Philly venues, museums fight off the selfie stick

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Sports venues, concert halls, art museums, and special events around Philly are banning selfie sticks. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ/Staff Photographer)

As the season of musical acts got underway this summer at the Mann Center, general manager Jerry Grabey noticed a trend: "More and more of our artist riders were asking that selfie sticks not be allowed in."

So in the interest of having a single, unified policy for the entire season, he and his staff made the call: Selfie sticks are out.

"It's a question of safety," Grabey said. "It's also an inconvenience to other patrons."

But with the ruling came a new marketing opportunity: A selfie station at the Citizens Bank kiosk on the Mann's campus, complete with a scenic backdrop and selfie sticks that are distributed for use and then carefully reclaimed.

"Part of the Mann experience is social interaction," said the Mann's chief executive, Cathy Cahill. "Let the selfies continue - just without the sticks."

It's an increasingly common sentiment, as managers of sports venues, concert halls, art museums, and special events contend with the sudden, and seemingly ubiquitous, presence of what some are calling the "narcissistick."

In public discussion, selfie sticks tend to look a lot like lightning rods; they are, after all, the most evident physical manifestation of a divisive cultural change in how, and how often, we document and promote our personal lives in the public square that is social media. But they raise pragmatic qualms in addition to philosophical ones.

How do you continue to harness the marketing power of social media while minimizing the annoyance, disruption, and potential physical danger that oblivious selfie stick wielders may bring?

Some local institutions are quietly imposing bans. But others are not only allowing them, but even stocking them at their gift shops.

In some cases, the reason for a ban is self-evident.

In the hands of, say, a roller skater at the Blue Cross RiverRink, a selfie stick is vanity weaponized.

"Quite frankly, they're dangerous when you're skating and trying to take photos," said Jackie Lai, general manager of the rink, which has been fighting an uphill battle against skating selfie-takers in general and selfie sticks in particular. Management decided to bar the implements for good after a visitor tried to enter the rink with a 5-foot-long selfie stick in hand.

Art museums from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Smithsonian museums in Washington have already issued bans for fear of iPhone-size gashes in valuable canvases.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which, since installing the Rocky statue in 2006, has become one of Philadelphia's premier selfie stations, does not have a policy posted on its website.

But Norman Keyes, a spokesman for the museum, said the verdict was now in: "Our policy is to permit handheld cameras only, not selfie sticks. This is out of concern for the safety for the works of art."

(For reference: The Barnes and Mütter museums never allowed photos in the first place. The Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology doesn't have a policy.)

The list of places waving away the wands is growing.

Disney put the kibosh on them at all of its theme parks in June, and Six Flags did the same in July. They're on the blacklist at the Live Nation music venues Theatre of Living Arts and Tower Theater.

National Football League rules forbid them, including at Lincoln Financial Field. Comcast Spectacor banned them in its venues, including the Wells Fargo Center, for safety reasons, according to a spokesperson. As for the Phillies, they still allow them at Citizens Bank Park (where foul balls perhaps pose a greater danger), but a ban "is under consideration for 2016," a spokeswoman said.

As for selfies on the Parkway during the Pope's visit? #forgetaboutit.

"The ruling is no selfie sticks, no sticks of any kind," Samantha Phillips, director of emergency management for the city, told The Inquirer in June.

Still, the potential upside - the long end of the selfie stick, if you will - is hard to ignore.

Visit Philadelphia, which markets the city, has seen its #visitphilly hashtag used more than 100,000 times, many of those accompanying Philly selfies. In June, the bureau installed #visitphilly Photo Spots - climbable, photogenic installations that play off the "With Love, Philadelphia XOXO" campaign and encourage hashtagged selfies. To promote the Photo Spots, organizers handed out #visitphilly-branded selfie sticks.

The result has been striking, said Rachel Hara, social media manager for Visit Philadelphia.

"Just in July, this year over last year, we've seen a 100 percent increase of daily hashtag usage," she said. And that can translate into visitors. "People plan their trips around these hashtags and photos. . . . People tag their friends in the comments and say, 'We should do this!' There's nothing more powerful than an awesome photo on social media."

Which may be one reason that other institutions are not only allowing selfie sticks, but even selling them.

That's the case at the Philadelphia Zoo, where selfie-snapping is so rampant even tigers are doing it. (The zoo has "camera traps," motion-sensitive cameras in some enclosures, and posts big-cat selfies online for fans.) A selfie-stick ban is not on the agenda for now, a spokeswoman said.

It's also true at the Academy of Natural Sciences, which added selfie sticks to its gift shop inventory about two months ago, for $10 apiece.

Until any issues arise, they're welcome in the museum, said Carolyn Belardo, a spokeswoman.

"I think it's kind of catering to our visitors' needs and wants," she said. "We get a lot of visitors of all ages, a lot of families with kids, but also young folks, and we like to accommodate them."

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