There are three rules you will hear upon entering the Selfie Factory in Westfield, Shepherd's Bush. Number one: do not touch the donuts on the donut wall. Number two: take off your shoes in the ball pit. Number three: don't ride the pink elephant.
Launched on the 1st of August, the Selfie Factory is a pop-up in one of London's most popular shopping centres. Just past Footasylum and opposite Desigual, the "factory" offers the opportunity to take hundreds of eye-catching Instagram pictures in one convenient location. For £9.99 for an hour slot, or £19.99 for a whole day, you can pose in a series of brightly-coloured sets designed to rake in those precious likes.
"I should say – the elephant isn't real," laughs the member of staff who takes my ticket on a rainy August evening, explaining that earlier in the day she accidentally misled customers when announcing rule three. Yet, by design, nothing about the selfie factory is "real" – there's a fake classroom, a fake bedroom, and you can pose with fake plastic ice creams on the diner-themed set.
None of this, of course, is unusual. Thanks to years of "Instagram vs. reality" memes, exposés of influencers and finsta accounts, we all know Instagram is dripping with artifice. No one who posts a picture from the Selfie Factory is really pretending that they stumbled upon an idyllic bench swing entwined with flowers, just as most people who post pictures from Madame Tussauds aren't pretending that they met Eddie Redmayne, Queen Elizabeth and Shrek in the same darkened room. The whole point is that it's fake.
Upon entering the selfie space, I notice dozens of pink balls scattered all across the floor. An employee dutifully sweeps up a pile of confetti that is stuck in a groundhog day of being picked up, thrown and swept again.
A woman in a bright pink top, a pleated pink skirt, pigtails and fishnets seems prepared with all manner of poses. Around the corner there are rows of wooden changing rooms – Megan and Lucy, both 16, tell me they have been here for a total of three hours, and brought two outfits each.
"I usually get 180 Instagram likes, so 200 would be nice," says Lucy. "It's different," they both say, about what makes the space so cool. They've done their make-up and worn fake eyelashes especially. "We bought an all-day ticket, so we came, had lunch, did a bit of shopping and then came back."
The Selfie Factory is nothing new – in fact, it's arguably late to the game. In 2017, the Museum of Ice Cream popped up in New York, allowing visitors to pose inside sprinkle pools, around candy floss clouds and on pink carousels. Yet the "museum" also offered people a chance to taste ice cream – back then, perhaps, we had to pretend that pictures weren't enough.
There's no pretence on the Selfie Factory website. "What exactly is it?" asks the first Q in the FAQs. The space is described as a "photographer's heaven", a "funhouse" and a place "you can exit knowing you have an arsenal of the most incredible photos to upload over the following weeks".
It's this self-avowed, shameless honesty that means the Selfie Factory doesn't really stand up to hand-wringing scrutiny that we live in the End Of Days.
There are things that seem grim about the Selfie Factory, sure – namely, that someone has left a glittery pink lipstick mark on the giant teddy bear, and there are endless shed hairs in the bath. It is also undeniably bizarre to see the words "PLEASE BE SENSIBLE" written underneath a hazard symbol next to the ball pit, and read that "its purpose is to enable amazing photos" and "unfortunately not to be used as a playground". But mostly, the selfie factory isn't a dystopian nightmare – it's a place where teenage girls are having fun.
"I just thought it sounded really cool," says Effie, 17, who is visiting with her friend Sabina. "I didn't really know what to expect, or anything. I've seen it on Instagram, but it's much cooler in real life." They're aiming, the pair say, for "more than zero" Instagram likes. They didn't plan their outfits or do their make-up especially, and seem to genuinely enjoy the sets – getting in and out of the bath and having a pillow fight on the bed.
Of course, they're taking plenty of pictures too, but why exactly do we still have the impulse to decry young women's vanity? There’s no point pretending that spaces designed for selfies aren't strange, but it's a stretch to automatically assume they're bad. To me, the Selfie Factory is a bizarre sign of the times that will entertain kids in future history classes – "Miss, what do you mean 18th century women wore skirts that were five feet wide? What do you mean 21st century women posed next to row after row of plastic donuts that they weren't allowed to touch?"
That's not to say the Selfie Factory is above criticism – it would be remiss not to mention that one room is a bright blue cubby filled with headless black mannequins in Hawaiian leis, a disgraceful failure of both imagination and decency. Yet Will Bower, the 26-year-old creator and managing director of the Selfie Factory, argues that his creation is a place for "genuine wholesome fun".
"Stripping it back, the experience really is just a modern version of one of those 'peep boards' you get at Brighton pier, where you stick your face through and pretend to get married or become a lifeguard for the three seconds before the flash hits," Bower says via email. He says he used to be "hugely sensitive" to criticism, but now brushes it off. "Generally, the older generation are the ones writing taunting Facebook comments on our page in caps lock, and 99 percent of the time they will have a selfie as their profile photo too."
There are older fans at the selfie factory when I visit. A family of four delightedly make their way around the sets – mum and dad pose for pictures while their two kids break the rules and use the ball pit as a play space. Caroline, a 35-year-old who has come alone, declares: "I am a selfie queen."
Caroline says she doesn't really care about getting likes on social media, but simply enjoys the experience of taking selfies. "Every opportunity is a selfie opportunity," she says. Because she's on her own, a staff member walks around with her and takes her picture in different sets. She is well-equipped with a rota of perfect poses – kneeling on the school desk, lying on the swing bench.
"It's a confidence thing. Not everyone likes to have their photo taken," says Caroline, who is herself a photographer. "I'm obsessed with my photos, so I don't care if I'm alone." She plans to upload one picture of herself in front of each background over the next few weeks. "It's just fun."
And the thing is: it is. It's a little low budget, and more than a bit bizarre. I had an existential crisis in the ball pit that I'd rather not talk about. But it's impossible to deny that the Selfie Factory is fun, and fruitless to try to fight against its existence. This is our new reality, and it's deliberately fake.