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The Colosseum, Neo-Narcisissm And Why You Shouldn't Do It For The 'Gram

Ariana Aboulafia |
March 17, 2015 | 8:55 p.m. PDT


Would you deface the Colosseum for an epic selfie? (Wikimedia Commons)
Would you deface the Colosseum for an epic selfie? (Wikimedia Commons)
How do you know when one of your friends or acquaintances is studying abroad? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you! 

Almost every college student knows someone who is currently studying abroad, someone who has studied abroad in the past or someone who has simply taken a good old-fashioned “EuroTrip” for fun. And, the way that we always know when our friends are in a foreign country is often not because they tell us directly, but because their technology does. Often, people that are traveling will post photos on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat from exotic locations or cliché tourist spots (or both) and tag the location to show their friends the places they've visited.

With all of this opportunity for shared photography, it makes sense that some people would be willing to go an extra mile to get a really interesting or unique photo while on a vacation.

Recently, however, two tourists from California took this to the extreme. They were visiting the Colosseum in Rome when they decided to sneak away from their tour group and use a coin to carve their initials, each about 8cm high, into the Colosseum wall. They then took a selfie in front of their handiwork - just before they were confronted by police and charged with “aggravated damage on a building of historical and artistic interest.”

Although it may seem incredible, these women are not the first people to carve their initials into the Colosseum – the last person to be caught doing so by police was a male tourist from Russia, who was sentenced to four months in prison and a €20,000 fine, so it stands to reason that the American tourists will be facing similar punishments. Despite the signs posted throughout the Colosseum that state that defacing the walls is forbidden, the two tourists apparently stated that they “did not imagine it was something so serious” as to lead to arrest or even imprisonment. 

How they did not realize that defacing the Colosseum – an incredibly famous European landmark that has existed since 80 AD, where 73,000 spectators regularly gathered to watch gladiators fight to the death – would be a serious issue makes no sense to me. After all, in the state of California even writing your name in wet cement on a sidewalk is considered an act of vandalism and is punishable by a prison sentence or fines, and the Colosseum has way more social and historical relevance than a sidewalk. The behavior of these two tourists makes no sense when viewed on its own - but, when it is viewed in conjunction with other more common (and legal) behaviors, perhaps it does not seem so far-fetched after all. 

An extremely common practice for tourists visiting Europe is to write their initials and those of a current love interest on a lock and clip it onto a bridge. There are several bridges throughout Europe that collect these locks, known as “love lock bridges”; the most common of which is the Pont des Arts over the river Seine in Paris, France. It has, in fact, become so common for lovers to fasten “love locks” to the railings of the Pont des Arts that, in 2014, part of the bridge actually collapsed due to the weight of the locks and was closed by police. While most people would not equate carving their names into the Roman Colosseum with fastening a “love lock” onto the Parisian Pont des Arts, other than the legalities (Parisian authorities grudgingly allow love locks), is there really that much of a difference between the two?

Both threaten the integrity of structures, are acts of theoretical (if not technical) vandalism committed by tourists, and are done to memorialize those tourists’ presence in certain locations. Both are permanent reminders to residents of the temporary visitors who come and go each year from these cities, bringing in money and publicity, but also perhaps leaving the cities themselves a bit uglier than they were before. 

So, this begs the question: why do we feel the need to leave permanent reminders of our presence in places where we are only but temporary visitors? And, furthermore, what lengths would we go to in order to ensure that our permanent reminders of our travels – the photos we take back with us – are absolutely perfect?

Most of us would stop short of outright vandalism for the perfect selfie. And, similarly, most of us would refuse to go to the lengths that these Russian teenagers (who climb Russia’s highest buildings and take what they claim are the world’s deadliest selfies on top of them) go to for “likes” on Facebook and Instagram. But, would most of us stop short of fastening a lock onto an already-struggling bridge? What about getting a non-domestic animal into the frame of a selfie, like these quokkas – who, despite their adorable smiling faces, may or may not be pleased with being selfie stars? 

For many, it’s worth risking a displeased animal, a groaning bridge or even a fine to get the best photo possible, because the best photo possible will lead to more “likes” - and, in social media-speak, each “like”  is a sign of affirmation from a friend, family member or colleague. And, while most people desire approval and acceptance from those around them, a recent study shows that those who post more photos of themselves online may not just desire this acceptance, but crave it.

The study, done by Ohio State University, found that men who post more selfies are more likely to exhibit narcissistic behavior, often motivated by underlying insecurity. So, because they are insecure they tend to feel a greater need for attention, acceptance and affirmation, which can lead them to post not only more photos of themselves online but also more “extreme” photos. After all, the more extreme the photo, the more likely it is to be interesting enough to garner social media attention. 

So, this could mean that those hundreds of pictures that you receive via Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram from your acquaintances abroad are more than just glimpses of where they are, but also insights into who they are. The number of photos that your friends take, for example, while studying abroad - and the more extreme those photos are - could serve as an interesting indicator of their levels of personal insecurity and self-obsession. It is, after all, likely self-obsession and narcicissm that causes tourists to both take and share tons of photos and to permanently memorialize themselves on everything from bridges to park benches. And, it is this very same self-obsession that leads many to live out entire experiences - like studying abroad - through the lens of an iPhone and choosing what to do based on what will look best on Instagram.   

Although most of us would never break away from a tour group and carve our initials into the walls of the Colosseum while on vacation, the story of these two California tourists serves as an interesting reminder of what people are willing to do to gain attention. Perhaps it serves as yet another piece of evidence of the modern-day social media manifestation of insecurity and narcissism. One thing, however, is clear: when people are willing to vandalize, no matter to what extent, in order to post the best vacation photo ever, it is time to take a step back, consider the greater implications of our actions, and stop doing anything and everything for the 'gram.

Get more "Reaction Time": common sense reactions to every-day craziness. Reach Columnist Ariana Aboulafia here; follow her here



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