#mumboss #influencer #blogger… Luciana Bellini investigates the perils of reducing our sense of self to a hashtag…

Ever over-embellished your Instagram bio? Spent that little bit too long crafting a perfectly worded tweet? Chances are, you’re having a hashtag identity crisis.

Our lives have moved online: it’s where we shop, catch up on news, touch base with family and friends, buy tickets and make reservations. And, increasingly, it’s where we define ourselves – whether that’s by the selfies we take, the sharing of snapshots of our lives, or the way we summarise our thoughts in 280 characters or fewer. The boundaries between the real world and the digital world have never been more blurred, and we’re in danger of losing sight of ourselves.

The rise of influencer culture has had a huge impact on the way people present themselves online. And as soon as one social media platform falls out of favour, another one swoops in to take its place. During the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, TikTok cemented itself as the platform du jour, with a generation of stars born in a twelve-week period. ‘Welcome to the influencer industry,’ Sara McCorquodale observes in her book Influence, ‘where speed and smartphone skills can lead to overnight fame – if you play your cards right.’

These are our new celebrities: the people we look up to and, inevitably, compare ourselves to. As McCorquodale says, ‘They own the internet.’ Where the A-listers we aspired to be like were unattainable, now a host of social media starlets are just like us: regular Joes in their bedrooms with nothing more than an internet connection. Choose an artful shot of yourself in a dreamy holiday destination, apply a quick filter and, hey presto, you’re the leading lady in an ideal version of your life. And if this is the version you project to the world, as you sit in front on your laptop in toothpaste-stained pyjamas on a drizzly Wednesday morning, who’s to say which one is real?

But living our lives online has its downfalls. One infamous example is the tale of Clemmie Hooper, aka @motherofdaughters, who rose from being an approachable midwife, sharing advice and birth stories, to a major mumfluencer whose posts were almost entirely adverts and paid partnerships. That all changed when she lost close to 750,000 followers, after it transpired she had used an alias to troll fellow bloggers. Writing as Alice in Wanderlust, she originally intended simply to address nasty threads about her family, but was soon posting negative content herself. ‘It became all-consuming and it grew bigger than I knew how to handle,’ Hooper wrote when the scandal broke. ‘When users started to suspect it was me, I made » the mistake of commenting about others. I regret it all and am deeply sorry.’ Hooper deleted her profiles and the only glimpses into her life were provided by family pictures posted by her husband, who is still very much living out his own hashtag identity as @fatherofdaughters.

As well as defining ourselves through our online identities, a life lived through the web leads to another form of toxic behaviour: the comparison trap. Being bombarded by seemingly perfect images of the lives of influencers, celebrities, friends, family and neighbours leads to an unhealthy habit of measuring your life against others. And when the lives you look at are so carefully curated, your own is bound to come up short.

‘We don’t want to admit that looking at pictures of other people makes us feel bad about ourselves,’ writes journalist and influencer Katherine Ormerod in her book Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life. ‘There’s no doubt that starting to grow an Instagram audience has had a huge impact on the way I see myself and feel about my life.’ Ormerod reveals that many adverse effects of social media use appear to be inherently gendered, explaining that ‘women post the most selfies, share more personal issues, log on more frequently and spend more time on social media overall’. As well as damaging our self-esteem, this can have a negative effect on our mental health: in 2017, a UK survey revealed that more than eighty per cent of women said Instagram and Facebook added pressure to be the perfect mum.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The internet can be a wonderful place of inclusivity and diversity, where all are welcome. Social media gives us a voice that mainstream media simply can’t compete with; people previously marginalised now have a platform to share their experiences. Hashtag activism has also given rise to truly important campaigns, from #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo to #HeForShe, which asked men to show their support for gender equality, and #PassOnPlastic, which encouraged us to take a stand against plastic packaging.

So how can we use social media and our hashtag identities as a force for good? The answers are simple. If you’re not comfortable with the online persona you project, change it. If you put more time and effort into your digital relationships with strangers than those with people close to you, step away from your devices and reassess your priorities. ‘Online and offline life aren’t separate entities,’ writes Emma Gannon in her book Disconnected. ‘How we act online also reflects who we really are.’ Above all, remember you’re in the driving seat. ‘There is no such thing as perfect technology because it is us, fallible humans, who use it,’ notes Ormerod. ‘But we mustn’t forget that we’re also the ones at the controls.’

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