The other day, I was having a little trawl around the internet – one of those supposed five-minute jaunts where you blink and it’s been an hour – when I happened upon the Instagram account of an acquaintance of mine, a nice guy who works in publishing. I’ll follow him, I thought.
But then I had a look at some of his pictures and came upon one of his recent shots – a self-taken close-up of his naked torso. To be frank, although he’s a good-looking guy, it was more than I bargained for on a Monday (although I’ll admit to examining the picture closely, the better to confirm my disapproval) and not what I’d expected from him – he’s not a model after all. But if it seemed vain or bizarre of him to put it up there, it had certainly racked up a lot of likes, the currency for popularity on the social media site.
He’s far from the only person at this lark. In the brief time I’ve been active on Instagram, I’ve come across countless selfies – the word for a self-taken picture – of users in the changing rooms of shops, pub toilets and swanky hotel bathrooms, anywhere there’s a large mirror basically. Some post fairly racy pictures, some confine themselves to face selfies.
Confession time: although I’m definitely not into randomly ripping off items of clothing for the dubious benefit of a few hundred Instagram followers, I post face selfies, too – and they’re actually fun: a visual diary of a hairstyle, a holiday, a festival or simply a gloriously vain experiment in finding an Instagram filter that hides all wrinkles and highlights your best side. So, I’m not exactly in a position to play moral guardian about the whole thing. I couldn’t care less what anyone wants to post, egocentric or otherwise.
But you have to admit it’s a strange phenomenon, this trick whereby many of your circle are pointing phones at mirrors in public, and touching up their make-up to take a picture of themselves. The question is whether the new trend for narcissism is an innocuous enough past-time. Presumably, unless you trip over yourself while taking the selfie, it’s unlikely to do you much harm, right? And what’s so wrong with having a nice (if overly flattering) picture of yourself? If celebrities are allowed their photoshopping, then surely we mere mortals can permit ourselves the indulgence of an iPhone camera and a decent filter? That hideous American trend for selfies at funerals aside, a selfie doesn’t seem like the worst of hobbies we could indulge in.
Equally, an Instagram account is also an opportunity. Whether you’re a professional mid-career or a teenager just figuring your life out, Instagram offers a brand-building platform for its users. Forty million pictures are uploaded to Instagram daily, and – as studies have shown – the more provocative the picture, and the smarter the hashtags accompanying it, the more likely it is that the person will get more followers and build their brand. It’s a kind of self-generating fame that will be pointless for some, but may translate into a career for others: budding photographers, models, stylists, television presenters and journalists may all grow fanbases from their obsessions with Instagram and Twitter.
Still, you can’t help but feel a slight prickling of discomfort about the whole thing – a sense that selfie culture may also be selfish culture; that we all might, like Narcissus, wind up dying next to the pool having realised that our reflections can never return our love. Perhaps our spiralling interest in ourselves is already translating into a lack of interest in other people.
A friend of mine was talking about social media recently. “No one reads Twitter anymore,” he pointed out. “They all just post stuff, but they don’t read other people’s tweets.” Imagine that, a world where we endlessly talk and never listen? If everyone is on the stage, after all, who’s left to be in the audience?