Each February, tens of thousands of runners progress en masse through Hong Kong’s concrete canyons, skyscrapers rising hundreds of feet in the air on either side. The grueling 42 km route of the Hong Kong Marathon starts in Kowloon, continues deep into the New Territories, and eventually meanders to the Western Harbour Tunnel through which the contenders cross over to Hong Kong Island where they finish at Victoria Park.
This race, sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank, has been staged annually since 1981. While the basic outlines of the event have remained relatively constant, an unlikely byproduct of our reliance on technology has come to the forefront this year. An increasing number of runners in the race have found it necessary to slow down – or even stop – to whip out their cell phones midstride and shoot “selfies” (cell phone self-portraits), in all their marathon glory.
As The South China Morning Post reported yesterday, this trend has actually become a hazard, with accidents surging due to a spike in road spills. According to the report, Standard Chartered chief executive Benjamin Hung Pi-cheng blamed this trend for the growing number of runners who reach the finish line battered and bruised.
“The problem was that a number of runners were trying to take self-portrait pictures using their smartphones,” Pi-cheng said. “What we are trying to do is to encourage people not to do that. It not only endangers themselves but endangers a lot of people running behind them.”
He added, "We want people to apply a little bit of common sense and discipline. At the end of the day we want this to be run safely.”
William Ko, chairman of the marathon’s organization committee told AFP: “For the race itself we will have officials hold some message boards to remind people not to take photos at the start, on the route or at the finish because it is dangerous.”
To ensure that sense of safety, organizers may ban cell phones altogether in the 2014 race. This is a tall order. Next February as many as 73,000 runners are expected to lace up their running shoes and join the throng, which has reached its “saturation point,” The Post goes on to note. The registration process for the race was announced on Monday, and is set to run October 15-29. For those in good enough shape to enter the fray, the top prize is not shabby at all: US$300,000, up from last year’s $258,400.
The impetus to crack down on mid-race selfies stems from an incident at last year’s marathon in which a woman dropped her cell phone as she was in the middle of snapping her mug, causing a massive pile-up with a domino effect. It obviously didn’t set back the strongest of the lot as one of the fallen – Joyce Cheung Ting-yan – went on to win the women’s race.
Far beyond the streets of Hong Kong, the rise in narcissistic cell-phone portraiture – aided by social media – is undeniable. Celebrities from Kim Kardashian to Justin Bieber, heads of state (Hilary and Chelsea Clinton, Tony Rudd), guidelines, software and composition techniques – clearly, this is no simple snapshot. Alongside the Hong Kong marathon selfie-induced pile-up and subsequent race/cell phone debate, the global selfie craze has caught like wildfire in Asia too.
Here are a few noteworthy examples. In Japan, there was the wave of “Dragon Ball attack” selfies, as well as the camera stand designed for selfie optimization. In the Philippines, selfies have been used in mass virtual protests to train fare increases. In China, artist and rabble rouser Ai Wei Wei has churned out a number of selfies in odd angles and in random garb (a surgeon’s cap, a fedora, with a KFC bucket, face covered in leaves). Meanwhile, a group of his compatriots infamously posed with a dying dolphin in the waters off the coast of Sanya City in China’s far southern island of Hainan.
Outraged netizens commented about the incident on Weibo. One wrote: “Chinese style tourism is not about relaxation, but for showing off where one has been…Only by posting the pictures and getting praise and compliments, can the tourist feel he didn't spend the money in vain.”
This comment alludes to the deeper implications of this trend. Some psychiatrists have blown it off as harmless, while others have expressed concerns about what it means, especially for adolescents. This article explores both sides in depth. Try as we may, this trend seems to be fulfilling some deeper need. “The selfie is revolutionizing how we gather autobiographical information about ourselves and our friends,” says Dr. Mariann Hardey, a marketing lecturer at Durham University with expertise in digital social networks. “It’s about continuously rewriting yourself. It’s an extension of our natural construction of self. It’s about presenting yourself in the best way.”
Perhaps the most dramatic selfie yet to date: Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide snapped an image of himself during a spacewalk at the International Space Station last December. He is front and center. The earth is reflected in his facemask, while the sun is a distant point of light far in the background.