Instagram, Illness, and the Everyday: How Alec MacDonald’s @alecwithpen Illustrates Life with a 'Bad Brain'

  • Shannon Sandford (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Stories of illness, pain, and disability are pervasive topics of contemporary life writing due, in part, to shifting cultural forces that render stories of the self in extremis a popular commodity. The particular cachet attached to illness and/or disability narratives has recently exploded onto social media, signalling a cultural shift towards marginal or difficult stories over the established trends of posting spontaneous or highly desirable images of the ‘everyday’. This paper interrogates the phenomenon of Instagram webcomics which, through their unique composition of graphic and digital self-display, command large audiences and carve out new practices and performances of illness.

Among a vast collective of amateur or semi-professional artists leveraging their Instagram profiles to inform our conceptions of illness, healthcare, and caregiving, Alec MacDonald’s @alecwithpen is perhaps the most infamous, reporting over 250,000 followers since its creation in 2017. The account archives hundreds of publicly visible, intimate drawings of severe mental illness that are darkly humorous, sarcastic, and facetious, yet testify to isolating, even traumatic, everyday experiences. This paper examines how @alecwithpen capitalises on the networked photo-sharing practices of Instagram in order to present and market graphic, episodic representations of illness. It considers how positioning these webcomics on social media - dominant sites for everyday autobiography - is itself a strategy for making visible otherwise hidden or incommunicable experiences of illness. As webcomics signal the collision or intersection of distinct visual cultures particular to Instagram and graphic narrative, this paper seeks to establish the personal and political stakes attached to this kind of representation, as well as explore how reading practices and communities mobilised by this form enable artists like MacDonald to reclaim or re-write their experiences of illness.
Period16 Jun 2022
Event titleThe 12th International Auto/Biography Association (IABA) World Conference: Life Writing: Imagining the Past, Present and Future
Event typeConference
LocationTurku, FinlandShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational