Unfollowing the Kardashians on Instagram changed my life. I know how dramatic that sounds – just hear me out. Pre-pandemic, my social media feed was filled with Reality TV stars, models, ex Love Islanders, ‘influencers’ and ‘Insta perfect’ people. I wasn’t aware of how toxic that was for me until lockdown started, and my screen time – like everybody else’s – was rising exponentially. The inability to go outside meant that online platforms such as Instagram and Twitter became places to ‘visit’. And spending so much time in a space – real or online – which is essentially filled with living breathing adverts, is bound to crush the soul.
So I decided to make a change. Unfollowing the personality cult of the Kardashians was just step one. Step two was actively seeking out more like-minded, less aesthetically ‘perfect’ people to follow in an attempt to curate a positive online space for me. I soon realised that it wasn’t ‘influencers’ who were the problem necessarily, but the types of influencers I had been conditioned to think were worth following. Instead, I sought out influencers who promote causes I’m interested in: slow fashion, climate change action, diversity and inclusivity, body positivity, Feminism. The list goes on. I’d rather be influenced to sign a petition, read up on terms I didn’t know, or to feel good about myself the way that I am than be influenced to buy ‘self-improvement’ products to make my teeth whiter, my body smaller, or my clothes more fad-like (just some of the “must-haves” I’ve seen influencers pedalling).
Taking these two steps revolutionised my online space from being one of empty double-tapping, comparison and inadequacy, to one of learning, listening, engaging and connecting. Whilst I cannot believe it took a pandemic for me to realise the kind of content I consumed online was directly affecting my mood and outlook, the truth is curating a positive, healthy online space never would have been a priority before now.
It seems like many others have been doing the same culling/curating in their online spaces. After British fitness influencer, Sheridan Mordew, appeared on This Morning claiming that being an influencer was ‘essential work’, people were outraged, and the term ‘influencer’ and the very idea of it being a career was called into question. Mordew’s interview with Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield, in which she defended her travelling to Dubai to inspire others and promote her lifestyle during a pandemic (where holidays abroad are currently illegal), fell on a day when the COVID-19 death toll in the UK reached 100,000.
Other influencers who had been ‘working’ in Dubai included many ex Love Island stars, Geordie Shore personalities, and Towie cast members. These are all people whose careers depend on being in the public eye: creating aesthetic content for social media which makes followers buy into their boujie lifestyle, and buy the products which help them live it. In normal times, snaps of sun-kissed bodies on faraway beaches would have racked up thousands of likes, and hundreds of comments of ‘goals!’. Now, when the UK has been under some form of restrictions for nearly a year, tone-deaf posts of ‘WFH’ setups which include sun loungers and Dubai views from 100-storey hotels only leads to resentment, hate comments and unfollowing. Ex Love Islanders, Anton Danyluk and Laura Anderson have lost over 26,000 followers combined since their ‘essential’ Dubai trips.
In stark contrast, ex Love Island star and A&E doctor, Alex George, has been heralded for his work on the front line during the pandemic. His speaking out about mental health – particularly men’s mental health – after he lost his younger brother to suicide in July last year has led him to be appointed as the UK government’s ambassador for mental health. Demonstrating one way of using your influence for good, Alex stated: “In my role, I will be working closely with the Government to make mental health an absolute priority.”
“Never has mental health been more important than now. From schools to universities, the NHS and the wider public, mental health matters. For the current as well as future generations, we must do everything in our power to bring meaningful change. Nothing will bring my brother back but if I can make a positive impact that saves even one life, it will be worth moving mountains for.”
In this Rise of the Influencer, follow the people who bring you joy or make you feel positive, rather than low, less-than or self-critical. Your feed is yours and yours alone, and you have the autonomy to unfollow, limit or block whoever makes your space negative. There’s also nothing wrong with enjoying looking at aesthetically pleasing, ‘Insta-perfect’ images – whether that be of celebrities, food, animals, landscapes etc. Instagram can serve you escapism in the form of animal videos and TikTok reels. It doesn’t have to be a site of politics and activism if you don’t want it to be. You set the rules. As long as it doesn’t make you compare your life to the highlight reel of others!
Social media is here to stay and is certainly having a large impact on our lives – whether we like it or not. Whilst we may feel powerless in its grip, what we do have power over, however, is how we interact with it, and with whom.