My longest parasocial relationship, with a popular beauty influencer named Jenn Im, spans eight years. I discovered her in a vlog titled Meet My Boyfriend and since then, along with over 3 million other subscribers, have kept up with what she eats in a day and her monthly beauty favorites. Her videos have become a balm for my brain, allowing me to relax watching someone else’s productive and aesthetic life.
Jenn, however, has complicated things by adding an unexpected topic to her repertoire: the dangers of social media. She recently talked about disengaging from it for her well-being; she also posted an Instagram Story about the risks of ChatGPT and, in a YouTube video no less, she recommended Neil Postmans Have fun to death, a seminal piece of media criticism from 1985 decrying the reduction of television life to entertainment. (His other book recommendations included Stolen fireby Johann Hari, e Recapture the kidnappingby Jamie Wheal.)
Social media platforms are preying on your insecurities; they’re preying on your temptations, Jenn explained to me in an interview that she shifted our parasocial connection, at least for an hour, to a mere relationship. And, you know, I play a part in that. Jenn makes money through ambitious advertising, after all a familiar part of any influencer job. This is how I pay my bills; this is how I support my family, she said. But this is only a small part.
I first noticed Jenn’s social media criticism in a Q&A video, where she discussed parasocial relationships. The video is exceptionally aesthetic. Jenn is all dressed up in her California kitchen, she wears a pair of 8 Other Reasons diamond stud earrings; she fluidly delivers an Este Lauder announcement in a parachute robe before the first two minutes are up. She has pro-social relationships, she explains to the camera, but only if we remain aware they were in one. This the relationship doesn’t replace existing friendships, existing relationships, he stresses. All of this is supplementary. For example, it should be an addition to your life, not a replacement. I sat there watching her talk about parasocial relationships while absorbing the irony of being one with her.
Lifestyle vlogs romanticize the more mundane parts of daily existence in a way that may seem nonsensical to the uninitiated. People are recording themselves shopping and brushing their teeth, but aesthetically, with relaxing background music and voiceover of influencers’ thoughts. Watching someone else live their life is easier than living mine and gives me ideas on how to optimize my existence. But the more I become aware of the scaffolding beneath the facade, the more disoriented I feel.
The open recognition of the inner workings of social media, with content creators exposing the basis of their content within the content itself, is what Alice Marwick, an associate professor of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described to me as meta-content. Meta-content can be overt, like vlogger Casey Neistat wondering, in a vlog, if vlogging your life prevents you from being fully present in it; Meghan Markle explains, in a selfie-style video for the Harry and Meghan docuseries, why she and Prince Harry recorded so many videos during a family breakup; or YouTuber Jackie Aina remarking, in a YouTube burnout video, that making videos is all about getting views. But meta content can also be sneaky: a vlogger walking across the frame before running back for the camera. Or the influencers who vlog by editing the same video you’re watching, in a moment of space-time distortion.
Viewers don’t seem to care. We continue to watch, fully accepting the performance. Perhaps it’s because the rise of meta-content promises a way to grasp authenticity while acknowledging artifice; especially at a time when artifice is easier than ever to create, audiences want to know what’s real and what’s not. As Susan Murray, professor of media studies at New York University explains, The idea of a space where no source can be trusted, there is no place for some kind of earth, everything is questioned, it is a very disturbing and unsatisfying way of life. So we keep looking, as Murray notes, for the agreed upon things, our basic understandings of what is real, what is true. But when the content we watch becomes self-aware and even self-critical, it raises the question of whether we can truly escape the machinations of social media. Perhaps when we stare directly into the abyss, we begin to enjoy its company.
Digital authenticity, which Marwick noted was culturally constructed early on, has changed over the years. On Tumblr and early Instagram around 2014, manicured perfection was a favorite way to exist online: a picture of the back of a girl’s head, for example, with bouncy curls and a robin’s egg-blue bow. The ensuing years brought the no-makeup selfie and lengthy confessional caption to prominence on Instagram, signifying a desire to achieve authenticity through transparency and introspection. Eventually even those genres came into question: cultural critics began to argue that being online is always a performance and therefore inherently a fabrication. In her 2019 book, Makeup mirror, Jia Tolentino described how online spaces, unlike physical ones, lack a backstage where the performance can be suspended. Online, she writes, your audience can hypothetically keep expanding forever and the performance never has to end. Online scams of this period, such as the Fyre Festival and the Caroline Calloway moment, relied on social media presentations of spoofed realities. If everything is false anyway, why bother with the truth?
From Already Tolentino
Then came BeReal, a social app that sends users push notifications once a day to take pictures simultaneously with the front and rear camera without filters or captions. It has been positioned as a counter to online inauthenticity, but as RE Hawley has written, the difference between BeReal and the social media giants is not the former’s relationship to the truth, but the scale and scope of its deceptions. BeReal users keep tilting the camera and waiting to take their daily photo at an aesthetic moment of the day. Snapshots simply remind us how impossible it is to stop performing online.
It can be difficult, in this context, to imagine how much further the frontiers of our digital world can extend. Jenn’s concern for the future of the Internet stems, in part, from her motherhood. She recently had a son, Lennon (whose first birthday I watched on YouTube), and she worries about the digital world she will inherit. In the MySpace era, she had her friends on the Internet and would sneak into parking lots at 1am to meet them in real life—I think this was the time when technology was really being used as a tool to connect us. Now, she explained, she is beginning to ensnare us. Publishing content online is no more a means to an end than the end itself.
I asked Jenn if she ever bothered discussing the risks of social media, given her position as an influencer. She told me that, on the contrary, this is exactly what motivates her: I can’t change the world, but if I can influence my sphere of reach, then I’ll try to do it. But it’s not that simple. Meta-content reminds us that a performance of authenticity is still a performance. The artifice of the internet remains, even when we fold it in on itself. It’s easy to think of our online selves as just one of many versions of us: who we are at work is not the same as who we are with our parents or friends. But the online version can be modified in ways that others can’t.
The public, likely familiar with social media posting, recognizes these constructions. There are times when I look at the tiny digital version of myself on Instagram that looks and acts like me but remains a little too refined, a mysterious valley between me and me. There is still a question and questioning of what is real behind it, but [audiences are] more willing to accept bias or performance than ever before, says Murray.
We viewed the lives of influencers as ambitious, a reality we could reach towards. Now both parties acknowledge that they are part of a perfect product that the viewer understands is unattainable and the influencer acknowledges that it is not quite real.
A few weeks after our call, Jenn posted a vlog. I watched a clip of our interview, a different angle of our Zoom call than what I had experienced. As you saw, we just had an extremely long conversation about social media, parasocial relationships and the future, she says in the clip, later adding, I forgot to tell her in the interview, but I really think my videos are less about me and more a reflection of where you currently are You are reflecting on your life and seeing what resonates [with] you, and you’re discarding what doesn’t work. And I think that’s the beauty of it.
While watching a video of her being interviewed by me for the meta-content article you’re reading right on this page, I discovered that this sentiment rang true. Watching Jenn’s wedding video made me seriously consider marriage as a choice I would one day make; Watching and bookmarking her video on newborn essentials made me feel more prepared for the daunting task of pregnancy (despite the fact that I had no plans to undertake it anytime soon).
But meta content is basically a compromise. Recognizing the illusion of the Internet doesn’t alter our course within it so much as it reminds us how trapped we truly are and how we wouldn’t have it any other way.
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