When social media was still brand new, Father Ted writer Graham Linehan posted one of my all-time favourite status updates: “Attention, celebrities who don’t follow anyone! You have in your possession a magic mirror, and you’re just using it as an actual mirror.” It’s one of those comments that has become even funnier and truer as the years have rolled on.
Instagram might be the most magical mirror of all. I’ve watched the platform’s five-year rise with great interest, both as a user and as co-founder of The Pool. Last year, I made a Radio 4 documentary exploring the evolution of the selfie. (Spoiler: the history of self-representation and reflections in art is more complicated than cynics might imagine.) Our journey took us from the myth of Narcissus to contouring with the Kardashians via Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus and a chat with Henry Holland – you can listen again here if you like. It was a fascinating programme to work on.
I still have mixed feelings about selfies, but I came away from recording convinced that their downsides (which all feature in the myth of Narcissus: vanity, superficiality, potential obsession) are accompanied by genuine benefits.
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Selfies are democratic. That flip of the lens feels like an historic shift in perspective. It puts ordinary people centre-frame, in the middle of the experiences they want to record. They can also be creative, empowering, lucrative. Many – including Henry Holland – have used them to help create real-life success. It also became very clear that, even as we were making the documentary, the way people were using Instagram was changing rapidly.
This month, I’ve had the chance to find out how far beyond the selfie users have taken the platform, working with Instagram on their #MyStoryUK campaign. It launched last week with a gallery show at Unit London. Twenty-four accounts featured, with one image each in the exhibition. The stories being communicated were as diverse as they are inspiring, and almost all of the women behind them were there for the launch.
Selfies are democratic. That flip of the lens feels like a historic shift in perspective. It puts ordinary people centre-frame, in the middle of the experiences they want to record
I met skater @ViviGomez12, who wants to shine a light on female skateboarders. @BeckieJBrown, who shares her struggle with depression and trichotillomania. Motorbike collective @vc_london (I’d tell you what the "vc" stands for, but the “c” is a little spicy…). Carrie Anne Roberts AKA @mre.soeur, who told me about using the platform to chronicle her busy life as a single parent and small business owner. Jools Walker (@ladyvelo) said that she wanted to provide inspiration for other women of colour to get on their bikes. @sistersuncut talked passionately about their planned summer of political campaigning and young book lover @themilelongbookshelf told me how she used Instagram to find a community who share her love of reading. I even got to talk sheep with @therunningshepherdess.
As well as being an inspiring project, it was a challenging one. Being in the company of women who were using a simple app to do huge things made me wonder how much better my feed might be with just a pinch of the exhibitors’ passion and purpose. Was I showing the world as I saw it or just showing off? I’m definitely up for fun and frippery, maybe even a selfie or three, but I left the launch vowing to up my game. Social media really is a magic mirror, but it’s up to us what the reflection shows.