The rise and rise of the selfie stick in the UAE

How did the selfie stick go from a national joke to a socially acceptable UAE accessory - in just a few short months?

A tourist uses a selfie stick to photograph himself outside The Dubai Mall. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Do you remember the first time you heard the term “selfie stick”? Doubtless it was shortly after you first spotted someone waving a smartphone around on the end of a pole, and said “huh?”

It’s more than likely you had to stifle a giggle at that first encounter – but now the chances are that if you don’t own a selfie stick, you know someone who does. What happened?

Self-portraits – or as they are now known, selfies – are as old as photos. In 1839, the American photography pioneer Robert Cornelius took what is commonly considered to be the first known portrait – of himself.

But the selfie as we know it is, of course, a mere infant. It was named Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries in 2013, after it was estimated that usage had increased by 17,000 per cent in only 12 months. That adds up to a lot of selfies – Instagram alone has clocked more than 53 million photos posted with the hashtag #selfie.

But it’s the recent innovation of an extendable pole and clip, with a button to operate the camera, that has taken the selfie to a whole new level, making panoramas and group shots so much easier.

It grabbed plenty of headlines last year and was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 best inventions of 2014.

As the year wore on, it became increasingly popular. How many others spent Christmas Day as I did, watching a friend excitedly unwrap a selfie stick and proceed to spend much of the day photographing the dinner table – and themself – from every possible angle?

As 2014 wound to a close, the selfie stick was transformed from a joke about people making themselves look stupid in public into to an omnipresent, socially acceptable, accessory. The Dubai Marina resident Rebecca Sykes was one of thousands of converts after being given one as a present by her husband, Dan.

“I didn’t know I wanted one until I had one, but now I can’t live without it,” says the 35-year-old yoga instructor. “Everyone has got one now, it’s just hit Dubai – selfie-stick mania.”

Somehow, all our concerns about displaying such narcissism were quietly parked ­overnight.

Still, though we might be more accepting of the selfie stick now, there are few things more amusing than watching someone try to answer a ringing phone stuck to the end of a pole.

Technically, though, the selfie stick is not a new innovation. Extendable camera mounts – known as monopods – have been available for digital cameras for years. But it was the smartphone-led social-media boom that really put selfie sticks on the map last year. Monopods made for mobile phones were unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in Spain in February, after the craze first emerged in Asia.

The UAE’s position as a hub for transport and tourism may explain why the selfie stick became commonplace here long before Europe and the United States.

In October, for example, my brother and his wife visited Dubai for the first time. Like any good host, I packed them off to see the sights while I was at work. Meeting up again in the evening, it wasn’t the Burj Khalifa they were raving about – it was the “long pole thing” they had spotted people waving around with a phone stuck on the end.

“Selfie sticks,” I yawned. So passé in the UAE. But they were amazed and proudly showed me pictures they had taken of other people taking pictures of themselves with selfie sticks on the top of the Burj Khalifa.

In fact, they took more pictures of people taking photos of themselves than they took of the view from one of the tallest buildings in the world.

And, of course, they took two selfie sticks back to the United Kingdom as early Christmas presents. Two more converts.

Celebrities have been getting in on the act, too.

The E! News anchor and Fashion Police co-host Giuliana Rancic – who was in town at the New Year to launch the 20th edition of the Dubai Shopping Festival – told us she was dying to get one.

“The selfie stick is out of control,” she said. “I saw a couple in Chicago the other day with one and I thought: ‘Gosh, that is so embarrassing – but look how gorgeous that picture is.’ I need to get one right now.”

Her husband Bill was more sceptical, asking the obvious question: “How difficult is it just to ask someone to take your ­photo?”

But Giuliana replied: “No. people mess them up all the time.

“I am all about the selfie stick, it is the coolest thing. I haven’t used it yet but I’m going to get it, I don’t care what people say about me.”

And now, I have a confession. Yes, I own a selfie stick.

A few days ago I went shopping for a new phone. Thanks to the Dubai Shopping Festival, a free selfie stick was part of the package, whether I wanted it not.