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Lisa McInerney: Selfies and oversharing – are we all master image manipulators now?

Lady Gaga brushed off an email from Instagram expressing “concern” for her well-being following some recent posts. But it’s not just celebrities who share, overshare, pose, frame and filter – we’re all at it.

Lisa McInerney

LADY GAGA GOT a bit of a land earlier this month when Instagram sent her an email, apparently automated, containing safety information after users flagged her photographs. Gaga had posted some handwritten lyrics from her new album, and some fans clearly took this as indicative of a frail mental state. With lines like “Each day I cry / I feel so low from living high”, you can see how some of Gaga’s monsters were concerned.

Gaga seemed perturbed by Instagram’s preset pep talk, though, and tweeted “What the actual hell? Hahahaha”, which seems a little unfair seeing as the idea that Instagram will send safety information to users who are reported as being at risk is kind of great.

In fairness to Gaga, she was probably feeling a little defensive; it’s not nice when strangers cast aspersions on you when all you were doing was diligently promoting your latest release, as per your contractual obligations. Considering Gaga’s previous record as an advocate of mental health awareness, it seems an odd reaction. Possibly because a celebrity’s social media presence, far from being a window to his or her soul, is a carefully-managed promo reel, and fans getting the wrong idea is… Well. A bit of a PR fail.

Self-expression: what’s deemed acceptable?

Social media has sold us all a platform for self-expression on a scale that we could scarcely have imagined only a few short years ago. It’s given rise to a pervading trend of image management – not just amongst the famous. Through social media, ordinary plebs like moi and toi can now compartmentalise our private life into private-private and public-private. We promote that attractive side of ourselves through carefully-posed selfies, filtered photographs of our dinners (#nom), strategic check-ins at hot spots and witticisms we nicked from George Takei. It scarcely matters if we’re really sitting on a mound of takeaway wrappers in our pyjamas, watching repeats of Top Gear on Dave; no one need ever know. We’re all master image manipulators now.

Celebrities can share their “quirks” with their public by simulating intimacy via social networking. Usually, this manifests in artful selfies and carefully plotted tweets. Just as it is for the rest of us, there’s more than a hint of micromanagement to this faux familiarity, and it’s rare that a celebrity shows us something that contradicts their “public” persona. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to see the string-pulling, which is why Gaga’s fans reported her lyrics; there is a difference between the celebrity’s private life and the image they present to the public, but social media blurs those lines.

In fact, the idea that social media can frame true self-expression is debatable, and we don’t just see that in the carefully managed accounts run by celebrities and their PR teams. Instagram also made headlines this month when it shut down the account of photographer and visual artist Petra Collins. The offending image was a self-portrait in which Collins, unwaxed, posed in a bikini bottom.

Share, overshare, frame, filter and pose

The thin glimpse of a young woman’s pubic hair was deemed to violate Instagram’s terms of use, although the company has little issue with Rihanna’s knickerless arse, as she’s bald as an egg from the neck down. The message seems to be: share, overshare, frame, filter and pose, but do it in a way that the world finds aesthetically pleasing. Rihanna can be provocative via safe, sanctioned sexiness, but a photograph that silently challenges beauty standards? Oh hell no.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, the company has lifted a ban on decapitation videos so long as it’s clear the act is condemned, but photographs of breastfeeding infants where the infant is not “actively engaged in nursing” – read: no nipples, please, we’re squeamish – are deemed to violate its terms of service. Not to pick on the poor lamb, but Rihanna’s arse cheeks and jewel-pastied boobs are, again, a-ok.

Why pubes and nips are morally warping but near-nude glamour shots are not is confounding. It smacks of the kind of loophole hunting one usually associates with teams of Hollywood super-lawyers, treading the fine line between what’s allowed and what’s not allowed to push products at us in the most provocative way possible.

Physical perfection and sexual availability

More and more, the celebrity is the product – not simply their talent, but their body, thoughts and person, all in one. We can’t deny there is massive pressure on stars, particularly female stars, to present physical perfection alongside their art, and selling the idea of sexual availability is yet another complication. “Self-expression”, for many of the biggest stars on social media, involves a lot of booty shots. “#nofilter!” tweeted Kanye the other day, as his missus Kim K does the look-over-shoulder-bum-stuck-out pose in a white swim suit (duck face is for tweens, duck arse is for ladies). The idea is to present an intimate portrait of Kardashian-West home life, but with Ye Olde Sexy Twiste.

I was going to point out we never see Kanye with dat ass out on Twitter, but let’s not tempt fate.

Why no mummy boobs while pop stars post close-ups of their backsides? It’s all self-expression, isn’t it? Well yes, but only one of them is a literal money-maker. The commodification of intimacy shouldn’t surprise anyone, seeing as we’ve found ways to commodify absolutely everything else.

Occasionally, we’re reminded of that gulf between the reality of constructed image and what social media claims to give us, and the Gaga faux-pas is a perfect example. Her fans took this arty, feigned angst not as another prong to the publicity campaign, but as an glimpse into Gaga’s process, thoughts and emotions. Some of them were concerned about her, and Instagram, as it seems to do when it gets enough flags on any particular user, sent her some safety information.

OK, so it might be a little bit funny, Gaga, but it’s so rare that social media gives us something genuinely benevolent. For Yeezus’ sake, let us have this one.

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here >

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Lisa McInerney

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