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‘Fung-influencers’

Amanita sp. Photography by Sherrie Vogelmann
‘Fung-influencers’
The next generation of enthusiasts and amateurs are finding each other online
Sukayna Powell

Spores are spreading on social media, and the mycelium encounters the algorithm. Mushrooms are cropping up more and more regularly on the Instagram accounts of otherwise unrelated people and personalities. From the regular fungi-related memes and foraging videos on musician Nile Marr’s stories, to artist Miranda July’s brief foray into (performatively) requesting an identification for what was almost certainly a dried morel, what was once a fairly niche obsession of the mycologically-minded is spreading out into the hazy online world of impossibly perfect holiday pictures, activist slideshows, and possum videos.

This spike in mushroom related activity has only been boosted by the food anxiety, outdoor explorations, and general reflective slowdown of the global lockdowns necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. More people are excitedly posting and sharing images of their finds, memes, stories about mushrooms, lists for herbal mutual aid packages, or recipes for chaga lattes, than ever. And with all of us spending so much time scrolling, the fungi fever is spreading fast.

One person whose newfound interest in all things fungi I’ve watched grow over the past year or so was Los Angeles-based comedian and actress Paige Elkington (@ myfriendpaige). According to her “It was synergistic. Mushrooms kept popping up. A friend would send a Paul Staments Ted Talk. I’d watch a documentary. I’d come across an article about the anti-viral properties of mushrooms. All things were pointing to fungi.” As soon as Paige started posting about mushrooms “I realized many of my followers were equally interested. A lot of people started sending me great mushroom related accounts to follow. I made new virtual mycology friends and I had a good deal of friends wanting to come forage with me.”

“THE EASY FOLLOW, SHARE, AND RESHARE FUNCTIONS BUILT INTO SOCIAL MEDIA MEAN THAT MUSHROOMS CAN SPREAD ‘UNDERGROUND’ THROUGH THE PLATFORM’S ALGORITHMS.”

Orange-peel Fungus, Aleuria aurantia. Photography by Sherrie Vogelmann.
Orange-peel Fungus, Aleuria aurantia. Photography by Sherrie Vogelmann.

The boom has been both fuelled by and fuelled dozens of mushroom-focused accounts. There’s @mycophoria with around thirty-nine thousand followers; and @breakfast_of_champignonz, a selfstyled ‘mycoeducator’; or @theartofmushrooms, a research space on Instagram, run by Francesca Gavin, the curator of a phenomenally popular mushroom focused exhibition at London’s Somerset House. Sherrie Vogelmann (@shroom_momma), a forager and nature lover from the Michigan Peninsula, posts photographs that shows off the vibrance and variety of her mushroom filled world, and brings freshness to nature photography – a genre often woefully uninspired and stale. Her forty-five thousand followers agree, and I frequently see re-shared images from her account crop up in the posts of people who are otherwise quite outside the ‘shroomiverse’.

Crow-tipped Coral, Artomyces pyxidatus. Photography by Sherrie Vogelmann

Sherrie has been foraging on her one-hundred and twenty acre property for around seven years, and started posting her photographs on Instagram in 2018 in the hopes of reaching out to a community more like-minded than her personal friends on Facebook. In this she has definitely succeeded. Although she sometimes gets a flack for people who believe foraging – especially for art – is harmful, Sherrie has ultimately been delighted by the community she has built through taking and sharing beautiful pictures: “The Instagram mushroom community is fantastic! I am so thankful for all of the friendships and connections…and I have learned so much.”

The easy follow, share, and reshare functions built into social media mean that mushrooms can spread ‘underground’ through the platform’s algorithms, cropping up expectedly or unexpectedly just like the real fruiting bodies. Dedicated accounts are like reliable foraging spots, unexpected connections are like the moment you realise you’re not looking at a small group of caps but rather at one massive fairy ring. This has had some excellent consequences – not least greater awareness of the historically overlooked potential of the fungal kingdom.

Paige, who has around one hundred and twenty six thousand followers, sees herself at the very beginning of her mushroom journey, but through sharing it she hopes more people “begin to see how special mushrooms are. They can be medicine and food. They’re being researched for cleaning up oil spills and breaking down environmental pollutants. They’re vitally important in supporting all plant and animal life. The list really goes on and on. It’s cool to see mushrooms start to get the attention they deserve.”

There are some downsides to the social media mushroom boom, however. While I have seen mushrooms and mushroom based herbal remedies lauded by the mutual aid networks doing incredible work supporting protestors during wildfires, and anti-racist uprisings, I have also seen them promoted by covid-consipiracy theorists who claim some combination of irish sea moss and cordycpes can successfully boost your immune system enough to render a global pandemic irrelevant. The echo-chamber effect, much commented on these days, is also present in the mushroom world, with wild claims and unsafe advice (for instance about extracting hallucinogens from Fly Agarics) reaching thousands of people, unchecked.

“MANY PEOPLE, ON FINDING A MUSHROOM, WILL POST A PICTURE ASKING ‘WHAT IS THIS?’ THE QUALITY OF RESPONSE IS VARIED”

Green elfcup, Chlorociboria sp. Photography by Sherrie Vogelmann.
Green elfcup, Chlorociboria sp. Photography by Sherrie Vogelmann.

There’s also the problem of crowdsourced identifications. Many people, on finding a mushroom, will post a picture of it asking ‘what’s this’? The quality of the response they get depends on so many variables (light, camera quality, follower expertise) that it’s certainly not a safe practice for those planning on consuming the fungus. Sherrie, who is often asked to help out with IDs, is careful to point out that she’s an enthusiast, not an expert, and will refer people to a second opinion if possible.

The British Mycological Society has a moderated Facebook page of committed amateurs from whom IDs can be crowdsourced (provided the photograph is good enough), but as they’re against foraging for food they won’t comment on the edibility or otherwise of any particular specimen. No matter how vibrant and welcoming the online myco-community is, it’s got its risks. The safest way to actually forge is still to learn locally, in person, from experts. We have not, after all, developed social media for smell, touch, or spore-prints.

Having an enthusiasm for all things mushroom is, among other things, an odd pass into a strange hyper-specific intimacy. Both Paige and Sherrie have made connections they would not otherwise have found through a mutual interest in mushrooms. Paige in her short time in the mushroom world, has found its inhabitants to be “solid, curious, hopeful people.” Sherrie, who consistently resists pressure to significantly monetise her following, enjoys collaborating with other accounts and trading content more than selling her own stickers – she finds trade and barter build community in a more sustainable way than commercialising anything. Ultimately it opens up more avenues for learning and sharing, which is where the value seems to lie for most of the mushroom-orbiting people I’ve spoken to.

Personally, I have never felt comfortable messaging relative strangers out of the blue but, for instance, when an artist whom I had met but didn’t know particularly well, shared the progress of a home-growing kit, it felt completely natural to reach out and ask what variety it was inoculated with, and how it was going. We had a nice chat. I’ve lost count of how many such little points of connection I have made through mushrooms, and since I started writing about fungi in culture professionally people have begun reaching out to me in the same confiding, excited, comradely tone. Perhaps unsurprisingly given what we are starting to learn about their central role in ecosystems of all kinds, fungi are an excellent conduit for connection.

“MANY PEOPLE, ON FINDING A MUSHROOM, WILL POST A PICTURE ASKING ‘WHAT IS THIS?’ THE QUALITY OF RESPONSE IS VARIED”

Violet-toothed polypore, Trichaptum biforme. Photography by Sherrie Vogelmann
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Issue 01