The SMD (Selfie of Mass Destruction)

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In a previous post, where I explored some of the challenges being experienced by our Regional sporting clubs, one comment I received was ‘I blame the selfie’. I was forced to ponder if there was more to this comment than the glib and funny response that it appeared on the surface.  Just like nuclear power, I am thinking that the selfie can be both positive and negative.

Narcissistic by nature, a selfie uses juxtaposition to create an association with another person, object or cause. Selfies in one form or another have been around forever. However, the ubiquitous smart phone fuelled by an ever-present social media feed has made the selfie a phenomenon. Purportedly an Australian invention after a drunken night out with some mates, the word selfie was named International Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionary in November 2013. Personally, I would readily give up the selfie if I could lay undisputed claim to the pavlova.

Taking a play on the famous line from ‘When Harry Met Sally’, the book ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’ (Bentley et al, 2011), documents the rise of the ‘influencer’ in our lives. This analysis of the science and sociology of our ‘like’ obsession explains what role ‘influencers’ play and how they operate in different spheres of our society. The social media universe is constructed of a myriad of differently sized and overlapping groups and we all know that a recommendation from a friend can be a powerful factor in our decision process. Recommendations or endorsements from our social media ‘friends’ come in the form of ‘shares’ or ‘likes’ from those like-minded. They carry a certain gravitas and ‘going viral’ denotes how something can spread with exponential reach as a torrent of ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ allow ideas to jump rapidly between social groups. Interestingly, the intricate mosaic of groups and their influencers make it almost impossible to predict whether something will go viral or not – which is kind of reassuring to a point. Anyhow, after studying the book, I found myself pondering everyday situations and how my opinions and choices are being subliminally influenced and whether this is a positive or negative influence on my life.

In previous articles, I explained how sport played in the company of others is rewarding and exhilarating and perhaps explains in part why we play sport at all. Social media and busy lives are changing our sporting consumption habits and posing existential threats to many sports and their clubs. In a hyper-connected world, how is social media changing the role of our sporting ‘influencers’?

I am sure that many of us have one or more highly valued mates in our lives who is a born organiser and facilitator. They seem hell-bent on getting us together in one way or another. They come in many forms.  From that drinking mate who loves a coldie on Friday arvo, the jogging or hitting buddy that pushes us to that extra training session, the ‘on tour’ guy who just loves getting away on that golf trip, right up to the ‘professionals’ like the Balmy Army or the Fanatics. Whether we think too deeply or not about it, I am sure we all value these mates, but often underestimate the influence that they have on our lives.

To be successful, social constructs of all sorts work best when they are split into social groups that make sense and serve some purpose. The smaller the group, the more intimate and vice versa.  Sometimes these groups are positive and sometimes not. For example, the organiser of my social tennis group who tirelessly corrals us onto the court each Thursday night provides me with a very positive set of experiences. However, the easily inflamed football hooligans, whilst no doubt engendering a strong sense of belonging, impart a highly destructive influence on members of their respective tribes. The famous English football hooligan turned author Andy Nichols, explains the intoxicating and addictive thrill of being an anonymous part of a supercharged mob, powerless and unwilling to exert individual self-control. Fuelled by adrenaline and emotion, any competitive sport can bring out the best and the worst in people and the influencers have a large say in the shape of that experience.

Oh well, we say, I am no football hooligan and would never be a part of a rabid group like that.  Whilst I consider that social media and sport can be the greatest of partners, let us consider the rise of social shaming. Author Jon Ronson describes social media as a ‘giant mutual approval machine’ as we surround ourselves with people who feel the same way as we do. Dissecting horrific real-life stories of social shaming, Ronson proposes that, when insulated from face-to-face human interaction, people can easily be drawn to polarise others as being good or evil. The cathartic experience of demonising on social media is a kangaroo court voraciously joined by ordinary people like us – sometimes with devastating results to ourselves and others.

In his 2014 New York Times bestseller ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Daniel Kahneman explains the dangers of thinking fast and shallow. I think that social media promotes and is fuelled by the ‘thinking fast’ response, the antithesis of well-considered and rigorous views, and things can easily spin out of control with disastrous outcomes.  Who hasn’t at some point seen, taken interest or delight in an expose played out on social media without fully questioning its voracity or motives? I am becoming better at this, however it is not always easy to exercise the self-control needed to stop and reflect before blind acceptance or worse, a quick thinking ‘like’ or ‘comment’.  One must remember that some organisations have well-constructed plans to influence our opinions via emotive and sometimes spurious associations.

In their desire for promotion and advancement, sporting groups have a long tradition of taking selfies. The ‘thinking slow’ selfie can represent a positive association that can help sport and sporting communities achieve a great deal.  Take for example the recent selfie that the NRL and the NQ Cowboys took alongside Jonathan Thurston and our newly inducted Prime Minister. Taking advantage of a unique opportunity, this was a carefully constructed ‘thinking slow’ strategy designed to gain funding support for a new and long overdue stadium in a rugby league loving community. Everybody is now clamouring to mine this vote-rich seam of approval, and the success of this strategy seems almost guaranteed.

On the other hand, consider the ‘thinking fast’ selfie taken by World Rugby at the recent World Cup.  The decision to take a selfie alongside the angry British rugby fans and a rabid press over a contentious decision by referee Craig Joubert, was taken at the expense of the sport itself – all for a fleeting moment of approval and a few ‘likes’. Whether a mistake was made or not, the game is nothing without a referee and World Rugby committed a massive ‘own goal’ as they showed all referees, volunteers and staff that the organisation was happy to jump on-board a populist social shaming in a heartbeat. Facing a career on the rocks, future referees may be reluctant to rule it as they see it, as they eye the prospect of being socially shamed by their employer and a rabid mob.  In my opinion, World Rugby precipitously and unnecessarily launched a ‘selfie of mass destruction’ which not only damaged a career, but undermined the authority of all its referees to make decisions in the heat of battle.

In the words of my favourite secret agent – ‘If only they had used their powers for good instead of evil’.


Please add your comments if you have any other Selfies of Mass Destruction (SMD’s) OR Construction (SMC’s) stories.

About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. Love it Robbo.
    That’s some grand writing.
    And interesting sources of reading there, too.

    We’re all of us interested in self (of course).
    The capturing of moments in time via photos or online comments (like this one), can be dangerous if used in a less-than-thoughtful way. Consequences for poor decisions (which we all make) seem quite large in the world of social media.

  2. Another quality piece Robbo.

    I was unavoidably drawn into social media for work purposes and consequently battle with a mild addiction. Some days it seems like a parallel universe I wish never existed, others it opens the door to all kinds of meaningful learning and connection.

    Your last line where you quote Agent 86 sums it up perfectly, it is what you choose to make of it. The challenge for sporting entities is they must engage with it but creating quality content on a regular basis can be difficult and usually requires some forethought. However the pressure for immediacy is such that posting 5 minutes after the event and you can be Sandra Sully with the late news. Hence the chances of an SMD is ever present.

  3. Thought provoking stuff. Thanks Robbo.
    The point of having a Higher Power in any addiction recovery process is not religious/spiritual conversion. Its just to change your perspective – “that you are of supreme unimportance in the scheme of things”. As Rick/Bogie says at the end of Casablanca “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
    The paradox/long view is that if you get your head out of your arse, or in this case the camera lens, you find something of happiness, contentment and purpose through engagement and service to others (family, community, friends). Not conditional giving or out of obligation, but unconditional altruism generates its own long term returns. Karma, I guess.
    This “selfie” stuff is as old as time – that’s why the Greeks invented the legend of Narcissus as a morality tale warning. In the Fisher King/Arthurian myth, the healing question is “whom does the grail serve?” The implication being others and not the self.
    Selfies and other excessive use of social media is just the technological pathologising/marketing to our ancient flaws.
    I tend to see society and the economy as rapidly dividing in terms of wealth and participation. Those capable of critical thinking and generating economic value will do better than ever. But the technological/internationalised economy needs less Australian/western navel gazers accustomed to living on the trickle down from mining and agriculture and investment banking.
    Selfies are the soma drug of Huxley’s Brave New World, where we smile dreamily while the World Economy heats up our fish bowl to boil off the excess capacity.
    Lemmings – if we choose to be.

  4. Di MacDonald says

    Another interesting read Peter (and clearly some preliminary reading for you given the references you quote!!). I am sensing a change in social media interaction, although that could be just my limited access and the circles I move in. However, it seems to me there is an increase in very philosophical quotations being passed around as some users are trying to ‘inject’ some conscience into some of the unnecessary ‘bullying’ and humiliations of some posts. Yes, social media is a powerful tool and very influential, but quite frankly at times does your head in! My usual intention is to logon for just say 10 minutes and then I find myself going off in tangents to read or view other material. I really hope we don’t lose the critical balance between ‘social media’ and true socialising, such as your weekly tennis activity. I fear for the younger generations who may drift into the ‘demanding’ habits that social media platforms require. The world still needs to be a productive and interactive place. Social media comments/photos are split second stuff. Thriving communities need true and lasting engagement.

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