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The Sociology of Selfies

So my mom and I were talking about my cousin Jessica, who posts a lot of selfies.

"I think she should go with the pale pink lipstick," I said. 

That's Jessica in the pink lipstick.

She usually posts with red lipstick. The red is too dark.

"I don't understand selfies at all," said my mother.

"It has nothing to do with being bored," I said.

"I wasn't thinking that," my mother responded.


My mother hung up the phone. And I continued the conversation with myself.

Selfies are a social phenomenon, I thought.

I like taking them. But I've never really thought about why.

Is it a sign of being self-obsessed?

Yes - in a way - that's true.  

But that isn't where it ends, I don't think.

Is it a way of pretending to be a celebrity?

Sort of. That too. But again, that's not all.

It's too easy to dismiss selfies as superficial, vain and stupid.

And then it occurred to me.

Selfies are about regarding the self.

They are about taking the self as an object.

About looking at yourself from the outside in, as if you were a third party.

You can study your own emotions.

Are your feelings inscrutable?

Are you feeling intense? Sad? Are you a bit reflective?

Are you just plain happy?

Selfies, for women in particular I think, are about being the subject to your own object.

In much of the world and throughout history, women have been objectified on art, in life, the object of male pleasure.

A selfie lets you, as a woman, take the camera in hand and objectify yourself. Oddly, paradoxically, it is an act of female empowerment. 

More broadly it allows the individual to reframe, own and celebrate their own experience. 

Making their own story all their own.

Our own.


Main photo by Dhinai Chheda via Flickr. Photo of Jessica Garfinkel via Facebook. Photos of myself are by me. All opinions are my own; they don't reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

The Power of "Thank You"

Briefly - how often do we stop and thank the people who have helped us?

I thought about this the other day. Actually I thought about it when I stopped to make a blessing.

Jewish law says that you're not supposed to do other things while you're also praising G-d.

And I realized how many times I had done so. Routinely I would mumble "thank you" in Hebrew while thinking about other things.

That's not holy...that's not a thank-you.

Isn't that the same way I treat people, I thought. I have lots of patience when they're doing something for me, and then I don't have patience even to listen to them.

I don't stop often enough to thank them.

Further I realized that some of my best teachers have been my most difficult teachers.

Because they saw things in me that I needed to correct. Things I turned away from or denied.

Our life is full of people for a purpose. We are supposed to encounter them.

Either to help them, or because they are supposed to help us.

Doing for others, and others doing for you.

Giving and being grateful.

These are the things that give meaning to our lives.

P.S. It's the eve of Passover and also Good Friday. If you observe these, happy day to all my friends and colleagues.

All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the Federal government. Photo by Roberta Romero via Flickr.

Why I Decided Not To Talk To A Reporter

So I wrote a blog called "On The Use Of Memes In Government Communication" and the Wall Street Journal wanted to talk to me. 

Obviously that was a very tempting opportunity, right? I mean, I've been writing about controversial topics for a pretty long time, and it's not like I shy away from the spotlight. But in the end I said "no."

I'll admit I am still ambivalent about that.

The genesis of this issue was a meme.  I asked a colleague to come up with engaging visuals to portray the mission of my office, which is pretty complex for the average person. 

In response she generated all these great ideas, and I was awestruck. In a single brushstroke (or so it seemed to me, because they took her quite a long time to craft) she captured the essence of what we were trying to say.

But then one of the memes went a bit too far. It showed the head of a popular male meme character from the show "Game of Thrones," combined with an attractive woman's body wearing a somewhat revealing bathing suit manufactured with advanced materials - the kind of advanced materials our program seeks to promote the development of. 

Both revolting and compelling, and just on the line between genius and exploitation.

I wasn't sure if this was OK. So we asked for approval, and got it, although unbeknownst to us the approver had the same reservations. And surely enough, within about 5 minutes of posting to Twitter, it was vetoed and taken down for its potentially offensive nature.

And no, I'm not showing it to you, although I think I could. Because to do so would be to undermine the veto. 

The discussion and feedback around the meme was sufficiently rich and varied that the topic seemed worthy of exploration. I wrote a detailed post about the use of memes in government communication. 

It considered both the copyright issues that memes appear to generate as well as those surrounding the murky question of taste.

Other government communicators are regularly interviewed and quoted by the media. 

Yet I chose not to be interviewed regarding my thoughts on a subject I had written about. For the following reasons:

1) My post really did cover all the things I had to say on the matter. I didn't want to speculate.

2) I couldn't say with 100% confidence that my interview would be clearly portrayed as an individual opinion.

3) I did not want to speak in an off-the-record capacity because this creates the impression that there is something I am afraid of saying with my name on it. 

In the end, public service is a public trust -- so is communication.

It is not always easy to figure out what to do.

But in the end, taking the time to talk it over is usually worthwhile.


All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

10 Leadership Lessons From "The Walking Dead" Season 5 Finale

TWD offers a harsh view of the world. It is not, as most people think, about preparing to survive an imagined future apocalypse. It is a morality tale about navigating life as it is RIGHT NOW.

It is a show that knows its own significance. 

* Takes itself as an object to be discussed -- "The Talking Dead" aftershow.

* Offers platforms for strangers to experience the show together, on Twitter and through the show's "two-screen experience" on

* Sells "the experience" to consumers  through a wide variety of commercial products.

People talk about TWD anyway. On social media and off. It is widely parodied and copied.

It has become an important social text.


Among many other things it offers us a way to talk about leadership. 

There is a clear model here of right and wrong, epitomized by the main character Rick, a sheriff by training and he plays this type of character in the show. 

The top 10 aspects of Rick's leadership style:

1. He leads with the consent of the group. When he is wrong they talk to him frankly. When he is out of control they remove him from play, physically, and he accepts that.

2. He tells the truth. When he lies he admits it. When he makes a mistake he says so. 

3. He will kill if necessary. He will bite the neck off a man if it means saving his son from getting raped.  He will kill a husband if it means saving his wife from getting her head bashed in. 

4. He is motivated by the welfare of the group. Initially he thinks of the group as his family, then expands this circle to include fellow travelers who have fought alongside him. Eventually he grows to take responsibility for a community.

5. His decisions are based on practical need. He does not live by any ideology.

6. He knows how to prioritize. First comes taking care of his family, then survival, and then helping others learn how to survive. 

7. He has limits. He will not hurt others any more than he has to. 

8. The only people he hates are those who take advantage of the weak. 

9. He doesn't discriminate against anyone.

10. He is ultimately human, flawed, tempted, tormented, and he does snap at times. 

Interestingly there are more extreme characters in the group - most notably Carol, who survived brutal domestic abuse by her husband. She has become very tough, very crafty and very strategic but her wounds have pushed her into a kind of coldness that can be chilling.

There are milder characters who can handle themselves in a fight, like Glenn. But when another character tries to kill him, Glenn backs away from finishing him off. 

The other leaders we've encountered on the road include an evil character, The Governor, who rules by fiat and deception. He and Rick become moral enemies.

In contrast, Rick finds kinship with a Senator type who embodies what she calls "transparency," diplomacy and communal ideals. 

This last season has been a searching discussion between the two characters. 

They question: Is community possible? 

And they answer, each in different ways, "Yes but you have to know when, where and how to draw the line."

By the end of this season, they found a shared meaning of that line, and a shared framework for the answer.

# # #

Screenshot source: Season 5 TWD finale, via All opinions expressed are Dr. Blumenthal's alone, and do not reflect the views of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology or the U.S. government.

Why We Love To Hate "Public Affairs"

Over the past eleven years, I've worked in a communications capacity for five federal agencies. Chaired a best practice group for federal communicators across the government. And interacted with colleagues on task forces, working groups and listservs.

They're just as smart and capable as their private-sector counterparts.

I've talked with many of them personally, too. And I'm here to tell you, with rare exception, they all want to tell the whole story to the public. Unvarnished, unfettered, straightforward. Using the newest technologies and at the lowest cost.

So why does "Public Affairs" have such a bad reputation?

For one thing, the role of this office is poorly understood, even among many within the federal government. Public Affairs is not supposed to "make the government look good" - that is propaganda, and propaganda is not a legitimate use of appropriated funds.

Most people understand that the office is charged with the transmission of information about the agency's activities. Where the problem comes in is the broader mission of helping the public understand the mission of the agency. This broad and admittedly fuzzy scope of responsibility can easily morph into the credo that "we must make the agency look good."

That's propaganda.

Another problem occurs when political and civil frameworks of behavior are confused with one another. For example, in 2011 the Columbia Journalism Review blamed the Environmental Protection Agency for having press officers present during interviews. The EPA Administrator's staff defended the practice by invoking the previous administration. And the article concluded with blaming the present one.

Yet political and civil servants operate within two completely different frameworks. Because the two work so closely together, the day-to-day practice of public affairs can lead to blurred lines.

The reality is, civil servants are explicitly prohibited from using federal service to lobby for or against a political party or candidate. That is a direct violation of the Hatch Act.

Rather, their job is to ensure that agency operations are accurately and transparently portrayed to the maximum extent possible. Helping agency subject matters with interviews, including sitting in on them (not a universal policy or practice) is a way of making sure that experts understand how best to communicate with the media. It's also a way of making sure that the experts' words are not distorted for the purpose of creating "clickbait," meaning articles slanted in such a way as to generate more traffic. 

Another reason public affairs gets a bad rap? They aren't considered "technical" or "operational" subject matter experts. And so internally, their assistance is often considered a form of "interference" rather than a help. This is a shame, because poor communication with the public is very likely the direct cause of public mistrust of federal government activities. Common sense tell us this, or you can scan the daily news headlines. 

To take just one example, we have actually reached the point where people think "Jade Helm," a standard military exercise, is preparation for the imposition of martial law.

To sum up: The Office of Public Affairs is not the problem when it comes to transparency. A poor understanding of the role of communication in the federal government is.


Photo by Ervins Strauhmanis via Flickr. All opinions expressed are Dr. Blumenthal's alone, and do not reflect the views of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology or the U.S. government.