James Franco on the Importance of the Selfie

The Oxford English Dictionaries chose “selfie” as its word of the year for 2013. I haven’t been one to post any selfies on my Instagram account and have done very few self-portraits on my (now defunct) photoblog. But when I read James Franco’s op-ed in The New York Times titled “The Meanings of the Selfie,” I mulled over what he had written and started to gather a renewed appreciation for the phenomenon. Franco writes:

But a well-stocked collection of selfies seems to get attention. And attention seems to be the name of the game when it comes to social networking. In this age of too much information at a click of a button, the power to attract viewers amid the sea of things to read and watch is power indeed. It’s what the movie studios want for their products, it’s what professional writers want for their work, it’s what newspapers want — hell, it’s what everyone wants: attention. Attention is power. And if you are someone people are interested in, then the selfie provides something very powerful, from the most privileged perspective possible.

The perspective here is misguided, however. His central premise is that we, as humans, must persistently seek some kind of validation for what we do. For Franco, apparently that comes from getting lots of comments and faves on his Instagram account.

Franco goes on to differentiate between the celebrity selfie and the non-celebrity selfie, and this is where his essay picks up some pace:

Now, while the celebrity selfie is most powerful as a pseudo-personal moment, the noncelebrity selfie is a chance for subjects to glam it up, to show off a special side of themselves — dressing up for a special occasion, or not dressing, which is a kind of preening that says, “There is something important about me that clothes hide, and I don’t want to hide.”

Of course, the self-portrait is an easy target for charges of self-involvement, but, in a visual culture, the selfie quickly and easily shows, not tells, how you’re feeling, where you are, what you’re doing.

But it was the way Franco ended the essay that really captured my attention:

I am actually turned off when I look at an account and don’t see any selfies, because I want to know whom I’m dealing with. In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

I am still not 100% in agreement: there are amazing photographers on Instagram that never post selfies. But I would agree that given someone who has a similar following on Instagram, the person who is more revealing, the one is saying “Yes, this is who I am” is the one who is posting those selfies.

With some luck, I will change my mind and actually start posting selfies in 2014.

On Reading, Forgetting, and Re-Reading

Editor’s note: this post was originally published on Medium.



A couple of months ago, while I was in line waiting to get a Caffè Americano at my local coffee shop, the barista inquired about my reading habits. I noted my favorite science fiction novels:Slaughterhouse-Five and Brave New World. The barista then asked me about Fahrenheit 451, which I read early in my youth. “The ending was amazing, wasn’t it?” she inquired. At this point, a mild shock came over me, my cheeks reddened, and I muttered “Yeah, definitely.” The truth is: I’ve read the novel, but have forgotten almost the entire plot—ending included.

Ian Crouch, writing in a recent piece in The New Yorker, likened reading and forgetting with the following anecdote:

This forgetting has serious consequences—but it has superficial ones as well, mostly having to do with vanity. It has led, at times, to a discomfiting situation, call it the Cocktail Party Trap (though this suggests that I go to many cocktail parties, which is itself a fib). Someone mentions a book with some cachet that I’ve read—a lesser-known work of a celebrated writer, say Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” to take an example from my shelf—and I smile knowingly, and maybe add, “It’s wonderful,” or some such thing. Great so far, I’m part of the in-crowd—and not lying; I did read it. But then there’s a moment of terror: What if the person summons up a question or comment with any kind of specificity at all? Basically, what if she aims to do anything other than merely brag about having read “Daniel Deronda”?

My very brief encounter at the coffee shop still didn’t sway my mind on re-reading. Yes, I felt embarrassed about the episode, but the embarrassment did not deter my pride (re-reading is silly!). But about a month ago, things started to unravel. It began with my friend Steven’s suggestion to read John Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden. I’ve long considered this novel to be in my top five books I’ve ever read: for the story, for the writing, for the allegory. I distinctly remember, how one summer before my junior year of high school, I spent four days, non-stop, engrossed in the novel (I’m a slow reader, I admit). But after Steven suggested reading the novel, I replied in the most glowing way possible: “A sublime selection. For anyone deliberating on whether to read this magnum opus: do it, and you will be better for it.”

And yet. I didn’t re-read East of Eden.

It was only during the discussion of the novel that someone by the name of Blake struck me as extremely profound. “Eugene, the first time you read East of Eden was in your teenage years. That was half a lifetime ago. Think about that.” And Blake is right. When put in that context, so much has transpired in my life over the past fifteen years, that I’ve had an epiphany: re-reading should be a pleasure in its own right. I shouldn’t feel guilt in re-reading; on the contrary, I should take comfort and joy in rediscovering a book which enlightened me so much in the past.

Ian Crouch notes:

If we are cursed to forget much of what we read, there are still charms in the moments of reading a particular book in a particular place. What I remember most about Malamud’s short-story collection “The Magic Barrel” is the warm sunlight in the coffee shop on the consecutive Friday mornings I read it before high school. That is missing the more important points, but it is something. Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade.

I recollect not only when I read East of Eden, but how: in my room, in the downstairs basement curled up with a warm blanket, outside on the patio with butterflies floating in the distance. It is perhaps more wonderful to remember the sensory associations with reading than the plot.

And so, when 1984 was announced as the next book we were going to read in book club, I wasn’t going to make any excuses: I was going to re-read this novel. And I am glad I did. There were so many specifics from the novel which I didn’t remember that it felt like reading the novel for the first time.

My obstinate attitude on re-reading took more than ten years to come around. If you currently rationalize re-reading like I used to, I encourage you to consider re-reading not only as a remedy to forgetting, but as a profoundly new, joyous experience.


Is the PC Over?

Jeff Atwood responds to MG Siegler’s post whose argument is that the PC is over:

I have an iPhone 5, and I can personally attest that it is crazy faster than the old iPhone 4 I upgraded from. Once you add in 4G, LTE, and 5 GHz WiFi support, it’s so fast that – except for the obvious size limitations of a smaller screen – I find myself not even caring that much if I get the “mobile” version of websites any more. Even before the speed, I noticed the dramatically improved display. AnandTech says that if the iPhone 5 display was a desktop monitor, it would be the best one they had ever tested. Our phones are now so damn fast and capable as personal computers that I’m starting to wonder why I don’t just use the thing I always have in my pocket as my “laptop”, plugging it into a keyboard and display as necessary.

So maybe MG Siegler is right. The PC is over … at least in the form that we knew it. We no longer need giant honking laptop and desktop form factors for computers any more than we need entire rooms and floors of a building to house mainframes and minicomputers.

They’re both right and wrong. Yes, we can do sophisticated tasks on our phones, and yes, my iPhone and iPad have become technologies which I use for browsing photos, sending email, checking out blogs. But the desktop remains the core for something that I can’t do on an iPad or iPhone: photo editing. Even as mobile versions of Photoshop and other photo software products exist, they pale in comparison to being able to edit images on the big screen (I have a 27 inch iMac). I am still waiting for the retina display iMac, one that will allow me to see the 5,616 × 3,744 resolution images coming from my Canon 5D Mark II without downsizing. I believe we’ll be there in one to two years.

Blog Break

I am going to be taking a break from updating this blog for about two weeks. I’m headed on a long road trip out West, hitting up Kansas, Colorado, and ultimately Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

I’ll have sparse internet access throughout my trip. If I don’t post any new updates here, be sure to check out my other space on the internet, Erudite Expressions, where I will post photos from my trip as often as I can.

Have a great holiday weekend, everyone!

UPDATE (9/4/2012): I am posting a lot of photos frequently on Instagram  (user name: eugenephoto). You can also find me on Flickr.

Chicago via Instagram (Part I)

I recently took a trip to Chicago, IL. This would be my first trip in which I used my primary camera (the Canon 5D Mark II) alongside the camera on my iPhone. I’ve been posting images from Chicago taken with my dSLR on Erudite Expressions, but I wanted to highlight some of the images I captured with Instagram, one of my favorite photography apps on the iPhone.

The first day I arrived to Chicago, it was really windy and foggy.

Chicago fog.

On what would be the windiest day of my trip, I decided to face Lake Michigan at the Navy Pier:

Chicago's Navy Pier.

Walking along Bellevue Street.

The next day I took a walk to Lincoln Park. Along the way, this is what I saw:

Zen living.

Pink bike.

Tunnel view.

A stroll in the park.

Chicago skyline as seen from Lincoln Park.

Inside the Lincoln Park Conservatory.

During my visit to Chicago, I ate at three famous pizza places: Gino’s East, Lou Malnatti’s, and Giordano’s. This is the graffiti inside Gino’s East on 162 East Superior Street, near Michigan Avenue:

Graffiti at Gino's East, Chicago.

After a great lunch, I proceeded to Millenium Park and The Art Institute of Chicago:

Reflections in "The Bean" in Millenium Park.

No visit to Chicago would be complete without a stop at the Apple Store.

Monet's Water Lilies at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Stay tuned for Part II of the post coming later this week. In the meantime, check out my photoblog, where I am posting images on a daily basis that I captured with my dSLR. The dedicated Chicago gallery is here. You can also see a selection of my other Chicago photos on my Flickr feed.

Give It Five Minutes

Jason Fried has a good post on taking a step back (by reflecting for five minutes) before choosing to critique others’ ideas:

A few years ago I used to be a hothead. Whenever anyone said anything, I’d think of a way to disagree. I’d push back hard if something didn’t fit my world-view.

It’s like I had to be first with an opinion – as if being first meant something. But what it really meant was that I wasn’t thinking hard enough about the problem. The faster you react, the less you think. Not always, but often.

It’s easy to talk about knee jerk reactions as if they are things that only other people have. You have them too. If your neighbor isn’t immune, neither are you.

This came to a head back in 2007. I was speaking at the Business Innovation Factory conference in Providence, RI. So was Richard Saul Wurman. After my talk Richard came up to introduce himself and compliment my talk. That was very generous of him. He certainly didn’t have to do that.

And what did I do? I pushed back at him about the talk he gave. While he was making his points on stage, I was taking an inventory of the things I didn’t agree with. And when presented with an opportunity to speak with him, I quickly pushed back at some of his ideas. I must have seemed like such an asshole.

His response changed my life. It was a simple thing. He said “Man, give it five minutes.” I asked him what he meant by that? He said, it’s fine to disagree, it’s fine to push back, it’s great to have strong opinions and beliefs, but give my ideas some time to set in before you’re sure you want to argue against them. “Five minutes” represented “think”, not react. He was totally right. I came into the discussion looking to prove something, not learn something.

This was a big moment for me.

He concludes:

Dismissing an idea is so easy because it doesn’t involve any work. You can scoff at it. You can ignore it. You can puff some smoke at it. That’s easy. The hard thing to do is protect it, think about it, let it marinate, explore it, riff on it, and try it. The right idea could start out life as the wrong idea.

So next time you hear something, or someone, talk about an idea, pitch an idea, or suggest an idea, give it five minutes. Think about it a little bit before pushing back, before saying it’s too hard or it’s too much work. Those things may be true, but there may be another truth in there too: It may be worth it.

I think what’s important about this post, to me, is that it is making me recognize how often I may be prone to dismissing someone’s idea when I first hear it. While it is useful to be quick on one’s feet when listening, it’s also important to recognize that some thoughts take a bit longer to process and develop. So, give it five minutes.