We’re all narcissists now, had you heard?
But of course you had. The news is everywhere. Self-promotion is the opiate of our masses, and vanity the virus that will eventually cause our slick, buzzy, digitally-enhanced lives to short circuit and blow a fuse. For every selfie and belfie and knelfie (that’s a photo of your own knees, I just invented it) that we share with the world, a small piece of innocence somewhere dies. Like a fairy.
In April, the first study was published linking social media to negative body image (among young females, predictably), while MPs and campaigners are currently working to combat the effects of all this filtered fakery on developing teenage minds. Things don’t seem much better for my own age group, slogging through our 20s in the shadow of all the people who are having a much nicer, more successful time of it, usually doing it somewhere hip and exclusive with fantastic lighting.
‘INSTAGRAM SHOULD COME WITH HEALTH WARNINGS!’ I’ve raged more than once, in an Aperol haze (it’s more photogenic than gin). ‘Like cigarettes! “Warning: over-exposure may damage contentment”. Or– no, no, wait, like a mascara ad that tells you when fake lash extensions have been used! Smallprint: “Images contain artificial happiness.” That’ll do it.’
But I still use it, and I still love it. And here’s why: I think, on balance, it has made me a better person. Or a more grateful person, at least.
Photography has changed a lot in recent years. Since every Johnny and Sally became armed with a smartphone camera, we take more pictures. A lot more. According to Buzzfeed, more every two minutes than the whole of the 1800s put together. And we take them frequently, because we can, and because we have somewhere to put them – not in sticky-backed albums to grow dusty on a shelf, but on the internet, where people care*. *validate us
I had a brilliant childhood, but there are great chunks of it that I don’t really remember. In the family albums I leap quickly from babyhood to Christmases to holidays to first days of school to more holidays, a year or two unaccounted for, until BOOM, that’s it: I’m basically an adult. They’re all very precious photos, of course, but half of them have coffee rings on them or a bit of someone’s thumb over the lens.
Then there are photos from the early Facebook years, the years of excess, when every average Tuesday night trip to the pub came accompanied by a 40-strong online album. They were always unflattering, mainly involving a hilarious in-jokes or people mid-way through shouting ‘put the camera DOWN, I’m telling you my Nan died.’ But I’m glad they’re there, because they remind me of all the nice times and the terrible haircuts I have had.
And now, in the midst of the Instagram Age, vast albums have mostly been swapped for single, real-time snapshots. Rather than saving photos for nights out, or even nights when we’re with other people, we’ve moved towards a sort of ongoing social reportage – any time, anywhere, anything at all that’s worth sharing. And I’m gladder than ever.
Throw my heart-topped flat white in my Pollyannaish face if you like, but I swear, documenting the little, everyday joys of life makes me more appreciative of just how many there are. ‘To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower,’ as William Blake might have captioned his posts. True, my bowl of noodles has a filter on it, and yes, I’ve upped the saturation on that flowery meadow, but I’m still taking the time to notice them in the first place and think how lucky I am.
Instagram isn’t a substitute for actual happiness (you knew that), but it can be a prompt to find a little bit of niceness in each average or terrible day. Some people write diaries, some paint pictures; I spend four minutes catching a haughty seagull at the perfect angle so I can post it with a caption that says ‘Hey gull,’ and chuckle to myself like a moron.
I’d have noticed each pretty sunset anyway, you could argue, but, en masse, the photos take on a new, powerful purpose – like a cheery press pack for your life. ‘Hey, things aren’t so bad!’ they woop. ‘Look how many great brunches you’ve had this year!’ Hashtags like #100happydays formalise the process, but anyone who has ever paused to capture the beauty of a slightly posh restaurant toilet will understand where I’m coming from.
Maybe it’s mindfulness-lite; a way to live in the moment while also keeping the moment in our pocket to scroll back through later. Or maybe it’s just that the flipside of all that effort we put into convincing other people we have a nice life is that along the way, we convince ourselves a bit too.
Of course, taking stock of every good thing won’t always be enough to remedy all the bad things – the bragging and the vanity and the dents to our self-esteem. But wouldn’t it be a nice twist in the plot if social media wasn’t the bad guy after all?