The art of developing the critical skills that enable us to separate reality from the airbrushed online world is not the easiest, especially in the digital age. We may know how to curate our social media feeds so they do not make us feel like we are not enough. Unfortunately, many young people do not have such abilities as looking up to the realities created by the influencers and fostered by social media platforms often result in the worsening of their mental health.
To remind ourselves that influencers are not representative of the world’s population, nor even the country you live in. The most popular ones are usually white and able-bodied, although this trend is fortunately changing. The ‘pretty privilege’ is also doing well - a recent trend on TikTok exposes the secrets regarding everything one can get for free if your face has the optimal proportions and your hips the ‘right’ measurement. In theory, apart from a smartphone and internet connection, there is nothing specific you need to become an influencer. In practice, the mentioned characteristics definitely help. And, let’s not kid ourselves, so does being rich, hence, being able to afford to have ‘uncommon’ things, and only showing the best, well-staged moments from your life.
Ten years ago, Facebook became a key player in the ‘internet game,’ opening the door to a completely new way of celebrification (transformation of ordinary people and public figures into celebrities). While it quickly became obvious for the marketers that there is an economic potential with those ‘influencing’ people to make purchase decisions, almost no-one expected that people could actually make a living by posting pictures on Instagram.
Media scholars argue who was the first influencer and what was the first kind of influencers. Some consisted of people posting pictures of their outfits, as they genuinely loved fashion, or uploading motivational graphics to motivate themselves to get fit (with a side of a semi-nude progress picture, though). To follow that group - a lucky few got noticed by fashion brands or succeeded in growing their bums and started sharing their somewhat boujee lifestyle online, systematically succeeding to gain even more followers. Most of them came from a very privileged position of having time to invest in their hobby in the first place. And the more followers those people gain, the more likely they tend to forget about where they started, enjoying their online celebrity status.
They make their smashed avocado on toast, and hour-long spin lessons look effortless. Everything is enclosed in a glittery pink bubble, and it takes time to realise that it is more like a ‘Black Mirror’ episode rather than a fairytale. Almost everything you see online is superficial. Brand deals, sponsorships, expensive trips - it is all very glamorous, yet no-one seems to be asking the question about where the influencers came from and how their careers started. Some did questionable things, which brought them fame, and were lucky to turn themselves into lifestyle bloggers (such as @linkimaster). Still, most influencers come from privileged backgrounds and choose not to talk about it, nor do they want to challenge this reality. The only exception is the annual mental-health awareness day or posting a black square on Instagram that is supposed to make them look socially aware.
Influencers are like brands, carefully curated, walking adverts for objects they own. But people do not realise that often what they see on Instagram is just a snapshot of someone else’s life. Although some say that it is obvious what we see online is not true, such artificial ‘happy’ moments do harm teenagers’ mental health. According to a survey by Inspiring Girls Poland, 48% of young girls, aged 10 -15, aspire to be influencers on Youtube, Instagram, or Tiktok. This itself should already make being an influencer an enormous responsibility.
Some were astonished by the survey’s results mentioning another ‘breakdown of morals’ and that the ‘future looks grim.’ What they seem to have forgotten, however, is that older generations also aspired to be in roles that seemed easy, pleasurable, profitable, and most importantly - popular at the time. Also, professions like acting, singing, or being a football player have always been the most favoured because such people seemed to not only be successful but also deeply admired by everyone. The need to be known and accomplished has not changed.
What has changed is the medium. Nowadays, kids do not sit in front of the TV every day. Instead, they spend their free time scrolling on social media platforms. The way of spending time itself is not necessarily an issue. As said in the popular Netflix documentary, ‘Social Dilemma,’ technology does not destroy the world, but ‘it is both utopia and dystopia.’ Still, while the TV is subjected to actual governmental regulations, social media is not as such laws tend to be too tricky to implement, often because of sudden updates and numerous innovations.
Making money by social media giants may not necessarily be the biggest issue, as what is needed are regulations, rules, and more attention paid to what and how is done by those platforms. Especially that one of the key issues is that young people are being shown content not fit for their age and harmful material they look up to only because it is popular.
Another thing is that influencers give the brand a sense of authenticity. They are also able to create trends easily, which is often simply a move implemented by the marketing departments in order to make something cool and desirable. Still, the fact that so many young girls wish to be influencers in the future can be easily exploited by brands. Internet celebrities acting as brand ambassadors make brands seem aspirational, while the objects - trendy and desirable. While this is an old marketing technique, we need more transparency both in companies’ motives and influencers' pay brackets as it is perpetuating the creation of fake worlds.
Unfortunately, especially nano influencers are taken advantage of. The term, coined by the New York Times in 2018, is used by companies to describe the social media users with as few as 1,000 followers and who are almost desperately willing to advertise products. They are often asked to promote things they need to buy, in return for ‘exposure.’ Although it may seem like a fast track to fame, many teenagers do not realise how many skills go into being an internet personality, including marketing, branding, and negotiations, to name a few; and that although to be a ‘nano-influencer’ is also linked to the idea that almost anyone can have ‘influencer status potential,’ it does not mean that everyone succeeds. The Internet has created many new job positions and made many others easier, but the brutal yet realistic question one considers an influencer career should be then - can you use it to pay your bills?
Would you want to be an influencer?
Should every influencer strive to fix racism, homophobia and try to save the world from climate emergency? There is a growing movement of exposing the influencers’ hypocrisy, along with many socially aware and informational accounts. Some influencers like that do exist and give them the appreciation they deserve. For instance, two Kasia’s, one educating us about sex (@kasia_coztymseksem) [read an interview with Kasia in the 4th issue], another one about everything science-related (@kasiagandor), are both the example of ‘conscious’ influencers. But there are also people discussing the law-related issues, educating us about our basic rights, exposing fake news, teaching being conscious travellers, and many more.
Influencer marketing is a relatively new branch, and there is hope that it will get regulated and become more transparent. It would be useful though for the education system to incorporate some aspects of the online world and how it works into teaching. This hopeless wish might one day become reality - even in Polish schools, where we were forced to repeatedly learn about ancient Rome and fail to adequately get to know modern history and geopolitics. Still, at the end of the day, it is users who create their own online realities, and it is up to us who we follow. Young people need to be taught how to create a safe online space for the sake of their mental and physical health, as well as current and future generations.