Ira Glass begins this week’s This American Life by examining one of America’s most widely despised population groups: teenage girls who snap pictures of themselves and upload the photos to Instagram.
Absent from most condemnations of selfie-taking as a cultural practice is an interest in what’s happening in the minds of the girls (and boys) who take, and post, such pictures. Why share photos of yourself? What implications, if any, does this practice have for the psychological development of children and adolescents?
There’s a broad perception that selfie-posting blatantly reveals the entitlement and self-absorption of a certain stratum of American young people. A recent study of selfie-taking among adults in Poland showed that selfie-posting indeed correlated with higher levels of narcissism in men—less so in women. The narcissism explanation for youth selfies in the U.S., however, tends to be weak insofar as it rests on the self-aggrandizing claim that the younger generation is somehow inherently more self-obsessed than anyone else in society.
Glass’s interview with two girls, both high school freshmen, lays out a convincing case that for female teenagers—the demographic most frequently condemned for selfie-taking, despite the practice’s ubiquity across age groups—a primary incentive for selfie-taking is not narcissism but social validation. In many American high schools today, intense social vetting and evaluation takes place online, on social networks like Instagram and Facebook.
Glass, here, assumes the position of a compassionate ethnographer. He unearths some telling details. First, we learn that the girls he’s interviewing are posting selfies to elicit responses not from just anyone, but specifically from other girls in their peer group. Second, we find that on social networks, a precise idiom of likes and comments is enforced. You’re allowed to say “gorgeous”, “so pretty OMG”, and “stunning”, but not “sexy”. A compliment with a bitter edge, such as “WTF you’re perfect I hate you”, should only be posted with caution.
Each photo enters an economy of likes and comments—an economy in which inflation rates are high. The question of who deigns to acknowledge another’s selfie assumes paramount importance, in a public process monitored by all the girls entangled in a local social web.
At the risk of sounding callous, I confess that as I listened to these high school students describe the social environment they inhabit—one of continual social monitoring and shifting alliances—I couldn’t help but think of Frans de Waal’s classic book Chimpanzee Politics (1982). 1 De Waal, a primatologist, observed a chimpanzee colony for six years, taking note of the power struggles within the troop. De Waal painstakingly recounts ritual dominance displays that occur constantly among members of the troop: encounters that reify or challenge the community’s rigid social hierarchy. The selfie system engenders a similar set of encounters that serve to shore up, or chip away at, social status. For chimpanzees, as for high school students, social status is not fixed; instead, status is daily reasserted, tested, and consented to.
The episode’s second act serves up a sensitive portrayal of the friendship between Neil Drumming, a producer on the show, and the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. The two men have been friends for roughly two decades, but their careers, as of late, have moved on parallel tracks. Coates, who won both a MacArthur grant and a National Book Award this year, has shot into the stratosphere. Drumming, on the other hand, is not someone you’re likely to have heard of unless you’re a true This American Life devotee.
Drumming doesn’t see Coates much anymore. But at last, the two get together for a drink, and Drumming tapes their conversation.
This act—by far the episode’s strongest—is bittersweet and relatable. Neither the dialogue about Coates’s distinction between snobbery (liking nice things) and being bougie (wanting to run in the correct crowd) nor the setting (hotel rooms where writers talk about ideas, the past, and how they have changed) would be out of place in one of Woody Allen’s more intelligent comic dramas; but while the two men are intellectuals, they’re ones of a down-to-earth sort, self-conscious in a way that seems to generate insight more so than anxiety.
Coates is wonderfully open, reflecting earnestly on how his fame has, and has not, changed him. Seeing Coates through Drumming’s eyes is a delightful angle, one that lets us get to know Coates with more intimacy than a standard interview.
Act three highlights Paul Kiel’s recent ProPublica report that revealed how debt collection lawsuits are filed disproportionately against black people. In neighborhoods in St. Louis, Chicago, and Newark with the same income levels, Kiel found twice as many lawsuits filed against residents of mostly black neighborhoods compared to those of mostly white neighborhoods.
The explanation, Kiel argues, is not racial bias by lenders or collectors—the targets of lawsuits are, to these people, just names on a spreadsheet. A more adequate, and more troubling, explanation derives from generations of policies that impeded the ability of black families to accrue wealth. Such policies included the cluster of acts known as “redlining”, which, among other acts of discrimination, included denying insurance to black families, as well as housing policies that prevented black people from buying property in certain areas. Generations of discrimination have left black families with fewer reserves to draw upon in the case of a crisis, such as a divorce, job loss, or health emergency. Even where income levels are equal, white people tend to have more wealth—home equity, savings, investments, and so forth. This wealth gap makes it easier for white people to deal with a debt.
To see how these factors play out in real time and space, Kiel takes us to Jennings, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb of 15,000—a town where five of eight city council members, as well as the mayor, have been sued for debt.
The Jennings segment highlights an important consequence of the U.S.’s racial wealth gap. And anytime This American Life covers ProPublica’s reporting, it’s performing, in my view, a public service. That said, the third act is better read on ProPublica than listened to. The issues involved are complex, and much of the reporting relies on numerical data best grasped through the graphs and images that accompany Kiel’s reporting online.
Act four comes as a surprise. I was pulling my earbuds out, thinking the episode was over, when Glass interjected with an update from an earlier report about a man who planned to tell his longtime love interest how he felt about her. I won’t reveal what happens, but I will advise: for those who want closure (like the man who confessed his feelings), listen on; for those who prefer to leave things open-ended, pause the episode at the end of act three.
- Editor’s note: Radiolab recently updated (one of many) stories on ape social order in “Update: New Normal?” Read Will Warren’s review here. ^
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