The 2013 word of the year, selfie, now has a younger sibling: groufie. The word -- it means just what it sounds like, a group selfie -- is a bit awkward, but that may be because it was coined by the marketers of the world's No. 3 smartphone maker, Huawei of China. They must have been extra careful to avoid associations with unruly rock bands and their camp followers.
For their contribution to the English language, the folks at Huawei used the same method that produced "selfie", known as hypocoristics. It's popular in Australia, turning a mosquito into a mozzie and, indeed, an Austrialian into an Aussie.
"Selfie" was born spontaneously, reflecting our phones' transfiguration into connected cameras. "Groufie", registered as a trademark in China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.S., also reflects a nascent trend: smartphones' front-facing cameras, once mainly useful for videochatting, are getting more powerful, making it possible to produce high-quality group portraits. And, of course, the best possible selfies.
Sony the market leader in imaging sensors -- makes the hardware for the rear-facing cameras in the iPhone, and was Samsung's main supplier before it developed its own sensors for the Galaxy S5 -- says it's opened up a whole new market. Huawei is the front-runner. Its Asscend P7 phone, launched on Wednesday, has an 8-megapixel front-facing camera, just like the iPhone's main one.
The competition is hot on its heels. HTC recently released its One M8, with a 5-megapixel front-facing camera. Microsoft, the new owner of Nokia's handset business, is working on a phone with similar specs. Fast-growing, low-cost Chinese producer Xiaomi's next flagship device, the Mi3S, with an 8-megapixel screen-side camera, is about to debut on May 15.
Even Apple, which has until recently snubbed the megapixel race, leaving it to Nokia and the Chinese producers, is rumored to be contemplating the use of a Sony high-resolution front-facing camera in iPhone 6. All for the perfect selfie.
It may seem that as smartphone makers face a technological dead end, they are clutching at straws, seeking an advantage in the gauchest features imaginable. Not so: selfies are important. By October 2013 (the last month for which data are available) 35 million of them had been uploaded to Instagram. A U.K. poll last year showed that it was the most popular genre of photography among people aged 18 to 24, accounting for 30 percent of all pictures taken. Selfies are the most widespread form of content sent over SnapChat, the younger generation's preferred communication tool.
Selfies fuel social media campaigns and ruin lives: posting too many of them is supposed to be bad for your real-world relationships, and a recent study by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that they drive up demand for nose jobs and hair transplants.
We are used to marketers pushing us into consumption patterns that are not natural for us. The word "groufie" looks like a perfect example of a marketing-driven trend. In this case, hardware makers are not inventing a disease to fit a cure: The selfie boom is real, and it's a wonder that the smartphone producers have waited so long to jump on the bandwagon.
In fact, Huawei's linguistic exercise may carry within it a subtle suggestion for a cure. If you have to overuse your powerful screen-side camera, at least take a picture of yourself with some friends, or even with a bunch of strangers. Self-obsession may be marketable, but it's not particularly healthy.
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