The Selfie Stick: The Scourge of Global Travel

Selfie Stick, Paris

UPDATE: September 23, 2015

QUICK, WHAT’S THE SINGLE WORST THING to happen to global travel in the past twenty-five years? The TSA checkpoint? Airline baggage fees? SARS? Ryanair?

No, it’s the selfie stick, that simple yet infernal contraption that mounts to your phone and allows you to photograph yourself. If you’ve been anywhere lately, you’ve seen them — by the hundreds; by the thousands; by the tens of thousands — a great army of expandable bayonets. Hordes of these things are, at this very moment, marching their way along the Great Wall of China, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and through the corridors of the world’s museums, sticking and jamming and poking and prodding and just generally getting the hell in everybody’s way.

The disturbing irony of this proliferation is that the device isn’t designed so that travelers can take better pictures of their surroundings. It’s designed so that travelers can take better pictures of themselves. How and why have people become so fixated with self-photography? Here you are in this incredible spot, and effectively you’ve got the camera turned around backwards. Instagram, Flickr, Facebook and so on, have become a endless archives of self-photography. “Check out this picture of the Sydney Opera House.” No, actually it’s picture of you, with maybe a corner of the Opera House in the background.

Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.

I understand the desire to have a picture of yourself or your loved ones taken in a notable spot. I understand, too, that run-of-the-mill pics of landmarks or scenery can be tedious and redundant — they show nothing a million postcards don’t show already. Putting yourself in the frame, well that makes it personal. I do it. We all do it. But this has gone too far. People are now photographing themselves obsessively, and the busiest tourist spots have become forests of selfie sticks.

The Louvre, we learn, is among the smarter tourist destinations, and now forbids the use of sticks in its galleries. Others should follow suit. Maybe we can get airport security to classify them as weapons and enact a permanent ban?

I visited the Louvre only once. It was a summer day about fifteen years ago, and the experience was made thoroughly miserable by the numbers of people taking pictures. It was impossible to look at a painting without getting jostled and shoved by people posing and aiming their cameras. (When I wrote to the museum advocating that they ban picture taking altogether, they responded with a letter entirely in French, which I couldn’t read and never bothered to have translated). Mind you this was long before the advent of the selfie stick. I can’t imagine how awful it would be in there with sticks in the mix.

We’ve entered a scary new age of narcissism. I’ve been in the company of people who did nothing but photograph themselves, over and over and over. Show us a picture of where you’ve been. Make us want (or not want, as they case may be) to be there. I’m sorry but yet another picture of you does not do that.

Purveyors of the plague at Kennedy Airport. Author's photo.

Purveyors of the plague. Photo by the author.

Neither does yet another picture of what you had for lunch. The only more annoying trend in travel photography, maybe, is the mania of people posting pictures of food on social media.

I guess that I don’t “see” food the way a lot of people do, as such a valuable and poignant representation of culture? A photo of a meal somewhere, totally out of context, tells me very little. In any case, it’s less about the concept than the sheer volume of these pictures. They’re relentless.

They are so relentless, in fact, that my only option is to surrender and stop complaining about it. I have no choice, it seems, but to join in.

And so, in the days ahead, I plan to upload hundreds of pictures of my favorite restaurant cuisine, both domestic and foreign. The only twist is, the pictures will show the food after I’ve eaten it. I mean, what better demonstrates the tastiness of a particular dish than a shot of bones, sauce residue, and some rice grains that you spat into your plate while arguing with your fellow diners about whether or not Bernie Sanders is “really a martian”? For example, here’s a plane of Jollof rice and chicken, enjoyed the other night at the Buka restaurant in Accra, Ghana. Yum! Doesn’t that look delicious!


A couple of nights later, at the Tandoor Indian restaurant, I savored a delectable dish of coconut chicken kabab with basmati rice. Tell me this doesn’t get your gastric juices flowing.


And here’s a delicious pizza from Pini’s, here in Somerville.





From Harper's Magazine (November, 2015).

From Harper’s Magazine (November, 2015).

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68 Responses to “The Selfie Stick: The Scourge of Global Travel”
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  1. Maggie says:

    I’m in Hawaii right now, watching Asian tourists walk to the beach with their selfie sticks leading the way. They seem to be recording the whole time, stopping every now and then to pose for a selfie when the backdrop is particularly beautiful. I’ve seen this before in Disney World and my cousin and husband have told me that in China it’s is a totally normal occurrenc. My question is this: what do people who photograph or film large portions of their life do with the footage? Im overwhelmed by iPhone photos as it is!

  2. Bok says:

    There’s something incredibly sad about people taking selfies, I can’t help but feel a bit depressed when I see people do it.

    I was in Myanmar on a rivier boat, and this lone French woman stood on the deck with her narci-stick, taking all the time in the world to get that perfect pose and facial expression. She wasn’t in the way or anything, but I just think it’s so crudely narcissistic. I get that you “deserve” to be the best you can be, and I get that you have all the right in the world to show your loved ones what kind of backdrop your face is at right now, but as a basic activity it’s just SO FRICKIN’ WEIRD to me.

    Also, that whole “taking a pic of your yoga pose in an exotic location” thing is so annoying, I wanna kick the zen right out of your narcissistic ass.

    This obsession turns preteens into self-centered bitches (M/F) and puts everyone else into information overdrive.

    Obviously, I’m a fan.

  3. Pete Arthur says:

    We were in New Zealand back in February. For those who haven’t been, it’s a paradise for landscape photography. Our visit coincided with the Chinese New Year and a visitor might have thought they’d been taken to Bejing by mistake as NZ is one of China’s favourite holiday destinations. For some reason, the Chinese have taken to the selfie stick more than any other nation I’ve seen. The basic scenario seemed to be that we’d be taking photos at some beauty spot, when a bus would pull up. A few seconds after the doors opened, 70 or so Chinese would disgorge from it’s innards, all armed with selfie sticks. They would then proceed to photograph themselves or each other, and after 10 minutes would jump back on the bus to be whisked off to the next beauty spot further up the road. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I like the Chinese, they are, by and large, pleasant, courteous, well mannered and industrious. But I can’t help feeling that China is full of photo albums filled with crappy photos of grinning family members blocking out the fantastic scenery behind them.

  4. Stephanie Lindsey says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I recently had a Paris layover with some younger coworkers and though I enjoyed running around Paris with them, they spent so much time taking selfies that I found myself annoyed – and bored. Oh, and hungry. So many selfies happened that we literally missed dinner; the restaurants all closed by the time we dragged them away from their phones. But rest assured, my coworkers had dozens of selfies to post online.

    Your post is hilarious! The empty plates are gross and really made me laugh.

  5. JamesP says:

    Luckily, I have long arms and don’t need one!

  6. Mark Maslowski says:

    I’m aware of your Selfie Stick hatred, but you have to admit, this one is kind of cool –

  7. Vijay says:

    Patrick as a fan of your column I must say your criticism of selfie sticks is a bit overwrought. It is currently in vogue to bash selfie sticks. Critics complain of having to “wade through seas of selfie sticks” and more often simply being “annoyed” by them. Articles criticizing selfie sticks are usually accompanied by pictures of predominantly East Asian tourists suggesting to me that some of the bias is cultural. The stereotype of the Japanese tourist wielding a Polaroid or a Kodak Instamatic long predates the selfie stick. I’ve never used one myself and I have been to destinations where they are commonly used but I must say I am not annoyed by selfie sticks as others seem to be. The backlash reminds me in a way of the old canard “No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” Perhaps a camera maker can design a camera that allows people to take self portraits without the need for a stick. It seems like there would be a market for this. In the meantime it seems to me that opponents of selfie sticks may be subconsciously repelled by the devices as déclassé which in my view is more self-indulgent than the devices themselves.

    • Rod says:

      As a habitual contrarian, I find myself in (according to you) the unusual position of following the vogue. The thing about selfie sticks (their potential lethality apart) is how perfectly they reflect the narcissism of their wielders. It’s pretty gross.

  8. I first saw phones-on-a-stick in Berlin last year. Seeing the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church packed with people using those things was very strange indeed. (And I refuse to give them a whimsical name — they’re just phones-on-a-stick.) Also, I do not take pictures of myself nor do I take pictures of my food. I like to photograph both the famous sites and oddball things that not even the locals notice.

    On another note, which Nikon 1 do you have? I have a Nikon 1 V3 and I’ve never had a problem with the camera turning on by mistake. The V3 has no mirror and as a consequence is very light. I take NEFs and like to do a lot of image manipulation in Camera Raw (though this might not be your thing).

  9. Ad absurdum per aspera says:

    Just wait’ll the selfie stick* is replaced by the selfie drone.

    * Some genius whose name escapes me at the moment dubbed it the “narcissistick,” but unfortunately this has not caught on…

  10. Ben says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. When I am traveling, I love taking photos of the areas around me and group shots without the sticks. I find them extremely annoying.

  11. Bill Stevens says:

    Great Article Patrick….. really enjoyed it and really hate the sticks. Was in IKEA the other day and people were taking selfys of themselves in the isles……….omg where will it end….? Bill Stevens, Monrovia, Md Love to newletter

  12. Mark H says:

    You’ll be pleased to know that The Wand of Narcissus (I’m so stealing that! 🙂 is now banned at the Sydney Opera House.

  13. Just when you though the tourist (for a change, not only American) couldn’t possibly be more of a vulgar, obnoxious asshole.

  14. Daniel Ullman says:

    This too will pass Patrick 🙂

  15. Frank Fuente says:

    In this day and age everybody seems to use a phone as the main camera. It’s probably safer to take the picture yourself rather than somebody running off with your phone when you hand it over 🙂

  16. David Lyons says:

    Curmudgeon certificate renewed. Congratulations on staying current.

  17. Corey says:

    I don’t really get angered about this kind of thing. I’ve never been bothered by a selfie stick in public so far, or had my view obscured by a phone (even at a live music show, which are rife with them). But I do agree that people are in general getting way too obsessed with TAKING PICTURES EVERYWHERE (and movies, and live streaming, etc.).
    I’m an amateur photographer and I enjoy taking photos a lot (especially with my digital point-and-shoot), but when I find myself getting wrapped up in getting a perfect shot with my phone, I make an effort to turn it off instead, put it in my pocket, and EXPERIENCE THE MOMENT instead. At that point, I release a lot of stress, and the prevalence of people around me taking selfies and other pics just amuses me. It feels better than being angry 🙂

    • Lynne Shapiro says:

      Corey, you’re right-instead of experiencing the moment, they’re ignoring the moment just to capture it.
      I guess they’re afraid they’re going to miss something, but end up totally missing the experience.
      They’re replacing a potential heartfelt, sensory memory with intangible, cold, soulless piece of media that won’t even evoke any emotions. They didn’t have the experience of any emotion, being caught up in trying to achieve technical media perfection!

  18. Keith says:

    Dear Patrick,
    I could not agree more about the ‘Selfies problem’and like yourself would love to see them banned wherever possible. I live in Thailand, having retired from the UK some 8 years ago and must be one of the very few people who DOESN’T even own a ‘Smart phone’, let alone a ‘selfie stick’ on which to attach it.
    If a I want a photograph, I use a thing called a camera and my very old steam driven Nokia phone only needs charging once a week not every 12 hours.
    Always great to read you insights on travel,. Keep up the good work and safe flying.

  19. Susie says:

    When we were in Venice last month, the selfie stick vendors were horrible. Much more horrible than the selfie stick users. You couldn’t walk 10 feet without one of them trying to sell you one.

    I am not against the idea of taking a selfie but the obsession of documenting everything and every place you go to seems to have taken precedence over experiencing places and learning about cultures. I find it rather sad. I just wish folks would be more selective about when and where they whip out a camera.

  20. RHT says:

    The horror! I remember visiting Kiyomizu-dera, one of Kyotos most famous temples, back in December of 2014. Once out on the veranda, I was surrounded by hordes of Chinese and Koreans with their selfie sticks, and I really wished for some especially nerve-grating specimens to fall down over the balustrade. This whole selfie shtick has become utterly ridiculous beyond words. But then, it seems to depend on location, too: in the vicinity of the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima I saw nobody taking selfies. That gives me some hope.

  21. Narwhal says:

    I was recently on a trip and another tourist was riding a rented Segway and taking a selfie. I got a picture of hoping to get one of him falling on his a** or running someone down; fortunately for him and unfortunately for me, he just kept going…..

  22. Eric_G says:

    My other pet peeve when it comes to vacation photography is the giant DSLR on a monopole. OK, Ansel Adams, let’s see what you got. Oh, same old shot of Landscape Arch that everyone else has? Did you really need that 18-500MM zoom for that? Did you at least bracket the exposure? Oh, I see you left it in Auto. What’s the point of that? You do know that ISO 32000 makes your pictures so noisy you might as well use an 8MP camera, right?

    More money than brains…

  23. Don Beyer says:

    Mind telling us what kind of camera do you use, Pat? I presume it’s just a camera. DSLR?

    • Patrick says:

      The pictures in my Flickr collections were taken over several years using three or four different cameras — none of them the least bit fancy.

      I’m not a photographer. I don’t even know what “f-stop” means. I take snapshots. Maybe some of them are good, but that’s composition (or luck) and not any sort of expertise with a camera itself.

      I currently have a Nikon 1, which I despise. Not because it takes poor pictures, but because the battery is constantly going dead thanks to a ridiculous design quirk: the camera automatically turns on whenever the lens is nudged. You don’t need to actually TURN the lens; all you have to do is apply pressure to it. Countless times I’ve removed the camera from my backpack or carry-on only to find the battery totally depleted.

      • Eric_G says:

        That’s an interesting problem. Are you sure it can’t be overridden? I just bought a Canon M3, which is a similar form factor. They generally aren’t well reviewed but I think it’s fantastic. Unfortunately they aren’t selling it in the US, but there are several Japanese shops selling on Ebay. Definitely no issues with battery life. Downside is not as many dedicated lenses as the Nikon or Sony versions, but there is an adapter for Canon lenses.

        I really think this form factor is going to be THE way for the casual photographer to take pictures in a few years. DLSRs scream “LOOK AT ME! I’M TAKING A PICTURE!” and very few know how to use them properly. Those who do want good glass and easy manual mode controls. These cameras remind me of the classic rangefinders of the 1950s and 60s, great pictures, small enough for a suitcase, and powerful in the hands of someone who knows ho to use it.

  24. Eric Miltsch says:

    Have you never had your picture taken in front of something? The stick does give a better view and a better result than asking a stranger to take your picture.

    Sounds like you need more stuff to round out your day if you’re bothered about people having a good time and taking a picture of themselves with their friends in front of something as beautiful as the Syndey Opera house – or whatever they’re visiting.

    Plus, all you’re doing is hating on someone else’s experience. Relax and a little and start enjoying your own experiences and stop worrying what other people are doing. Don’t like what you see in your social feed? Then learn to train your feed to not show you that stuff. It’s the modern version of changing the TV station when you didn’t like what you see.

    • Patrick says:

      Oh come on, Eric. You’re telling me to relax? Your letter sounds more cranky and uptight than my post does.

      Plus, you say that I’m “hating on someone else’s experience.” Have you ever been a crowded tourist area full of people carrying those blasted things? It’s like an obstacle course. They are messing with my experience, and the experiences of many other people. And for what? To take pictures of themselves.

      I do understand the value and usefulness of the selfie stick, in and of itself. The problem is that certain places have become overrun with them.

      • John Smith says:

        I’ve always been saying that the selfie is all about narcissism. Nearly every time someone takes one of those darn photographs all they are thinking about is how good they’ll look on Facebook or Instagram. If you take a selfie of yourself in front of the Eiffel Tower, it’s not about cherishing the moment, it’s all about telling your social network ‘friends’ “Look at me by the Eiffel Tower, look how special I am.” People will say that is not about that, that the selfie is about just admiring yourself, but there’s a fine line between admiring yourself and vanity. People do not recognize that line more often than not.

    • RHT says:

      Your argument is flawed. Are people unable to recall experiences unless they are ‘triggered’ by their faces in front of something? I’d say if they can only do this with the aid of such a photograph, then the ‘experience’ can’t have been all that memorable. All the more reason for *them* to rethink if they truly experienced something in the first place on their trip.

    • Paul in New York says:

      My intense hatred of selfie sticks comes from a recent hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia. Despite warnings to keep hands and other body parts inside the gondola, everyone on the balloon ride EXCEPT me was completely obsessed with getting a selfie of themselves, even to the point of leaning out of the basket to do so. I was repeatedly hit on the head, poked in the back, and jabbed in the face by thoughtless tourists madly whipping their selfie sticks around in order to capture the ‘perfect shot’.

      The pilot was doing a masterful job of maneuvering the balloon around the spectacular topography, even coming seemingly within inches of the ground, but nobody could be bothered to appreciate his skills because they were too busy making silly dick-lipped pouty faces while taking endless photos.

      Yes, I hate selfies in general (for me, they take me out of the moment) and selfie sticks in particular, but I’m willing to live and let live, but NOT when my personal space, and my personal safety are involved.

  25. Grichard says:

    Lots of passion about something pretty trivial.

    I don’t own a selfie stick. (I do like idea of the “wand of Narcissus”!) I’m not tempted by them. But I can’t bother myself to get indignant about seeing them around. It’s not like people routinely jab them in my face. Sure, they look silly, but so do lots of things that tourists (like me) wear/have/do.

    Y’all need to lighten up.

  26. Jack Sullivan says:

    Last year, over the holidays, my wife and I spent time in Munich. I took a day and made a side trip to Dachua. While going through the camp’s main entrance, I was accosted by a tourist asking if I would mind taking a group shot of their family with the main gate in the background. (Hope it isn’t this year’s Christmas card). I hesitated but didn’t want to appear to be an obnoxious American. But first had to wait for someone taking a “selfie” with a then-unique stick. Last month, had to wade through a forest of selfie sticks to get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. I heard they banned them a week later.

  27. Speed says:

    Does this mean you won’t be celebrating National Selfie Day?

  28. Mark R says:

    I can’t wait for people to twit pictures of themselves using the bathroom.

    Disclosure: I went to Paris many many moons ago and did take a photo of myself – by asking another human being to take the photo using my (non smart phone) camera. Merci beaucoup.

    At least this digital detritus is unlikely to last long enough for future archeologists to ponder, it’s a temporary phenomenon.

  29. Jeremy says:

    I am a fan of trying to mix cultures in my photos. I have once successfully taken a photo of a croissant revealing the Eiffel tower through the window. I agree with you completely on what is considered ‘photography’

    • Jeremy says:

      Sorry, the last sentence means that ‘photography’ is a photo admiring your beauty and ego and I agree with you that that is proposterous

  30. Tom Zimmermann says:

    Yep, Flickr, my once beloved go-to site to share and view great photos has become a dumping ground for smartphone pics. I have not uploaded a photo for almost a year…

  31. Very funny! I’ve actually tested one of these and it was so uncomfortable and awkward, they don’t work very well. Or maybe I was just too uncomfortable to make it work right. It felt weird. I’m really bad at not having any pictures of myself and need to remember to make an effort to have them taken. I’ll come back from a trip and not be in a single picture. This becomes important after you have a kid. You want to commemorate things. I am totally guilty of photographing the hell out of my son though, and food too.

    I just discovered Instagram and it’s the one social media option I enjoy. You should be on there Patrick. We would love to see more of your pictures.

  32. UncleStu says:

    Selfie sticks really are silly, as you said, Patrick. Here’s another reason to stop using them.

    When asked to take a picture of someone in front of a landmark, I always use it as an opportunity to engage them in conversation. It’s always been pleasant, and I often learned something interesting.

    Selfie sticks remove that kind of opportunity to meet people.

    I’m even beginning to think I don’t want to meet anyone that would use one.

    and while you’re at it, “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!”

    • Patrick says:

      That’s a good point. “Hey would you mind snapping our picture?” Often this leads to a pleasant, if short, conversation, that itself is part of the travel experience. “So Where are you guys from?” and that sort of thing.

    • Eric_G says:

      Exactly, and almost always reciprocated. Maybe that’s part of the problem with selfie sticks, they allow you to ignore your fellow travelers.

  33. Michael I. says:

    From what I know of the French, they probably suggested that you perfom an unnatural act.

  34. Msconduct says:

    I do it. We all do it.

    Not me. I can take five thousand shots on a trip and I’m not in any of ’em. I already know what I look like, and I don’t feel the need to prove to anybody I was actually there. It’s not like I need an alibi. I do, however, photograph most of the food, because it helps me locate photos in time, as in oh yeah, that day at that café. I don’t inflict them on anybody else, however.

    Although from your photos the selfie stick is clearly a thing, I can’t say I’ve noticed it. I guess I ticked off the touristiest spots before selfie sticks were invented. The thing I find annoying is people holding up giant tablets to video stuff, blocking the view for everybody else.

  35. Mark says:

    Send me the Louvre letter. I’ll translate it for ye.

  36. Alan says:

    As an expat in Paris I’ve come to think of this time of year less as tourist season and more as selfie-stick season. On a marginally related note, I can only imagine how many people I’ve photobombed over the past few years. I used to be pretty respectful of tourists taking photos, but at a certain point you’re running late to the dentist and just don’t notice (or don’t care) that you’re walking into someone’s shot. On occasion I’ve even managed to walk into somebody’s selfie stick (but that actually makes a little happy inside — is that wrong?).

  37. Stéphane says:

    First, I propose that we rename those stick as:

    Patrick, if you send me a scan of your french letter, I’ll be happy to translate it for you.



  38. Sheila Hartney says:

    Most museums I’ve ever been to ban at least flash photography. I’m wondering when they stopped doing that.

  39. John Skrabutenas says:

    I was with you enthusiastically until you mentioned food. A snapshot of food — both prepared and presented for sale — is as much a representation of a culture as any building or structure, maybe even more so!

  40. Ryan K says:

    Taken outside of the Yingge (near Taipei, Taiwan) Ceramics Museum. You could tell that it was recently added to the list (and thank goodness for that).

  41. John says:

    Right on!! I hate to pose for pictures as it is, let alone take a selfie. I remember on my 2nd trip to Versailles years ago, before the proliferation of cell phone cameras that there was an Asian woman, traveling alone who had a very slender tripod with her camera. About every 20 yards or so, she would stop, set the timer on the camera and take a photo of herself. As George Carlin remarked (before the days of digital photography) “Japanese photo albums must be massive”.

  42. SirWired says:

    While you’ll never see me with a selfie stick, I will offer a weak defense:

    We already know what a lot of these famous sights look like: The Eiffel tower, the Louve, and all the famous paintings, museums, landmarks, etc. If we didn’t know, anybody can buy a post card in the gift shop that is usually much higher quality than anything that an amateur could take with all but the most cumbersome camera.

    Pictures with the traveler in them are inevitably a lot more meaningful than just another postcard-type-picture.

    In addition, I’ve found that whenever I ask somebody to take my picture, they inevitably put me right smack-dab in the middle of the frame (sometimes “helpfully” zoomed in), often with me blocking the view of whatever I wanted my picture taken with.

    • Rod says:

      You make some good points (especially about the superiority of most postcard photography) but I never take photos of tourism icons or myself. There are always lots of FAR more interesting things around, everywhere.

      Yes, selfie-sticks are yet another goddam plague upon us (I live in a destination for Asian tourists — Help!). And I could see them justifiably being banned from airlines (“Take this plane to Havana or I’ll gore you with this! Now let’s see, this is me on the flight-deck.”)

      As for taking pics of food, Patrick is a fine one to talk.

      • UncleStu says:

        “(I live in a destination for Asian tourists — Help!). And I could see them justifiably being banned from airlines”

        Just want to be sure: The Asian tourists or their selfie sticks?

        (I’m kidding – just kidding) but which is it?

        • Rod says:

          The sticks, the sticks. Nothing against Asian tourists, even if I find the compulsive snapping of cameras a trifle pathetic. But who am I to judge — maybe this trip is the highlight of their lives.

    • Eric_G says:

      True, the professional postcard and clipart pictures of landmarks are “perfect.” But as for me, I’d still rather take the same picture myself. In reality, I often do my best to go beyond the postcard shot and will spend up to a few hours exploring a landmark, looking for a unique angle, perspective or lighting that makes the shot mine. Along the way I get so much more out of the experience. Yes, I have the same picture of the Golden Gate bridge that everyone else has, but I also have a fantastic closeup shot of one of the art deco main support towers that are instantly recognizable as the GG, but also something that most people won’t ever notice. When they do (I have it blown up to poster size in my living room), they get it.