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The selfie and politics

By Senator Manny Villar

I am not exactly sure when it actually happened. I cannot remember the precise moment when things changed. But slowly I began to notice the metamorphosis from shaking the hands of people, carrying and kissing a baby, or hugging a smiling lola, to smiling in front of mobile handheld phones. I suddenly felt my cheek getting numb from the smiles I had to flash as I huddled with happy crowds with all their mobile phones raised to capture our selfie moments.

Cultural practices often emerge from technological inventions and changes. Imagine how the world was transformed with the invention of the printing press, television, telephone, and, of course, the mobile phones so ubiquitous today.

The selfie was the byproduct of the spectacular growth in information communications technology, specifically the development of mobile communications that allowed us to take pictures of ourselves with ease and immediately broadcast the same to the whole world. Today, mobile phones have very sophisticated cameras (front and back) to entice the selfie addicts.

Some trace the origins of the selfie to the middle of the 19th century with the first ever photographic portrait taken. But admittedly, the modern iteration of the selfie is much more pervasive, much more “viral.”

This cultural phenomenon has taken over our lives. We often see people taking a selfie in the mall as they walk aimlessly or as they drink their coffee. When we travel we often take selfies of ourselves in front of famous tourist attractions. And of course, we do it when we meet with friends and loved ones. It has, at times, also become very dangerous. I remember reading a story about a young lady who fell a couple of floors while trying a selfie shot.

And just like in many other cases of popular culture, it was just a matter of time before it entered the fray of politics. There was a time when political campaigns involved a lot of visits to communities and shaking the hands of people who go out of their way to meet you.

I still remember my first campaign for Congress back in 1992. I told my team that we need to sweep the areas of my district (Las Piñas and Muntinlupa at that time) because—being new to politics—I wanted to feel the pulse of the people by going to them and talking with them. Beyond the hand shakes and the baby kissing, I felt it was important to talk to the people. My experience in politics has taught me that a two-minute conversation with a market vendor, or a working mother, or a construction worker, is valuable in bridging the world of policy and the actual needs of people.

There’s still a lot of that today but the selfie has taken over as the most popular means of interface between the governed and the governor.

But as I have always maintained, technology is essentially neutral – it is neither good nor bad. It depends on how we utilize it. It seems that the selfie culture is here to stay. My hope is that its ability to become a platform where politicians and the people interact go beyond the pictures and the social media posts.

For politicians, use the technology to democratize governance. Nothing beats an actual conversation with a voter or a constituent whether on Twitter or Facebook or right after they have taken a selfie. On the part of the voters and constituents, use technology to strengthen citizen participation. I admire Filipinos who use social media to engage politicians in constructive dialog in the same manner that it warmed my heart whenever people would approach me on the campaign trail in the past and ask me questions or just talk about their lives.

In a world that is constantly in flux, one thing remains the same — governance is about fighting for the interests of people. And understanding what people need and what is good for the country requires more than selfies or hand shakes.

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