As part of his state visit to China, the President of the Portuguese Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, has come to Macau and, with a lingering flash, gone.
The President’s visit was flagged in the media a few weeks prior to the occasion but you might have missed it if anything Portuguese is not sitting top-of-the-mind for you. The most circulated and frequent record of his Macau sojourn was not to be found in the usual media and news outlets, but in selfies posted on social media. Anyone moderately active in Macau’s social media space could not have missed them: the “do you mind?” apologetic rushed shots from within the crowd, the photo bombs by our beloved well-known eternally publicity-seeking personalities in the back-ground, and those more established members of our community who were granted a more gracious amount of time and space by their compatriots so as to engage in a dignified pose with our visiting dignitary. The pictures tell fascinating stories of status and personality traits. In all, the President appeared a more than willing, happy-go-lucky participant, even a keen advocate. He certainly appears warmly and genuinely pleased as punch in every photo. It is palpably energising.
Initially, balking at the vision, those selfies with “Uncle Marcelo” sat uneasily with me. The gravitas and dignity of a state visit stands incongruous with those eager faces: some showed complete joy in the utterly unique opportunity (ah, the benefits of expatriate life); others with awe and disbelief; a few were lost in the adrenaline rush, soaring so high on the occasion that they portrayed a kind of comedic grotesqueness; then there were those seriously contemplating the solemnity of this once in a lifetime chance, and even those that suggested it might become monetizable one day. Nonetheless, a joyous occasion appeared to be had by all.
At what point did our community move from ridiculing the selfie to becoming an advocate for it? This was not just any selfie, but a “marselfie”; an evidenced moment of intimacy with a figure of global importance and recognition.
All those portrayed seem happy with it, and yet, it rankles. The selfie has long become a marketing opportunity, a way of living and “sharing” the most “likeable” of experiences through a phone lens, a tool of impression management, and a way to connect – is this why so many people got involved? It also detracts from the real job at hand of connection through meaningful conversation and mindfully lived experience – is this why it became such a welcome facet of this short visit?
These seemingly intimate yet fleeting dalliances might just have been enough of a decoy to fend off a more difficult engagement with the deeply seated concerns that the Portuguese community has about the security of their place in Macau’s fast-changing society. For there are concerns out there – for an anthem being played incorrectly, or not at all, to a flag unflown when expectations suggest it should be.
Studies reveal that celebrity-selfies have replaced autographs. Historical beginnings aside, autographs were a conquest, an achievement of something coveted from a sporting or artistic celebrity from whom a moment of time and attention was snatched. Outdated thinking it may be, but to request an autograph from a political identity, a state dignitary, in the course of their professional role would have been unthinkable. There must be something entirely compelling about the nature of the selfie that allows us to ride rough-shod over the constraints of the hierarchical power-distance norm.
I posit that we are so completely bewitched by the ‘like’ button’s effect on our dopamine receptors that we are changing the codes of decorum. I fear it may not be to communal advantage, as we become swayed to confuse a leader for a celebrity.