The Importance of Online Storytelling

January 25, 2016
power of online storytelling

If you are reading this blog you probably have some sort of online storytelling platform. Whether it’s your own blog, a Twitter, Instagram or Facebook account… if you are sharing words or images online you are part of our digital storytelling generation.

This was a subject of a breakfast event I attended last week, hosted by Editor in Chief of ELLE magazine, Lorraine Candy, and Instagram COO Marne Levine (swoon). I was absolutely honoured to be invited as one of a buzzing group of women who share their stories on everyone’s favourite photo network, Instagram.

I arrived at 8.30 to a busy room of breakfasting Instagrammers. It’s not often I feel out of my comfort zone (erm, probably because I usually go straight from the school run to working from home and back to the school run again) but I did here, and I skulked around the gorgeous groups of impeccably turned out women trying hard not to give off suburban single mum vibes. Yeah, I’m an idiot. This actually turned out to be the friendliest bunch of people I’d been around for ages!

the power of online storytelling

The morning’s panel was to be on the subject of storytelling women: what our role is on Social Media and how we can pave the way for the success of future generations of females. Lorraine Candy began by outlining ELLE’s efforts to get girls coding; having taught myself HTML at 14 this is something I am totally behind. Marne Levine agreed, going on to discuss how important it is to have women in tech and how we can empower girls by introducing them to this arena from a young age (AMEN!). I love this push to get more women in the tech world: it’s always been a penis-heavy space to work in so the more women the better, I say.

The panel then went on to share their own experiences of Instagram, with Jazz O’Hara of The Worldwide Tribe, an incredibly important campaigner for refugees, Rhyannon Styles who is bravely sharing her amazing trans journey with ELLE readers (this woman radiates warmth and beauty), and Ruth Chapman, co-founder of Matches Fashion. Hearing how these women had harnessed the power of online audiences to communicate their messages was really inspirational.

Then it was on the the audience participation segment, and one of the most important questions was asked by Megan, otherwise known as as BodyPosiPanda, who I’d been chatting to earlier that day Her message is clear: to teach young girls through her experiences that their worth doesn’t relate to their weight (she’s a bloody incredible force of nature), and she wanted to know ELLE and Instagram’s view on photoshopping/body image.

Their answers were very PR-able, if not quite right in my view: Lorraine Candy believes young girls are more savvy than we give them credit for and they know when they’re looking at a photoshopped/FaceTuned image. As a mother of a 13 year old she noted this answer was anecdotal – but as a 30 year old I admit to still feeling negative feelings about myself because of others’ seemingly perfect bodies and lives on Instagram. Maybe I feel this way because I didn’t grow up with the comparisons on Instagram that teens experience today? Food for thought, that’s for sure.

the power of online storytelling

Life curation on digital platforms is something I’m very interested in; so often I feel we’re displayed rose-tinted views on popular Instagrammer’s lives, whether it’s via photoshopping, non-disclosure of a sponsored product or trip, or simply not by sharing the whole truth.  I understand these aspirational accounts exist because the whole point is that they’re aspirational, they give us something to look up and aspire to. Nobody wants to see photographs of my kitchen table caked in porridge or the piles of laundry I’ve yet to hang: aspirational that is not.

Yet by photoshopping, not disclosing free holidays and portraying a lifestyle that is unreachable to most of us, I feel some popular users are influencing young girls in the way the old photoshopped magazine covers used to. The result is teenagers holding themselves up to a picture of perfection that simply isn’t real or achievable.

This was never more apparent than last week at the gym, when I found myself working out next to a popular health and beauty blogger with nearly 300k followers. I clocked her and went on my phone to check is was actually her – she was at the gym in a full face of make-up and yet still looked nothing like the airbrushed images on her Instagram account. I honestly was so shocked at the difference; she was a beautiful girl but not the perfect Disney Princess she portrayed online. Yet clicking over to her Instagram account you’ll see young girls commenting things like “#lifegoals”, “How are you so beautiful?”, “Why am I not you? You’re amazing!!”

I want to take these girls aside and tell them: you’re not her because she doesn’t exist. This person is a made-up version of perfection.

I used to quietly fume about this, tutting under my breath at those who photoshop in abs and cheekbones that don’t exist. I’d feel dismayed at the jetsetting lifestyle, c/o a PR yet no disclosure or explanation. The effect they have on young people striving for this idealism of beauty is just as harmful as airbrushed images in magazines.

But at this event last week I realised: we’re never going to get anywhere with that attitude.

It’s up to us to change perceptions of beauty, to keep it real, to record life accurately, warts and all. To show how wonderful the world is without FaceTune or PhotoShop. The good things in life are nothing without the bad, the highs wouldn’t feel so high without the lows. “To see the rainbow you must first put up with the rain”, and I can promise you that anything I show you online will be real: sun, rain or rainbow.

The realisation of how powerful our online messages made me realise my own motivations. I  have found myself writing quite a lot about Single Parenting, for myself and for The Telegraph, which is obviously something I know a thing or two about. I feel very passionately that as a demographic we aren’t represented well at all; in the media, online…  ‘Single Parent’ brings connotations ladened with bad parenting and life failures. I really want to change this. Not just because of how happy my family unit is, but because I know that, had I had more positive Single Parent role models while my ex-husband and I were thinking about splitting up, I would have made that decision much sooner.

I hate to think of the mothers out there who are considering a similar path to me but who feel trapped by  the ways they think they’ll be seen by society. It doesn’t have to be that way, and I hope I can go some way to help change that school of thought.

Do you think about your own online story?

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  • Reply trevorcapon47 January 25, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Do single mothers still get disparaged?
    Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes and its unacceptable. Maybe the real question should be do you attempt to fix the social attitude (good luck with that!) or empower the woman to have the confidence and make the jump. I have no idea on this, but I do know that as a single parent (OK, father) I would rip the nuts off anybody who thought I was not doing it because I am alone when I have my girls. That said, I am a rubbish mother and I thank my stars the real mum is very much on the scene (we have joint custody based on 6 week rotations to fit around my working offshore). Alice I think you missed a trick because you had enough materiel in there for 2 separate blogs, both of which are worthy causes.

    • Reply alice January 25, 2016 at 5:13 pm

      Ahah – I do have another post in the works, I think it’s important to talk about how single parents are seen in the media. I don’t know why but, rightly or wrongly, single dads are quite often seen as caring, nurturing, supportive and single mums are a bit more desperate and tragic. I bet it’s easier to get a date as a single dad than a single mum ;) Hmmm… maybe this should be a social experiment?!

      • Reply trevorcapon47 January 25, 2016 at 6:04 pm

        Maybe because too many fathers settle for the Wednesday night / every other weekend thing (load of crap, IMHO) and don´t go all in for joint custody. I am a full time parent when I am back in the real world, so the chances of my getting a date / laid / serious relationship are somewhere between FA and never going to happen – my choice. But I tell my girls I love them every day and they are the most important thing in my world. I shaped my life around them ( living abroad in Scandinavia and working offshore) so if being a good parent is just about being there then I hope i make the grade. No idea how the media would view me ( hopefully as nothing special) , and any single parent trying their best gets my respect.
        BTW I am not a monk. Or a saint ;-)

  • Reply Slummy single mummy January 25, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    Wow, I feel really out of touch now as I’ve never even heard of FaceTune! It sounds like something from a sci-fi novel. I totally agree with everything you’ve said, and I don’t believe that the average young girl totally gets that images have been airbrushed and understands it’s not real. Even if you know it in theory, I don’t think it stops you feeling demoralised or bad about yourself.

    • Reply alice January 25, 2016 at 8:37 pm

      I had a go with it once about a year ago on Instagram, someone said “OMG your teeth are so white, how do you get them that way” and I had to delete it. OH THE SHAME.

  • Reply John @dadyougeek January 25, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    Excellent post!! I have even found myself wanting to travel more because of some of the Youtubers I watch until you realise they have probably not paid for many of those trips!

    As a Dad to a 19 year old and 11 year old the point you raised about the ‘Popular Blogger’ in the gym concerns me as I know they see a lot of this on social media and the older one always comparing herself to them….. I often tell her to stop! I am certainly going to ask her to read this!!

  • Reply Sian January 25, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    Love how you tell it like it is Alice. I’m amused by the fakers but would be horrified if my daughters grow up seeing them as role models.

  • Reply Fiona January 25, 2016 at 8:07 pm

    This sounds like it was such an interesting event. Also, loving the use of the term penis’heavy space. I’m not convinced young girls know when things are photoshopped, maybe they would if questioned but I bet it’s not something that naturally pops into their heads when they’re looking at photos of models or celebrities looking perfect.

    • Reply alice January 26, 2016 at 2:08 pm

      I’m not sure they know about photoshopping either x

  • Reply Sophie January 25, 2016 at 11:26 pm

    I often feel like a life failure for being a single parent, and that I have no one whom I identify with- social media is full of (seemingly) perfect families! I’m so glad I stumbled across you on Intagram, I really relate to your writing and it’s making me change the way I feel about myself. Such an important topic, please keep writing about it!

    • Reply alice January 26, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      Hi Sophie,
      What a lovely comment!! When I first became a single parent this is something I really struggled with, too. I have lots of lovely friends who write blogs but sometimes reading about their adventures as a family with two parents was so hard for me, it was the one thing I wanted so much but didn’t have. Writing about my experiences has really helped come to terms with the way I feel about being a single parent family – it’s not bad, just different!! x

  • Reply Jess @ Along Came Cherry January 26, 2016 at 8:24 am

    Really interesting post Alice. I don’t think teens are that switched on to how much photos are edited to look perfect at all, it’s hard for adults to know a lot of the time, let alone teens who are feeling really insecure about their appearance. Magazines play a huge part in it all too. It’s sad and definitely something that needs to change xx

    • Reply alice January 26, 2016 at 2:13 pm

      Exactly! I think mags are getting a bit better as they’re openly taking a stand (and we get shown all their photoshop fails ;) buy I do worry about Instagram that is sold as ‘real life’. It defo does need to change xx

  • Reply Katie @mummydaddyme January 26, 2016 at 9:35 am

    Really interesting post Alice and I would have loved to have gone to that event, sounds really interesting and inspiring. I think in ‘our day’ it was magazines that we were were all hooked on and aspiring to be like the models or celebs featured in those. But it really has become even more prominent with the arrival of social media, and even to an extent reality tv, where ‘normal’ people become people to aspire too. It is a scary time for raising teen girls I think. x

    • Reply alice January 26, 2016 at 2:14 pm

      Yes – reality TV is an excellent point. I think with that and Instagram/blogs we’re sold it as real life too, which adds another dimension that mags sometimes don’t have x

  • Reply Lia : Tangerine Canteen January 26, 2016 at 11:58 am

    It’s not often i’m jealous of blogging events, but I would have bitten my arm off to attend this. I agree with everything you’ve said & having three children myself, i feel like it’s a full-time job teaching (the older two) the difference between reality and what they see online. Great post!

    • Reply alice January 26, 2016 at 2:15 pm

      It was a brilliant event with such interesting conversation! It’s going to be interesting as mine grow up… a huge responsibility to teach them the difference between online and reality. I’ll be coming to you for advice I expect ;) x

  • Reply Kathryn January 27, 2016 at 9:31 am

    I’m with Lia, sounds like a great event and I wish there were more like this taking place. Thanks for reporting back. It does concern me, especially having two daughters but then I realise my son is just as likely to be affected by social media. As bloggers we really need to do all we can to be part of the solution, not the problem and make sure we keep it real. Food for thought as you say! x

  • Reply MrsB @ Mind over Matter January 27, 2016 at 10:45 am

    I have met Lydia at a blogging event as well and she is more beautiful in real life than on Instagram. She has a great smile that she almost never shows on Instagram – it would be great if she did, relaxed and less choreographed photos are a little bit more awesome.

  • Reply Laura February 3, 2016 at 10:59 pm

    This event sounds like it was really interesting and inspiring. I think online story telling is important as it’s our own little way of leaving our mark as well as a visual diary of memories although the social media side of things and kids involved does worry me but I think being aware is very important

    Laura x

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