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Selfie or self-promotion? Why some vaccine photos seem to cross a line

The Urban Dictionary has added a new word to describe people who brag about being vaccinated for COVID-19. You don’t want to be one

The pandemic has given Americans a new vocabulary of words and phrases that just two years ago would have been bewildering, such as stimmies, anti-maskers, PPE and Zoom fatigue.

It’s also produced a new expletive.

The word, listed in the online Urban Dictionary, describes a person who brags about his or her COVID-19 vaccination to the point of obnoxiousness. To be polite, let’s just say it’s a variation of the word that your cousin from Boston might shout as someone cut him off in traffic. It is rude and vulgar, and that is the point, as the word describes someone that, presumably, you don’t want to be.

But some people are reveling in the term.

On Twitter, that great seething mass of vaccination selfies, some people are boasting about being this particular sort of braggart, which seems evidence that the virtue of humility has been shown the door by technology, and narcissism invited in. Of course, taking selfies and sharing them on the internet is not evidence of narcissism, which is a serious mental health disorder. And research has shown that people who score low in narcissistic traits share roughly the same number of selfies as people who score higher.

But if Narcissus looked lovingly at his reflection in the pool today, he’d be wearing the T-shirt that says “Fully Vaccinated. You’re Welcome.”

Or maybe the one that says “Fully Vaccinated Club: Educated. Motivated.”

And for the record, some people who refuse to be vaccinated are being kind of obnoxious about it, too, Vax on, vax off, with enough selfies, it’s all virtue signaling.

The urge to talk about a COVID-19 vaccination (or two) originates, in part, from excitement and relief. We’re all so done with the pandemic, so eager to get back to normalcy, whatever that is. And many public health experts are encouraging the trend, saying that the photos and videos are helping people to overcome fear of getting a vaccine that was developed so quickly. (The vaccines being used in the U.S. have not been formally approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but given emergency approval.)

In India, which this week recorded the highest daily rate of infections worldwide since the beginning of the pandemic, hospitals have set up “selfie booths” to encourage people to take photos and share them on social media, The Indian Express reported.

Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, a New Delhi epidemiologist, told NPR, “I believe that such videos, images and social media nudges definitely helps many arrive at a decision. A happy person after vaccination can allay some fear and is always helpful from a social science perspective.”

Selfie stations have also been set up by health care providers at vaccination sites in the U.S., including in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

But some selfies can seem more self than public health, at least according to Urban Dictionary. This is especially true when they’re not spontaneous but planned.

Selfie or self-promotion?

Will Storr, a London journalist and author of the 2017 book “Selfie, How the West Became Self Obsessed,” said in an email that some people who post vaccination selfies “in their head are telling themselves a story that says ‘I’m such a hero,’ but the people looking at the picture are often going ‘what a (the new expletive).’”

“There is an exception to this. Over here, for various complex reasons (mostly cultural, as far as I can tell), some minority racial groups are being vaccinated at much lower rates. So we’ve seen a few high-profile members of those groups making noise around their vaccinations, but for obviously good reasons.”

But for the most part, the difference between selfie and self-promotion is a moral judgment that exists in the mind of the person viewing the selfie, Storr said.

In other words, is Liz Mair — the GOP strategist who wore a ball gown to get vaccinated and then posted a dozen pictures of herself on social media — a hero or a showoff? You get to decide.

Same with the University of Illinois gymnast who perfectly nailed a routine, then pulled a vaccination card out of his singlet to cheers. Evan Manivong said that the idea originated as a joke with his teammates, but at some point, the joke turned serious and he practiced the move in advance of the March meet. A still photo of the move now tops his Twitter profile.

Or how about the Canadian choreographer who, after each of his shots, performed a dance on a frozen lake and posted it on YouTube and Twitter? (And also four days after the second shot to show that he was feeling good.)

Gurdeep Pandher said he did so “for joy, hope and positivity, which I’m forwarding across Canada and beyond for everyone’s health and wellbeing.” But the video also gave him no small measure of fame, garnering tens of thousands of “likes,” and no doubt new subscribers for his YouTube channel, “Gurdeep Pandher of the Yukon.”

Stay calm, scroll on

The Pandher videos and the reaction to them illustrate the dangers of vaccine photos, even if they are, for the most part, warmly received. In America, particularly, such photos can have a whiff of privilege, especially since there is wide disparity in vaccination rates across the world. According to The New York Times’ vaccine tracker, North America leads the world in vaccinations, with 41 doses given per 100 people; Africa has the lowest rate, 1.1 doses per 100 people.

And people who post vaccine selfies have also been castigated for seemingly cutting in line. One person responded to Pandher’s tweet by saying, “Why did the Yukon get vaccines over Ontario or other provinces? Yes, your happy dance is fun but there have been 72 cases in the Yukon. Sorry, I am not celebrating your joy.” And a person commenting on Manivong’s page asked angrily why a healthy 20-year-old had already been vaccinated.

There are other, more practical reasons to be careful when showing off your official CDC vaccination card. Security experts and even the Federal Trade Commission have warned that criminals can make use of personal information, to include your birthdate. (It’s unclear why it would matter whether the dark web knows whether you are Team Moderna or Pfizer, but the FTC suggests we just post photos of our bandages.)

Meanwhile, you don’t even have to get a vaccine to be a hated for a vaccine-related selfie. Conservative radio host Glenn Beck recently posted a photo that, at first glance, looked like him getting a shot, but in fact, showed him making an obscene gesture with his hand to resemble a syringe and needle. The caption read “Hey CNN I got your vaccine selfie right here,” apparently in response to CNN’s Brian Stelter asking why Fox News personalities aren’t putting out vaccine selfies. (Beck has said that’s he’s not anti-vaccine, but that he’s not getting one, since he and his wife have already had COVID-19.)

Beck’s post drew nearly 14,000 “likes” and not an insignificant amount of chastisement, including one person who noted that President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (of which Beck is a member) got the vaccine and released a photo of his first dose, given in January.

As Storr says, it’s all in the eye of the beholder, at least when it comes to coronavirus vaccines. Exposure to selfies is an occupational hazard for anyone who spends time on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, and it doesn’t cost anything to be kind. If you don’t like the shot of a bride in her wedding gown getting a vaccine, say “Bless her heart” in an exaggerated Southern accent and scroll on.

But when this is all over, and people start posting selfies of their shingles vaccine, let’s all unfollow.

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