Presence as perceived realism: Two cautionary examples

[Two recent examples vividly illustrate the increasing use of technology to manipulate our perceptions of reality. Business Insider introduces the first example this way:

“’Question everything’ is the Instagram influencer and blogger Carolyn Stritch’s latest message to her followers. And to encourage people to do just that, she conducted an experiment to show people just how easy it is to fake ‘perfection’ on the photo-sharing platform.

Stritch, who is from the UK, is the 32-year-old lifestyle blogger and freelance photographer behind The Slow Traveler. She has amassed 190,000 followers on her Instagram account @theslowtraveler through sharing perfectly poised photos of cosy-looking settings involving copious cups of coffee and stacks of books […].

But as we should all know by now, not everything is as it seems on Instagram.

In a post titled ‘Why I hacked my own Instagram account,’ Stritch reveals how she fooled people into believing she had taken a trip to Disneyland.”

The thoughtful blog post is below; both the Business Insider story and blog post include more images. See also the second half of coverage in Inc.

The second example concerns the shameful, immoral and dangerous creation and distribution of altered and created photos, gifs, videos, social media posts and ‘news’ stories that make false claims designed to discredit the students of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and their efforts to prevent future mass shootings and other gun deaths. Media Matters has documented many of these ‘hoaxes’ in a link-filled blog post, and the journalism analysis website Poynter has a detailed story on the topic.

The rapid evolution and wide availability of media technologies and the negative aspects of human nature suggest that we’ll need to be increasingly vigilant to counter attempts to use presence as realism to manipulate us.


Why I hacked my own Instagram account

March 13, 2018

To be clear: all images I posted prior to this project are really me, really in those places.

I download FaceApp, £1.99! I take a selfie: bed hair, no makeup. I tap “Impression” and my face changes quickly and dramatically: fine lines flatten, wrinkles smooth out, blemishes unblemish, dark circles disappear, cheekbones rise, eyes brighten, lips get bigger, nose gets smaller.

My face is gone.

Staring back at me, wearing my clothes, sitting in my bed, is a stranger. Or, perhaps more accurately: it’s my perfect self.

I feel horrified by how much my face changes. Does FaceApp modify other people’s faces this much?! I must be less attractive than most.

When I swipe back to the real image, the flaws seem far more prominent than when I first took the the selfie.

I quickly swipe back to the edited image. The longer I look at this new, perfect me, the more I wonder what it would be like if I really looked like that.

I uploaded the selfie as a profile picture on Facebook as a sort of experiment and nobody questioned it. Not my best friend, my sisters, or even my own mam!


I’m finishing up the second year of a degree in photography. The degree teaches that above all else we should question everything, especially our own work.

I decided to bring that idea home and question the work I do on Instagram.

I came up with a story: my FaceApped perfect self, who’s ten years younger than I am, flies off to Disneyland for the day, and somehow manages to photograph herself all alone in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

I manipulated images, captioned them with a fictional narrative, and presented them as real-life.

I hacked my own Instagram account.


The big influence on this project was a book by Will Storr called Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing To Us. The book covers a lot of ground. But here’s a succinct summary:

“We live in the age of the individual. We are supposed to be slim, prosperous, happy, extroverted and popular. This is our culture’s image of the perfect self. We see this person everywhere: in advertising, in the press, all over social media. We’re told that to be this person you just have to follow your dreams, that our potential is limitless, that we are the source of our own success.

But this model of the perfect self can be extremely dangerous. People are suffering under the torture of this impossible fantasy. Unprecedented social pressure is leading to increases in depression and suicide. Where does this ideal come from? Why is it so powerful? Is there any way to break its spell?”

Storr’s book got me thinking about the role I play in all of this. I wanted to respond to his questions.

For me, Instagram is a positive experience. But I know that’s not the case for a lot of people. Instagram is apparently full of these ‘slim, prosperous, happy, extroverted and popular’ – a bit like my perfect self.

I wanted my fictional narrative to challenge the way I portray myself online and the effects of this portrayal.

I don’t usually FaceApp my face or pretend I’ve been places I haven’t. But I never read by the window – those windows, beautiful as they are, make my flat freezing cold. Sometimes that coffee cup I’m holding is empty. I suck in my stomach. I rearrange the furniture. I photoshop out dirty marks made by bashing furniture off the walls.

Is it bad to do those things? I don’t know.

What I do know is this: I take those pictures because they’re the kind of pictures I like to look at.

Instagram is really good at escapism, the aspirational, the inspirational. So I try to get those things into pictures I post.

Nobody wants to see me in my pyjamas, with my explosive morning hair, hunched over my laptop on the sofa. That’s how I spend most of my days. You want to see my books, my windows, my travel photography, same as I want to see the best bits of your daily lives.

But there’s a line.

In this project, I crossed that line, went way, way over it so I could work backwards and figure out how far I can reasonably go and still make work that’s both responsible and good. And I need your help.

I believe in Instagram as a tool for good. It might sound daft to some people, but it changed my life. Instagram has given me opportunities I never dreamed of.

Let’s stick together, help each other out, and make Instagram even better.


Here’s where you come in: my research for this project is ongoing. I want to know what your thoughts are on the project and the questions it asks. It would mean the world to me if you left a comment here or sent me a message on Instagram.

I set up a Just Giving page as part of this project. If you can, please donate directly to my chosen charity, Young Minds, which specialises in mental health work with young people. Thank you.

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