The Toxic Side of Influencer Culture

Let me ask you a question: What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning, and right before you go to sleep?

For many of us, the answer to that question is that we check our phones, specifically our social media accounts. Speaking for myself, I really cherish that ten minutes right after my morning alarm goes off where I just lay in bed and scroll through Twitter or Instagram to help me emotionally prepare myself for the day. Social media is a constantly changing industry and human concept that has crept into pretty much every corner of the Earth within the past ~20 years that it’s been around. It changes lives, and oftentimes for the better— entire careers, political movements, and new technologies have been created because of it! But as great as instant digital communication can be for the world, there are plenty of negative effects associated with it, as well. There are rapidly increasing rates of mental illnesses among young people in developed nations, and many studies have suggested that a lot of these stats point to the influence of social media. The fact of the matter is that social media can mean more than just a useful communication tool; it’s rapidly becoming, to many, a value system for measuring a person’s worth. Nothing manifests that notion quite like “influencer culture”.

Photo courtesy of Prateek Katyal via Unsplash

What is an “Influencer” and Why Are They Trying to Sell Me Fit Tea?

In marketing terms, the Oxford definition of an influencer is “a person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the items on social media”. Colloquially, it simply means a popular person on social media who has a certain amount of followers that makes them more important than any “regular” social media account. Usually, these accounts have a specific aesthetic or mission statement to appeal to a certain demographic: fashion, fitness, health, cosmetics, and art are just a few examples. These accounts can be incredibly helpful by filling a user’s social media feed with like-minded people and posts which inspire their own creative pursuits. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, keep that Oxford definition in mind. In the current socioeconomic system on which the world currently operates, it’s important to acknowledge that these influencers, particularly the ones with larger followings, aren’t going to continue posting without some kind of financial gain. This encourages companies to connect with them and sponsor online posts of influencers selling a product.

So… what exactly is the problem here?

Well, if the influencers’ primary goal is to get you, the influencee, to purchase the sponsored product, they’re going to have to keep you engaged somehow.

It’s easy to distinguish between a company selling a product on Twitter and Instagram versus an actual human being telling his or her followers to buy a product because they “just LOVE it. Use ‘code (insert name here)’ for 20 percent off your next purchase!” Influencers do pretty much everything in their power to maintain a pseudo-personal relationship with their followers. Influencers such as the Jacob Sartorius-type will cater to young girls often starved of male attention by making posts that seem as though they are immediately directed at the reader, referring to the reader as his girlfriend, etc. These influencers tap into an emotional vulnerability within their followers and manipulate them into buying whatever they’re selling, which can range from sponsored products to their own merchandise. There’s nothing wrong with influencers connecting with their followers, or making funny online posts using the same language as your best friend, or creating cute pet names for their fandoms. But when one of those funny posts is immediately followed by an influencer telling their followers how much they use a certain product and how their followers just have to buy it, one has to admit it feels a bit… slimy. 

 

 

Selling the “Fantasy”

With each passing year that social media takes the world by storm, photo-editing apps have evolved alongside the many platforms. Putting filters on photos is nothing new and dates back long before online social media became what it is today, but it’s safe to say that the nature of these editing tools has been twisted into something quite toxic— especially for young, impressionable kids and teens who are just coming into themselves. Scroll through the posts on this subReddit, which points out terrible photoshop jobs on Instagram, and you’ll realize what I’m talking about.

As the social media platform gained traction, referring to a specific body type as an “Instagram body” became popularized. Not only does this delegitimize other body types on the platform, but it attempts to prescribe the notion that there is only one body type that can be considered “perfect”. I can freely admit that spending those crucial years between age 11 to 17 on social media forced me to ask the question at a very young age, “why don’t I look like that?” 

Society placing a single body type on a pedestal can foreseeably plunge young girls (and boys!) down a steep path of disliking who they are because of the way they look. This was already a problem before social media, but the problem is obviously exacerbated when it’s all one sees on their online feed. This leads me back to the photoshopping issue: people are attempting to appear to have the “perfect” body to the point that they manipulate an image and thus manipulate their followers. It’s a cycle of self-hatred that feeds into influencer culture. There is a reason that many Instagram models are sponsored by diet-suppressing pills, beverages, and even lollipops. And when Kylie Jenner is paid roughly $1.2 million for each Instagram post, it’s evident just how ingrained into society this notion that people with a certain body type ought to be placed on a pedestal over others to the point of worship really is. 

Bodies aren’t the only thing being warped by the influencer. The other side of this “fantasy” is that influencers will do everything in their power to maintain the illusion that they have the perfect life. This, of course, ties into the entire concept of social media in that all online users are very meticulous about what content they are putting out into the world in order to paint the perfect version of themselves. Seriously… no one is that happy all the time. But seeing your favorite influencers constantly posting pictures of them doing amazing things every single day can force a person to draw comparisons between their online feed and their own life outside of the screen. It’s not that grooming one’s social media account to fit a certain aesthetic is necessarily a bad thing, but it does place a heavy filter on what a person’s actual life is like, and that lack of transparency creates an unrealistic expectation of what the ideal life is.

 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

#ad using @fittea before my shoots is my favorite ☺️

A post shared by Kylie ✨ (@kyliejenner) on

 

The Age of Online Validation

Growing up in my early teenage years, I remember being so obsessed with how many likes I would get on an Instagram post. It wasn’t until later in high school when I decided to take a break from social media for a few months that I realized how little those numbers mattered in the grand scheme of my life. But we’re set up the moment we create a social media account to glorify those numbers, because the more numbers we have, the more influence we have. The root of the desperate quest for more followers and likes truly boils down to the desire for attention, which social media, and influencers specifically, feed off of. When people don’t get the attention they hoped for on an online post, it can brutally affect their mental well-being. Studies like this one show the direct relationship between online validation and users’ actual brain chemistry. If an influencer’s entire career is based upon how many likes and followers they have, then what does this say about the value we place on our own social media accounts? Influencers are not the direct cause of social media addiction and the pursuit of online validation. But they do represent a product of it, and help to foster the mentality that someone’s voice is only as important as the number of people who hear them.  

 

Each of these problems is not mutually exclusive, and are deeply-connected in the complex web that is influencer culture. This industry thrives off of the insecurities of online users and encourages a society that values quantity (numbers) over quality (self-worth). There are so many positive effects of influencer culture— it gives people a figurehead for their interests and passions, and provides a role model for a range of different ideas and lifestyles: for example, body-positive influencers continue to become more and more popular. But it’s important to keep in mind that you are more than just a cog in the social media machine where the influencers seem to rule the world: you have a voice, you have self-worth, and no number of followers or likes can ever define who you are. 

Photo courtesy of Toni Hukkanen via Unsplash