When we were allowed to go out, I once had a curious coincidence. I had finished up at a club and headed to catch a night bus home. As I waited, I saw a friend of a friend keeled over a garbage bin. I let him be. He had a friend with him holding his hair. My bus arrived, and I sat onto the familiar green stickers. Over the bridge of my mask, I opened TikTok, to the ‘for you page’, (TikTok’s primary content stream, an algorithm based endless scroll). As the bus pulled away: I saw the same friend of a friend, in a grainy video, preparing for a night out. He was pregaming with a group of mates, the full party palooza. It had many comments. He has a strong amount of followers, but nothing influencer level.
As I watched him perform the glamorous motions of a night out on my phone, I turned and watched him finish throwing up. A few days later, on my ‘for you page’ again, I nearly scrolled past an ad for a mood lighting lamp. But as I did so, I realised that the person introducing the ad was him. I didn’t think he was influential enough for advertising but I suppose even ‘micro influencers’ have snuck into digital advertising. Over the course of 48 hours, I was privy to three seperate versions of a person. Two of which are solely digital and intentionally created perspectives of them. On first thought, there’s an obviousness to having different digital presences. Quite clearly, your LinkedIn has a different set of aesthetic qualities than your personal Instagram.
As do many people in creative industries, I have both a personal and a public Instagram. The public is a portfolio of work and projects, bundled into a ‘relatable’ format that is designed to be more engaging than a website. It is a tightly curated mix of shots featuring people, work, stories and matching cover art. Conversely, my personal is erratic and sporadic. It’s a collection of photos of myself and friends in social and personal settings. I imagine it reads as a ‘genuine’ reflection of my personal life.
We may like to think that our personal accounts are unvarnished, free-form, ‘true’ depictions of our life and that our professional accounts are the only contrived representations. But that’s not true, is it? All our social media is curated by ourselves. I choose what pictures to post, I think about who follows me, I choose how to create this image of myself. Now more than ever, these digital versions of ourselves are becoming more and more pronounced and performative. Six years ago, an average person’s Instagram page would be a collection of images they enjoyed, perhaps with textured filters to hint at film or genre. Now, if you review someone’s profile page on something like TikTok, you’ll see most content is referential to trends, genres, moods or external media.
This is partially due to the nature of the platform. TikTok is based around sounds, trends and audiovisual content. This has led to the majority of people on the platform using tropes to create content. This isn’t just an influencer phenomenon. Users are invited to engage with and perform film, television and broader visual art tropes. Often these tropes are signalled through the utilisation of user generated sounds, for instance the song Marlborough Nights by Lonely God quickly became used to denote the romanticisation of coming of age narratives and youthful adventures. Considering the proliferation of this content, (TikTok alone boasts nearly 700 million users) and suddenly you have thousands of minute long videos performing tropes we would associate with rom-coms and cute TV romances. Condensed into the bare essentials of media, and made entirely for free. Uncompensated performance.
Since widespread access to the internet, websites have become increasingly targeted in what content they want you to post. Pre-‘social media’, most digital spaces were undefined, anonymous, and very small scale. Searching early digital history, there’s a pervasive feeling of being able to ‘stumble upon anything’. Message boards and chatrooms were generalised, (albeit with many themed to games or technology) and more similar to the forum section on the technology support pages of today. The way we existed digitally was based around decentralised and anonymous conversation about broad or nebulous topics. Occasionally you’d have person to person engagement and create new digital friends based on shared interests.
However with the emergence of the mid-2000s social media, eg. Myspace and Facebook, these websites focused broad, random posting into posting into anything that’s random about you. About the poster. Then quickly, it got more specific. Instagram was your photos. LinkedIn was your career profile. Each of these are effectively interested in a different element of your digital footprint, an element that fits into their user engagement and advertising strategy. TikTok desperately wants you to make engaging audiovisual content. The more tailored the content is to you, the more likely it is you will continue to engage with the content, and any peripheral ads. The new social media of now is so targeted it’s nearly perverse.
These different selves you have tailor-made for the platform, are new commercially friendly selves that people who then engage with your profile can view and relate to. In TikTok’s case, it’s through that aforementioned stylisation of sociality. It’s easy to view an influencer’s life as a chic and cool coming of age movie when they are simply utilising and performing the tropes of a coming of age movie.
Parasocial relationships, (the psychological relationships an audience have with the performers of mass media) are excellent fodder for these platforms as they are perfect for advertising. If you ‘trust’ someone because you have a parasocial relationship with them, then you are more likely to buy from them.
If we combine this with the micro-influencer zeitgeist of the last couple years, the destination for digital communication is changing drastically. Previously, community leaders were religious, or civil, or even just people active in the community.
Our present experience suggests that influencers, as their name suggests, have become leaders for many communities in digital space. Previously it would be untoward and disgraceful for someone like a pastor to advertise to the community. But these digital community leaders are different in a very meaningful way because they’ve been co-opted by a capital system. No one has a problem with the fact that their leaders are trying to flog them with junk for profit.
Slowly, we are all in some form becoming ‘influencers’. We exist digitally in curated forms, and our continued digital existence is the content that people engage with, and that companies can profit from. In conjunction, the abuse of parasocial relationships is becoming normalised and incentivised, and the simple horror is laid bare; Everyone’s out to sell you something.