Social media warning: Can a selfie be offensive?

It depends on who you ask...

This article is based on research by Julia Von Schuckmann

In the era of the smartphone, global tourism and social networks, millions of images are taken every day. Many of them are selfies, mostly featuring smiling faces and, when possible, taken in popular places such as the Eiffel Tower, a street in Tokyo filled with neon signs or the Serengeti National Park.

But they can also be places with a very different meaning, such as Ground Zero in New York, a holocaust memorial, a slum in Nairobi or the place where the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.

Are these places suitable for taking a picture smiling? It depends on who you ask.

Tourists in New York
Tourists taking selfies in New York City (Photo: iStock)

A series of experiments conducted by the Esade PhD student Julia Von Schuckmann demonstrated that depending on each person's group identity (e.g., nationality), and their identification with the drama that each of these places represents, the attitudes of thousands of tourists can be considered more or less disrespectful.

Let's take the example of a smiling couple taking a selfie at Ground Zero in New York, where the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred. While a majority of the Brazilian tourists who participated in the experiment said that they would take such a photo, American tourists said they would not, adding various explanations: "It seems disrespectful to take a picture like that at Ground Zero," "People died here, you shouldn't be taking selfies here" or "I find it disrespectful to take pictures at solemn memorials."

But what happens when the solemn memorial is abroad and you don't identify with the people it's paying homage to? While a group of 349 US citizens mostly found smiling selfies at the 9/11 memorial to be disrespectful, they had no problem admitting that they would take a smiling selfie at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial."Consumers who strongly identify with the local people are more likely to question morally ambiguous conduct on moral grounds," notes Von Schuckmann.

A similar pattern was found in a similar experiment conducted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While the origins of slum tourism can be traced back to Victorian London, globalisation has exponentially increased travellers' interest in this sort of tour. An estimated 50,000 tourists visited the slums of Rio in 2011, and South African townships receive approximately 300,000 visitors a year.

Consumers who strongly identify with the local people are more likely to question morally ambiguous conduct

While proponents consider this type of tourism to be a fun and exciting experience, critics view it as exploitative, with some labelling it a "human safari." Looking for the identity background in these considerations, Von Schuckmann showed two leaflets to more than 200 tourists visiting Rio: one advertised a music-focused tour in a favela, and the other offered a photographic safari-like jeep tour of the same place (similar to many of those offered daily to tourists in Rio).

Many of the tourists from the US found the jeep tour through the favela appealing, while tourists from Brazil were more likely to refuse it. Although this experiment didn't provide evidence of the moral considerations around the decision, "when the moral connotations of the activity were removed, tourists were equally likely to choose the target tour irrespective of the strength of their identification," explains Von Schuckmann.

Citing examples of how this might apply to other circumstances like advertising or culture, Von Schuckmann concluded: "Moral considerations are as common in the marketplace as they are flexible in the human mind. Learning when consumers are more or less likely to ponder the ethics of their consumption experiences could help us reach a more complete understanding of how moral considerations affect consumer psychology."

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