The travesty of the “Ellen selfie”

On November 6, 2012, Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term in the White House. In celebration of the victory, the Obama campaign team sent out a tweet that read: “Four more years.” The tweet also included an intimate and emotional photo of the president and first lady locked in an embrace. Of the photo, Kenneth Irby, a senior faculty member of visual journalism at Poynter, wrote:

“The Obama machine understood both the closeness of the race and the power of his image,” said Kenny Irby. “It was not about what the event was, but rather who was in the image,” said Irby. “Millions only cared to see the unity of the first couple and the victory associated with that.”

The photo is historic and it is powerful.

And until last night, it was the most re-tweeted ever photo. To date, it has nearly 800,000 re-tweets.


Last night, as part of the hosting gig at the annual Academy Awards, Ellen DeGeneres walked into the theater of celebrities and gathered many of Hollywood’s top A-listers and engaged the group to take a “selfie.” (The selfie was part of the product placement for the Samsung Galaxy, another critical media topic to be saved for another day.) Ellen then sent it out via Twitter and challenged the worldwide television audience (and the millions more following along on Twitter) to make it become the most re-tweeted photo on Twitter.

She succeeded. As of this writing, the “Ellen selfie” has been re-tweeted 2.6 million times and counting.

And it is a travesty for many reasons.

Before I get into those reasons, I’ll begin by stating this: I have great admiration for Ellen DeGeneres. As a woman and fellow Louisianan, I have followed her career closely. She is witty and kind, and in the face of adversity she has become one of the most successful women in the entertainment business.

I’ll also admit this: I enjoy watching the Academy Awards, but I do not care for the long-standing requirement for the host to put on a “comedy” routine. It’s rarely funny. It’s highly-predictable. And it’s a waste of time.

So without surprise, during last night’s Academy Awards, Ellen DeGeneres did what she was supposed to do: she attempted to be funny. In my opinion, she failed.

But one stunt—the “Ellen selfie”—has clearly shown the power of social media. And it further illustrates the changing nature of media communication, and in particular, the further dismantling of photography as we know it.

So why do I think the “Ellen selfie” is a travesty? First, I don’t necessarily have a problem with the fact of the photo itself. I have a problem with the fact that it now represents the most re-tweeted photo ever on Twitter.

In terms of aesthetics and composition, it’s a terrible photo. Not a huge surprise for a selfie. But I can get over that.

What I cannot get over is the fact that the entire thing was a gimmick. And a bad one at that. The beauty of the Internet and the emerging groundswell is in the fluid and organic ability of content to go viral.

The Obama victory photo shows real human emotion. And it is beautiful and memorable. And it is for those reasons that it spontaneously became the most re-tweeted photo on Twitter.

Do not get me wrong. The Obama campaign was masterful at controlling Obama’s message and the Obama brand (as Irby pointed out). But no one asked for the photo to be re-tweeted. The photo was re-tweeted as evidence of the emotion behind that second historic victory. Was the Obama campaign thrilled that it went viral? Of course.

But the “Ellen selfie” was a pseudo-event (in the words of Daniel Boorstin). And its virality was disingenuous and duplicitous.

Obama “four more years” photo courtesy of


One response to “The travesty of the “Ellen selfie”

  1. Pingback: The Collision of Art and Advertising | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

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