane Eyre have tweeted on meeting Mr. Rochester? Students could be asked to tweet as witnesses to a historical event, such as the London Fire or the landing on the beach at Normandy. The resulting creativity creates a level of engagement, interest and even understanding that is very difficult to achieve in the typical classroom.

humorous history tweet

Rather than ask for a raising of hands, teachers can use Twitter for fun pop quizzes, to choose the next book, or to rate an aspect of the class. As anyone who has tried playing collaboration games online (or has kids who have) knows, anonymously competing or even collaborating is a lot of fun. With Twitter you can recreate that same atmosphere in the classroom, by tweeting an anagram and asking for responses, tweeting a word and asking for synonyms, or tweeting the first line of a story and asking the class to continue via tweets. As I mentioned before, even the shy ones can seriously get into this sort of participation.

Some critics say that Twitter distracts, that students are too busy tapping to listen. Now, I’m far from being the world’s best multitasker (as in, I’m a terrible multitasker), but a more stimulated brain can take in more information, even subliminally. And no, I’m not saying that it’s ok because we’ll learn subliminally, but I do think that tapping while listening and missing a bit of what’s going on is preferable to wondering what to wear tonight and missing out on big chunks of the lecture.

Critics also hate the writing style that Twitter is fostering. 140 characters does not leave much room for prose or even grammar, they claim. I don’t agree, the limitation can encourage considerable creativity. While brevity is not always appropriate, in general it’s not a bad thing. And no-one is suggesting that Twitter is the only form of communication. For expansion and detail, for exploration and depth, there are many other media available, and obviously they should be given an even more important role in the learning process. But that does not mean that Twitter cannot hold poetry. As we have seen, art tends to spill over into whatever platform is available, and Twitter is no exception.

poetry on Twitter

by poet Benjamin Zephaniah

As for the confusing symbology and syntax of Twitter-speak, doesn’t it distract from the intended message? Not once you get used to it, no. It’s like learning a few words of a new language, but that’s no big deal. Language development is good for our brains, no-one can argue that. And anyway, the young already know and speak this new language, it won’t hurt the rest of us to learn it, too. It’s not difficult, and it’s a lot of fun, #roflmaoysst*!

(* roflmaoysst = rolling on the floor laughing my ass off yet somehow still typing)

That right there is the main benefit of introducing Twitter into the classroom. It’s fun. And fun combined with learning does lead to smarter people, especially when those people end up being engaged, involved and eager to find out more. Twitter’s public face makes that easy, and the resulting sharing, comparing and discussing could lead to insights, discoveries and even friendships that could turn that particular class into one of the best we’ve ever had. More and more universities and even schools are taking notice of the potential. Twitter is ushering in a new model of learning: less rigid, more collaborative, and much more interesting.

— x —

For more information on Twitter, check out my Flipboard Twitter magazine:

flipboard twitter

Crowdsourced art: The Johnny Cash Project

I’ve talked about crowdsourcing before, but I haven’t gone into much detail about crowdsourced art. A strange concept, I know, hard to grasp (isn’t art a personal expression?), but psychologically and socially very interesting. Kids get it: some favourite party games involve collaborative drawing or story-telling.

I’ll write about this at greater length soon, but meanwhile I want to share this fascinating example with you: The Johnny Cash Project.

watch the Johnny Cash Project

Anyone – you, me, the kid next door – can contribute by drawing a frame for a video to accompany the haunting song “Ain’t No Grave”. The frames are strung together to create a jerky, uncomfortable but riveting sequence of images. The resources at your disposal are limited, in that you need to do it on the online drawing/painting platform provided on the website. And your work needs to reflect the frame that you chose from the original video. But other than that, you can be as creative as you like.

the Johnny Cash Project art

And there certainly is a lot of creativity in some of the frames. Different styles, moods, effects… I could spend ages looking at the individual paintings, there are some amazing works of art in there. What I most love, though, is that the resulting video is never the same, no matter how many times you see it. The contributed art is chosen at random (or according to the highest ratings, or the director’s choice, or the number of brushstrokes…), following the frame secuence.

I don’t believe that crowdsourced art will ever be on the same plane as individual expression and interpretation. But as a collaboration of different, individual, unique styles, with a beautiful unity of purpose, I do believe that it will find its niche and develop as a completely different medium.

And with over 250,000 people from 172 countries contributing to the Johnny Cash Project, you have to admit, that’s a pretty good tribute.

Forward and Back: A Futuristic Trip Down Memory Lane, at the Barbican Centre

I was in London this weekend visiting my parents, and on Saturday I went with my father to the Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican Centre. If you’ve never been to the Barbican, you do need to pay it a visit, not so much for the arts building (theatres, movie screens, galleries, a library…), but for the area it’s in. To me, it’s so not London, but so London at the same time. It’s smack in the City, with brick, cement and lots of uniform windows. No terraced houses in sight. It does have its share of London’s irrationally curved streets with silly names, but you get around the area by what they call highwalks, a maze of raised pedestrian pathways that lead you past apartment building entrances, administration offices, and entrances to other pathways. It’s grimy-ness and elevation create an other-worldliness that feels completely futuristic until you look down and see parts of the ancient London Wall.

It’s not even modern, the complex was built in the late 60s and 70s and includes residential apartments, restaurants, a comprehensive arts centre, the Museum of London, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, offices, services, and two Underground stations… Surprisingly, it’s not quite as bewildering as it sounds, it’s well signposted. Personally I find it very beautiful, in a disoriented, not-quite-blending-in kind of way. I’ve always loved a touch of the industrial. Nostalgia may have played a part: I went to school there when I was 11-12 years old. The City of London School for Girls. Scary.

the Barbican Complex

The main objective of this exhibition is to provide a “sense of the incredible journey we are all involved with, both in terms of how far we have come and the endless possibilities which lie ahead”. (I’m quoting from the programme.) Objective achieved: I spent the exhibition squealing with nostalgia (my first computer! Ok, not exactly, I’m not that old, but it was similar…):

early computer

…and gaping at the special effects and interactivity of some of the art:

Digital Revolution exhibition at the BarbicanThe main challenge in putting together an exhibition like this is what to leave out. There is so much material to cover, even if you choose as a focus a small subset of the digital world. And with the current pace of innovation, there’s a very real risk that the exhibits seem out of date before they’re even shown (like the 3d printing section). For “the most comprehensive presentation of digital creativity ever to be staged in the UK”, as the website proclaims, it does seem rather small. I mean, we are a couple of decades into the revolution, and even a large gallery like the Barbican doesn’t come close to covering what’s already out there. The programme states that the “exhibition charts the key ‘creative’ individuals and defining moments which have had the most significant impact on the development of the digital age”, which seems to throw down an open challenge to name “key” figures that are missing.

But, limitations in space, time and scope aside, the selection was interesting, interactive, and in general, pretty exciting, especially for those not involved with digital technology on a daily basis. And it was well organized: you buy your tickets (well ahead of time) for a set 15-minute interval, and you are gently ushered through the exhibit, to avoid bottlenecks of disbelieving gawpers. It was delightful to see excited children stunned into silence, and grown men playing with the buttons and wheels like gleeful kids (I’m looking at you, Dad!). As always with tech shows, a few of the exhibits weren’t working properly, a major drawback with digital art. And I’m not convinced of the efficiency of entire rooms limited to a few people at a time, or of museum personnel explaining the same concept and rules to visitors one at a time. But art shouldn’t really be about efficiency, should it?

What most struck me about the exhibits was the demonstration that we are part of the display. Digital technologies are about interaction, connecting, participating… YouTube, Twitter, blogs, etc., give us the power of communication, the power to influence and to shape via our computers, tablets or phones. Now we can be part of the digital art that we enjoy. It’s a completely different feeling to taking part in something via text or video. Rather than doing something which we share, we are something. Several of the artists exhibited designed the interface, the program, the effects… But we are the subject. We connect with the art like never before.

interactive art at the Digital Revolution exhibition

In general, the curators managed to convey a sense of doing the undoable, yesterday. Most of the exhibits had a comfortable “retro” feel, even the most technologically surprising ones. The room in which you activate and guide strobe lights with your hand felt like the nightclubs of our youth. The 3d image that tracks everyone in the room simultaneously with its gaze (while making each think they’re the only one being tracked) is of an Egyptian mummy (that bears a striking resemblance to, whose music is reverberating in super-stereo around the room). Robots that looked like very realistic birds (familiar) had, instead of a head, a cellphone with a picture of a bird’s head (familiar, but… not?). I loved the exhibit where you play a note on a piano, and speakers all around you reproduce, in sequence, that note taken from radio stations around the world. I mean, really, radio? Reassuringly “old”. And new at the same time. Much like the Barbican itself.

Me, myself and selfies

Last week I had an interesting Twitter discussion with @jgabelas on, of all things, the selfie. Is it a symbol of narcissism, in a world where self-promotion rules and media is our friend? Or is it maybe something more? A growing self-confidence and self-awareness, perhaps? We’re all aware of and possibly bewildered by the vanity that constant exposure implies. Let’s take a look at the other side of the selfie phenomenon, the side that gives us opportunities for positive self-development, altruism, solidarity, creativity and humour….

I’m sure there’s no need to tell you what a selfie is. The word “selfie” was named Word of the Year for 2013 by the Oxford English Dictionary, for its ubiquity and representation of popular culture. Pretty much all of us have cameras in our pocket these days, and have either seen friends’ selfies or shared some of ourselves. And who can forget the role the selfie plays in international leadership, with informal images of Obama and the Pope hitting the front pages. Volumes have been written about the phenomenon and its impact on the young psyche. It’s even the subject of study at prestigious universities.

selfies of world leaders

One theory I’ve been reading about recently is the correlation between the selfie and the rise in narcissism among the young. The selfie, the argument goes, places a huge emphasis on looks, and the popularity of this form of expression shows how vain we have become. We love how we look, so obviously we want people to look at us, and at the same time, if our selfies get a lot of “likes”, that obviously validates that we are extremely good looking.

Now, I’m sure that these experts know what they’re talking about, and have data to back it up, but data can be interpreted in so many ways, and the conclusions very much depend on from which direction you approach it. It’s worth starting, I think, with a look at narcissism. What is it? Narcissism is defined as an “inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity”, or “an exceptional interest in or admiration for oneself, especially one’s physical appearance”, according to the Google Dictionary. It is considered a clinical mental disorder that isolates individuals, destroys relationships and can ruin careers. It is not the same as egocentrism, in which sufferers don’t know how to show empathy and care about others. Narcissists know how, but they don’t care to.

selfie = narcissism

Of course the motive behind a good percentage of the selfies out there is vanity, since a good percentage of the human race is vain. In fact, studies have shown that the younger generation is more narcissistic than ever, and since they are the main “sharers” on the web, it follows that many of the selfies in circulation are taken with self-aggrandisement in mind. But is the selfie the cause of this disturbing trend, if indeed it is a trend? No, it’s more the extension of a personality trait that goes back to the beginning of civilisation, a personality trait that has been the backbone of society and culture since we started keeping records: the desire to connect and share with others.

I don’t think that the “here’s a picture of me!” philosophy of selfies is inherently vain. I think that it is more about the sharing and connecting philosophy of the web in general. Anyone who works in social media knows that your audience connects with you much better if they know what you look like. They can visualise you, you become a person, they imagine your personality based on your physical features. So it makes sense that selfies are just that, a way to deepen the potentially superficial connections of the internet. The selfie phenomenon is not so much a “here, don’t I look great!” thing as a “this is what I look like right now, what do you look like?” thing.

Diving into deep research, I asked my 12-year-old daughter, the subject of many ridiculous selfies, if she thought that selfies were a symptom or a cause of vanity. She looked at me with a bewildered expression. “What have selfies got to do with being vain?”, she asked, genuinely flummoxed. So I asked her what she thought it was all about. “Having fun!”, she replied. “Making people laugh! Seeing what your friends are doing!” Sure, we want people to see us. But not because we love how we look, more because we’re comfortable with it.

natural selfies

Lorde, Ireland Baldwin, Jessica Alba

Natural selfies, laughing-at-myself selfies, what-can-I-do-with-this-hair selfies… These are the best representation of the genre, the we’re-all-in-this-together attitude that motivates the vast majority of the selfies out there. Pop singer Lorde’s tweet of a selfie of herself with acne cream on her face, model Ireland Baldwin’s silliness, Jessica Alba’s sweaty post-workout selfie… Not a lot of vanity there, but quite a lot of encouragement for others who also sometimes feel awkward, and will hopefully realise that it’s ok to. Selfies can help us to feel good about ourselves, but not because we think we’re gorgeous. With selfies we’re not “teaching” young girls to see themselves as decorative, as some have claimed. We’re “teaching” them to not be afraid to be who they want to be, and to put themselves out there. C’mon, don’t be shy. (No space here to get into a debate about feminism and self-image, nor the social difference between male and female selfies… Unfortunately, it would be fun.)

And, importantly, selfies create memories. Not so much of occasions or places, but of who we were at that time. We have no shortage of holiday snaps looking out at the scenery, the buildings, the people we were with. But photos looking “in”, at ourselves? I bet you have relatively few. Which means it will be hard for you to remember yourself in those settings. A selfie gives you the chance to see yourself as others see you, in a foreign setting or even a familiar one. And that can be humbling and refreshing. Most of all, it gives you greater protagonism in those memories. Personally, I can’t imagine wanting to take a selfie of just me (I think I look terrible in photographs, is there a name for that syndrome?), but I have on a couple of occasions taken a picture of myself and the person I was with, to commemorate being together.

Is the opposite of the vain selfie, the altruistic selfie? The strength of the selfie as an icon of self-expression gives it considerable media power, which can be used for good causes. We’re seeing examples of selfies used to transmit important messages, such as this ad from Ford, (thanks @jgabelas for bringing it to my attention!):

The attention that selfies attract can be used to raise money for causes, much like the ubiquitous Ice Bucket Challenge. The hashtag #nomakeupselfie was appropriated for a campaign to raise awareness for Cancer Research UK, and raised over £2 million in 4 hours.

selfies for a good cause

And the #unselfie trend (get it? for “unselfish”?) is quite lovely: you take a selfie, but cover your face with a notice of a good cause.


(images from here and here)

And, of course, you have the selfie as the art form. “An art form?”, I hear you say, “Are you kidding?”. No, who’s to say it’s not? I went to a Pop Art exhibition at the Museo Thyssen last week. No shortage of selfies on the walls.

pop art selfies

self-portraits by Andy Warhol and David Hockney

It is, after all, an image, and images can be composed, crafted and added to, to produce work of great creativity. One of the assignments in my daughter’s art class last year was to take a selfie with their school ipads, and then embellish them with computer graphics. According to the teacher, some results were bland, others were startling in their originality. I love the idea of using an image of yourself as a creative starting point – it helps to develop a distance between you and a photo of you (it’s not you in the picture, it’s a base for an art project), which can in turn lead to a healthy disrespect for the superficial.

Some of my favourite examples of the selfie as an art form include @mirrorsme’s painted mirrors:

creative mirror selfies

from @mirrorsme in Instagram

Fascinating portraits:

creative selfie portraits on iPad

via Mashable

Selfies are so much part of our culture, now, that they have to some extent become a parody of themselves. The selfie as self-mocking irony. You have animal selfies:

animal selfies

(via Huffington Post, Business Insider and The Daily Mail)

And Google Street camera selfies. The cameras are now roving around museums, mapping them with images. And museums often have mirrors:

google street camera selfies

There’s even a pod for the Minecraft game, which allows you take selfies of your Minecraft persona:

minecraft selfies

(images from Gearcraft)

The desire for recognition is not a mental illness, it is a basic psychological need. The lack of it makes employees unhappy at work and people unhappy in relationships. And while the selfie can take that need to disturbing levels, it is, in its basic form, merely an extension of our need to feel part of something. The internet has given us a medium to connect with others on a completely unprecedented scale. The selfie phenomenon is one of many ways in which we are taking advantage of that. It is merely a part of the new, creative and sharing community that is spreading everywhere, and that we are still struggling to adjust to. It is a genre, not a universal truth. As with all creative media, there are awful, cringe-making examples, and there are selfies of people like you and me, reaching out, contributing, and having fun. Vanity and narcissism aren’t going away, but I believe that the productive uses will predominate, and the selfie will become just another form of self-expression, like the diary, the blog and the first-person novel. Let’s give the selfie room to breathe, and see where it takes us.