Have you ever scathingly accused someone on your Instagram feed of trying to ‘act like an influencer’? You know, like the gal you went to school with who posts carefully composed, faux-candid photos, tagging her outfits for good measure.
Or the friend of a friend who put up a picture of some delicious food, inexplicably thanking the restaurant for a lovely night out. Or, indeed, the former colleague who regularly delivers blogger standards (“EVERYONE has been asking where my top is from…”) with a completely straight face on her Story.
Something tells you the friend of a friend didn’t get that meal for free, as the post implies, nor was ‘everyone’ asking Aoife from Marketing where she got her top. It can be a bit jarring, especially if you know the person well in real life. Our immediate reaction is always disdain – that extremely Irish radar for people getting too big for their boots, pinging away. Who does she think she is, Rosie Connolly? As if.
Social media is still mostly uncharted territory, culturally speaking. Things that would never fly in regular life are the norm on Instagram, and whether we realise it or not, we’re taking it all in. Last year, an article in The Atlantic claimed that many wannabe influencers were faking brand deals in order to cross over into the big time. It’s hard to land your first bit of sponsored content, these influencers say, and brands want to see your past work and promotional abilities before they bite. So to get over this hurdle, they’re faking it.
It is definitely weird – the article inspired quite a bit of handwringing over what the world was coming to – yet when you think about it, it’s understandable. These people are hustling, trying to crack into the business in any way they can. Where it gets downright strange is watching people who have absolutely no skin in the game behave the same way. Why are random people on your feed acting like influencers? And what’s the endgame here?
Humans have copied each other since the day dot. Remember when women rushed out to get the Rachel haircut in the 90s, because Jennifer Aniston looked so great in it? The psychological theory of ‘social learning’ can explain our desire to act like influencers – we learn different behaviours by watching them being modelled to us by others.
As children, we take in the behaviour of our parents or caregivers, and as we grow older, we learn from our peers. “We may be more likely to copy behaviours from people who we are quite envious of, or who we aspire to be like, or who we want to be friends with,” explains psychologist Dr Cliodhna O’Donovan. As you probably know already, influencers fit quite snugly into that category.
It’s like what we would call in social psychology ‘groupthink’ – have you ever been on a bus and it stops for a long period of time, or there’s an unusual noise? What do people do? They look around to see what everyone else is doing. If we see someone who we want to be like doing certain things on social media, we feel like copying that will bring us the things that we associate with this person: status, wealth, popularity, beauty.
“If we look at how much of our attention is taken up by social media, this information is seeping in all the time. We’re getting a snapshot of people’s behaviour and what they’re doing.” And it’s true. We see more of these people than we would our own friends, whether they’re talking into the camera on Instagram Stories, tweeting their every thought, or posting their ‘cheat meals’. If these people who you consider to be beautiful, popular and successful are doing it, why wouldn’t you?
Social media makes it easier than ever to ‘try on’ these personas, if we want. The shy girl can confidently pose in a bikini. The lad who never said a word in school can be a Twitter comedian. It’s this part that can be so strange to those of us watching from the outside. “They act so differently on Instagram,” we say to ourselves, smug and superior as if we are completely authentic beings who would never dream of presenting an idealised version of ourselves online. “They’re not like that in real life at all.”
“We all have different modes or sides of our personalities that we bring into different interactions,” says Cliodhna. “Generally speaking, you’d be somewhat different talking to your boss on a Monday morning compared to how you would with your friends out in a bar on a Friday night. Social media takes that to the extreme. It gives you the forum to try on these roles, and to put that out in the world as a reflection of yourself.”
Okay, we can hear you saying. Yes, I do present the best side of myself on Instagram. But what would compel someone to act like they were sent free stuff, when they paid for it like the rest of us? Out of all the little expressions and poses we’ve (either consciously or unconsciously) poached from influencers, this one is the most flummoxing. Cliodhna reckons it’s most likely a ‘fake it until you make it’ approach: If I post like a person who might receive free stuff, eventually I will receive free stuff. But ultimately, it all traces back to how we use social media to validate ourselves and quantify our self-worth.
“There’s the idea of ‘likes’ as a means of quantifying yourself,” explains Cliodhna.
I’ve worked with a lot of young people who have taken down images from social media because they didn’t get enough likes. They felt that wasn’t good enough, but that could transform into ‘I’m not good enough’. It can have this knock-on effect on your self-esteem and self-worth.
So when people post a photo thanking a brand for stuff they’ve bought, they can be hoping to get the brand’s attention so they can receive freebies, but they can also be following a formula they’ve seen has gotten ‘likes’ for the influencers they admire. And as anyone who has felt the glow of a well-received Instagram post knows, the more likes you get, the better you feel about yourself. This might be sad to some, but it’s a simple fact of modern life. (Though that may be about to change, if Instagram has its way.)
As Cliodhna points out, human behaviour has not changed too much throughout our history. What has changed is the world we live in, and the arrival of social media marked one particularly huge shift. ‘Acting like an influencer’ is a sort of modern-day version of the ‘Rachel’.
While you might scoff at a girl from down home for doing it, you more than likely have an Instagram persona of your own. You might post photos that make you look well-travelled, she might thank ASOS for sending her clothes she bought herself, but you’re both after the same thing – those sweet, sweet likes that make you feel so good. So post and let post, we say. There’s space for it all on the internet.
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