I first noticed car shushing in the summer, when I was looking for a used car on Craigslist. Someone was selling a cheap ’90s BMW. It was an unremarkable, boxy car with fading red paint and an odometer that had kicked it at around 200K miles. What struck me was its photo. For some reason, the seller extended a skinny index finger into the center of the frame. It looked as if the person was lightly touching the car’s front bumper, as if silencing a distressed former lover: Shhh. Don’t be afraid.
Like any trope, as soon as you notice it once, it suddenly starts showing up everywhere. As my car search continued over the next few weeks, I noticed more fingers. I started collecting them.
craigslist car shushing pic.twitter.com/BY483uqfkA— Joe Veix (@joeveix) June 15, 2016
shhhhhh pic.twitter.com/jL5ljtzbRi— Joe Veix (@joeveix) September 25, 2016
As I expanded my search to listings in other cities, I found that car shushing wasn’t strictly an Oakland, California, phenomenon. People were silencing cars across the United States, in Los Angeles and Chicago and Miami. The cars varied in make and model, the hands diverse. They didn’t include just index fingers but thumbs and entire hands, some hooked and angry, others gently caressing the fronts of the cars as if to apologize for some past transgression, like sneaking off for a quickie in a Zipcar.
Sordid mechanophiliac, they are not. It’s just a low-tech method of obscuring one’s license plates to prevent strangers on the internet from digging up their personal information. It seems like a futile gesture—license plates are already in public view to everyone picking their nose next to you in traffic, and there are plenty of other ways to find that information—but broadcasting them to a larger audience on Craigslist is kind of a needless risk.
They’re also the result of either laziness or a lack of computer expertise. Blurring or pixelating a section of an image takes a few extra steps and requires image-editing software, which not everyone has access to or knows how to use. Using a finger is easier, if slightly creepy. So we get thousands of photos of people tenderly shushing their beat-up cars.
It turns out I’m not the only one obsessed with these images. Freelance writer Blake Z. Rong first noticed the fingers in 2014. Not long after that, he started the blog Craigslist Finger to document them. “What really baffled me at first is how widespread this is,” he says. “It’s a common array of sub-$5,000 hoopties and late-model luxury cars that have fallen down the depreciation pit.”
His blog has an impressive collection. In additional to the usual fingers, there are other interesting variations. There are fist bumps, high-fives, guys in camouflage pants doing whatever this pose is, a surprising number of failed attempts, patriotic uses of MS Paint, people holding up festive drinks as if to say cheers, apples, beer bottles, blades of grass, claws, significant others and even a slices of pizza (naturally, in front of an Italian car).
Like any niche fascination, it’s somewhat difficult to convey the appeal of Car Shushing/Craigslist Fingers. Personally, I like the accidental mass coordination of image tropes, like Hot Dog Legs or silhouettes of people in front of sunsets or mirrors on Craigslist. By themselves, the images are kind of boring, but taken cumulatively they start to take on a bizarre quality, like when one repeats a word over and over until it loses all comprehensibility.
For Rong, the appeal lies in its utter pointlessness. “It's the perfect intersection of irrationality and paranoia: Chances are that 99.9 percent of the Earth’s population won’t care about a person’s license plate, but people are willing to go to such great lengths to protect what they perceive as a threat to their privacy,” he says. “There are so many ways around it: People on the street will see your plate, people who come to buy your car will see your plate, people who drive past your driveway will see your plate and your home address, for that matter. But people are willing to put in so much extra effort and coordination to hide their plate, to the extent that they end up posting some horrendous, god-awful pictures.”
Despite their prevalence, it’s possible the trope might soon fade away. As image editing software on mobile devices becomes more accessible—until recently, the feature that allowed users to draw on images was hidden in the iPhone’s Mail app—people might stop using their fingers. In a few decades, if certain dystopian tech companies have their way, we might not even own cars. Tragically, we may soon live in a future devoid of car shushing.
Maybe it’s for the best. It’s distracting. Six months and dozens of fingers later, I realized I got kind of distracted. I never ended up finding a car.
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