Fact #1 is I have the skull structure of a god and it is a crime for me to withhold that from the world. Fact #2 is that Instagram Stories is two years old this week. Fact #3 is that men – or straight men, at least – have a complex relationship with selfie-taking, i.e. when I take a selfie I will make 30 attempts, before narrowing that down to four attempts that I quite like, and then I will put those four in my "Favourites" folder and look at them, flicking forward, back, forward, back, microscopic differences in muscle-clench and skin tone, a perfect light beam here, a frond of hair there, before deciding no, actually, all of these attempts are wrong, move to trash, delete from trash, research acidic skincare solutions on healthcare blogs for two hours.
Happy birthday, Instagram Stories! Hip, hip, hip hip hooray!
Here is my nightmare (recurring). I am on the South Bank and the sun is glistening behind me. You know those types of sunset: blue, then yellow, then a perfect navy dusk. I have just cycled here and I am feeling good. A dewy sweat on my dusty face. Golden Hour light dappled around me. I take my phone out, swirl the front-facing camera round, my face filling the screen. "HEY, EVERYBODY!" someone shouts, two hands round their mouth like a trumpet. "LOOK! THIS GUY’S TAKING A SELFIE!" I try to ride away but the crowd is already booing. I try to spiral up the Millennium Bridge but too many of them are closing in on me, shoving and grappling. "How dare you?" one angry face says. "Who do you think you are?" I break free from the bike and into a muscular sprint, but the bodies around me drag us all, in a pile, to the metallic floor. In a perfect morbid moment of silence, bodies wriggling and wrestling around me, a child looks down, lollipop and a cap, disappointed. "The temerity of you, Joel Golby," he says. "How dare you think your face is worthy of documenting here." He leans down to me and his face turns from mild, to a snarl, to a thousand gnashing teeth, to muscles tearing themselves apart, to fire, to flies, to darkness. I wake up in a sweat. The sky is dark and blue.
At parties (I am not invited often to parties), in an attempt to skip like a rock over the glassy lake of smalltalk, I tend to spit out the same three trivia facts, all gleaned from my degree, a mostly-useless three years spent studying linguistics:
1) That, in the 1066 invasion of England, the French brought with them their words for various meats – beef, pork, &c. – because previously, in Olde English, we would just call the meats by their animal name: "What’s for dinner tonight, mate?" "Cow" etc. And yet we think we will thrive without the EU—
2) That the native Greek speakers perceive the colour blue differently to non-Greeks because the way their language labels the two shades of blue, sky blue and navy, puts them as opposite colours as orange and yellow are to us (in Chinese, also, there are two distinct browns), and so language can very literally change the way you perceive colour, even if the hardware perceiving the colour (your eyes) is the same, which is interesting if you think about it, no come back—
3) The reason everyone hates the sound of their own voice is because they are used to hearing it reverberating through the dense bones of their head – same way Beethoven, when he started to go deaf, composed with a pencil clamped between his teeth – whereas when we hear our voices recorded and played back we are hearing those vibrations as they travel through the air, and that difference – subtle, shocking – is what makes transcribing such an absolute living nightmare and why I get the interns to do it—
The point with the third fact (the first two are utterly irrelevant) is I think it’s possible to have that wood-versus-air thing, only with your face. I can look at my face in the mirror and look at it as a pragmatic collection of features – a nose here, a couple of eyes, a brow that needs some shaping, cheeks in need of a shave – but it doesn't look like a face.
Look at myself reflected back in the half-grime of a shop window and it looks more like me. Look back at it in a photo someone else takes and, honestly, my face looks different in every single one. Here is a pretty good (but heavily fucking gendered, sorry!) analogy for the split in knowing how your face looks: every girl I know seems to know exactly their right angles, looks and poses, how to nail a mirror selfie in one shot. Every boy who signs up for Tinder has to upload four photos his ex took of him because they are the only good ones that exist (the fifth photo is a group shot with the boys, which he is the only one ruining). We are selfie averse. We are selfie reluctant. We are selfie agnostic. We cannot look ourselves in the eye.
It does not help that we are still feeling the effects now of Justin Bieber and Jaden Smith’s eyebrows in between the years of 2013 and 2014. That was the year Bieber – newly off-the-rails, still cherubically beautiful before the 2015 yeah-alright-he's-cool high, before the 2017 lads-have-you-heard-of-God low – and Smith – in his would-actually-go-to-the-MTV-Awards days, before he became the perfect crystalline intersection between streetwear and art – started pulling this face in every photo, as if their eyebrows are trying to rise off their face through a hole in the exact centre of their forehead, as if they are trying to impersonate a dog being told off.
If I were being asked on command to cry, this is the exact face I would pull: eyes squinted, eyebrows cartoonishly inverted, sombre expression, no smile. I had to go deep through Jaden Smith's Instagram to find this, but you know what I’m talking about don’t you:
Every man thinks this is the only face you’re legally allowed to pull in a selfie, unless he is an amateur comedian or a Joss Whedon fan, in which case he will arch one eyebrow and look quizzically beyond the lens, adjusting his bowtie appropriately.
Instagram Stories was a nakedly transparent attempt to grab some of the Snapchat audience, and we should be collectively ashamed of ourselves that it completely worked. In 2016, Instagram was growing stale, as everyone curated and lifestyle-blogged their timelines to a grinding halt. There was no spontaneity in Instagram anymore, and dwell-time on the app dwindled.
Then Stories launched, completely lifted from Snapchat’s primary feature, everyone figured out it was a very good way of flirting, and suddenly Instagram cleaved into two half apps: on one side, pristine photos of coffee in bed, and holiday swimming pools, and well-composed shots of yourself in front of a sunset; on the other, a rolling boil of drunken nights out, panting bicycle commutes, impromptu selfies, clinking pints. Instagram suddenly had two personalities – composed and professional stills (the angel) and chaotically impromptu video (the devil) – and in that liminal space, at least, men learned to take a picture of their face.
Back to the nightmare: there is something about the permanence of a deliberately-taken selfie that stirs some weird itch inside the broken male mind. How many men do you know who have ruined a nice group shot by pulling a stupid face or doing some sort of gesture? How many men do you know who actually know how to smile in a way that’s flattering to them (a friend of mine once said to me, in a way that was at once sweet and chilling, "You need to stop showing your teeth in photos," and fair play because she was right)?
We don’t know how to behave in front of a camera. There have been thousands of pop-psychology attempts to explain why "young women taking selfies" seems to infuriate men so much – it perennially feels like Piers Morgan is telling Kim Kardashian to "put it away" – but surely some small part of it must be jealousy. "Ah, you look good and feel comfortable in front of a camera," the rotten male mind reasons. "I want to take that away." At least with Stories, though, the photo is gone in 24 straight hours. Even the most vanity-averse person has untagged an unflattering photo of themselves on Facebook. On Stories, even if you're a bit red or a bit blemished or there’s an unflattering angle of your chin, it’s gone in a day. And then you are free.
That is it, I suppose: freedom. Instagram Stories has made us a bit freer and easier with the selfie. It’s just a picture of your face, mate. It certainly has for me: over the World Cup, admittedly quite frequently pissed, I’d celebrate each England win by spiralling into the front-facing camera, slick with my own sweat and thrown beer, grabbing friends into a clenched hug, all of us shouting the lyrics to World In Motion, or just saying "wahey". This wouldn’t have happened so much before Stories, when the idea of interrupting a lads' night at the pub by everyone smiling and leaning into camera would be met with a similar response to if I’d said, "Hey boys – shall we murder a dog tonight?" But everyone’s more comfortable with it now.
Every time I take a real, permanent selfie, I still fundamentally feel like a prick (the bridge, the lollipop boy, the temerity) but Stories creaks open a space to stare at a camera and be playful, ironic if you want to, fleeting, temporary. I don’t mind turning the phone on myself if I’m enjoying a nice day at the park now, or if I’m just sat at home feeling myself (my hair only seems to peak during the hours of 8PM and 9PM, which is very frustrating as that is often the time I am seen by nobody but my flatmate, and putting it on Stories seems the most right thing to do). The DM feature is revelatory, too: respond to a friend’s text or message with the most unflattering, chin-forward deep-gurn selfie you can, or ping up a photo of yourself on Stories and watch DM slides roll in.
Faces are weird, and uncomfortable, and you have to live with yours forever, and we should probably have a better relationship with them – and though I'm not saying it’s going to change the world, opening up Instagram Stories, turning the camera around and pressing click on a picture of yourself can go some small way to doing that. The sky is blue, then yellow, then a perfect navy dusk. Open your phone. "HEY, EVERYBODY!" the man shouts. Only, no: not this time. "AH, FALSE ALARM," he says, to the looming crowd. "IT’S JUST INSTAGRAM STORIES, MATE. WHO CARES." You wake up and the morning sun peeks through your curtains.