The End Of A Decade In Which The Way We See Ourselves Changed Forever

Photographed by Anna Jay
“Have you heard of Facebook?” Lucy asked me in 2005. “Everyone in my brother’s year has it.”
By 2006, I had caved and signed up. 
When I was at university I would wake up, roll over in my uncomfortable single bed, reach for my pink Motorola Razr and check my texts. Then, I would stagger three steps to my desk and log into Facebook because this, and not MySpace, was now where everyone was - dumping blow by blow photo diaries of their mates on nights out, updating the world with every thought that flew into their brains via status update and tagging themselves in all sorts of places from Sainsbury’s (trying to be funny) to the GP’s surgery (looking for sympathy) and flirting in the comments. 
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Rarely did anyone post about politics. I could message my best friend who was back in London, check in with my not-boyfriend who was miles away working a 9-5 that he hated to see if he had a new profile picture, see what people from Sixth Form were doing in far flung corners of Britain and scroll through the lives of people I’d met on holiday or at festivals years ago who had recently appeared in my friend requests. 
For all the social network’s now well-documented forms, in the early days Facebook connected us - with people across the hall, across the country and across the world. It was less a network and more a community, opened up beyond the physical boundaries of what had previously been possible. 
I graduated in the summer of 2010. The weeks that followed my gruelling end of degree exams are chronicled on Facebook. There are albums and albums full of faces whose smiles bely the sheer terror of having absolutely no idea what is going to happen next. The images are far from perfect. They’re unedited, badly angled and badly lit. But, there we are, in all our messy, imperfect and often drunk glory. It was real life, captured as it was lived and barely edited. 

In October 2010 something new came along. Instagram was launched and, with it, came the illusion of the better self. The notion that you could project the perfection of a person living their best life to the world.

And, then, in October 2010 something new came along. Instagram was launched and, with it, came the illusion of the better self; the notion that you could project the perfection of a person living their best life to the world. The platform didn’t allow you to upload as much as Facebook ever had and, slowly, we all started to curate our lives and ourselves more. Where once we had posted pictures of each other on nights out, we now started getting people to take pictures of us, posing in good light before applying a filter so that we could fill our feeds with pictures with better-than-average images of ourselves. 
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As Dr Bernie Hogan, a senior fellow and researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute puts it, Instagram brought the different facets of online existence together. It came at a time, he says, “when we had two things that weren’t well put together.”
“There were photo-editing apps and social sharing apps,” but nothing that brought the two together. “At that time Facebook mobile wasn’t very good at all and Twitter didn’t have a way to share photos meaningfully” so “Instagram came right up in the middle between having photos and enabling sharing.”
It worked. The selfie became a powerful vehicle for communicating with the world (to the extent that we have even seen it utilised and, perhaps, even weaponised by both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn in the recent election). And, instead of buying glossy magazines, we now looked to influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers. We lay in bed, in our rented flats scrolling through pictures of their beautiful homes. We suspended our disbelief and imagined that, one day, we might have one like it too. 
We followed people with unattainable lifestyles and tried to emulate them, fuelling the influencer industry as we continued to buy into the idea we’d been brought up on that anything was possible, even though everything around us in real life said otherwise. Everything was staged, nothing was authentic. We knew this but we didn’t really care. 
Instagram at once facilitated the continuing rise of consumer culture and put the life and social interactions of the individual at the centre of everything. As a result, we were repeatedly dismissed as a generation of solipsistic narcissists by the demographics who had benefited from all the things we were going without: free education, relatively affordable housing and jobs for life. 
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In the years that followed Instagram’s launch, our parents and grandparents joined Facebook. So did political parties looking to influence how they might vote. 

We followed people with unattainable lifestyles and tried to emulate them, continuing to buy into the idea we’d been brought up on that anything was possible, even though everything around us in real life said otherwise.

But, while the world around us started to unravel - economies crashed, house prices soared, wages stagnated, tuition fees went up and the jobs New Labour told us would come out of our degrees suddenly seemed in short supply - we continued to post. pictures of ourselves and commented with heart eye emojis when others did the same. 
In many ways, Instagram felt like a refuge from the storm. After all, the myth of the social media star is underpinned by relatability - they are everyman and everywoman and the idea is that anyone, regardless of their background, can achieve extreme levels of fame and wealth simply by being themselves. This was all that was left of the “you can do whatever you want to do and be whatever you want to be,” social mobility story we’d been brought up on because our generation - millennials - were the worst hit by the decline in living standards. We were less likely to “do better” better than our parents than the generations that came before us. 
The worse things got, the more we craved social media. It’s ironic, perhaps, that we found comfort in the individualism of Instagram at a time when three decades of neoliberalism had raised it up, causing all of the very real social and economic problems we're suffering because of. 
Far from being separate to real life, social media became a huge part of real life, an extension of it, even. Today, we see ourselves through the eyes of others. We think about how our actions - what we do and where we go - will translate into a post or a story. We are constantly on the outside, looking in on our own lives. 
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Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised. What we have lived through is merely a digital version of what T.S.Eliot observed happening to identity at the turn of the century in The Love Song Of J.Alfred Prufrock
“And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,”
We don’t yet really know how or if the Internet, specifically Instagram, is changing the way we think. How could we? We’ve only had Instagram for a decade, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Bebo, Tumblr et al for a fraction longer. 

We see ourselves through the eyes of others. We think about how our actions - what we do and where we go - will translate into a post or a story. We are constantly on the outside, looking in on our own lives. 

But, everything points to the fact that there’s hope for us yet. I see more and more people posting political content and that can only be good. Perhaps that’s why researchers tend to rebuke the idea that is is necessarily making us more selfish. Yes, social networking is individual-based, it demands that we put ourselves at the centre of everything but, at the same time, studies say it reinforces traditional groups. Of course, this is both good - the groundswell of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism - and bad - the rise of the far right in private Facebook groups
If the scaremongering headlines were to be believed, Instagram had warped our sense of reality and turned us all into individualistic idiots. But, in a world that, as the decade wore on, felt increasingly fractured and difficult to get a grip on, it made us feel connected to each other. Far from isolating us, it has actually given us something to cling to - something bigger than ourselves - however inchoate that might be. 
The Greek hunter Narcissus saw his reflection in a pool of water, fell in love with it and drowned. Perhaps, like him, we are drowning. But, if, as individuals and as a society, we don’t like the reflection of our world that we see online it’s up to us to change it.
Indeed, the number of younger people voting for a progressive socialist agenda and using Instagram to talk talking about climate change or open up about their personal debt suggests that we already are. 
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