I am feeling increasingly fatigued by social media. Like reality television whose casting and plot lines have become formulaic to the point we could all produce a convincing script, with requisite plot twists and love matches for “made in Chelsea” or “Geordie shore,” post midnight, with a substantial quantity of drugs and alcohol to dull our wits and senses. It seems many young stars of the internet have worked out a similar formula for Instagram. fame by numbers capturing audiences and beating the algorithm. Money and plaudits roll in whilst our fresh faced protagonist reclines with a #spon cocktail on a #ad chaise lounge, in an apartment paid for by corporate sponsorship and/or eager subscribers. The business of influence is both complex and hugely profitable if you know what you are doing and if you are prepared to get your hands on the way up, all the better.
From my perch on the periphery, I am encouraged to follow the lives of these influencers. In the vast universe of social media, we are all voyeurs observing the surprisingly mundane daily ablutions and minutiae of glamorous rare birds in their gilded cages. Except the bars are an iPhone screen and the bird not a bird at all, but an uncommonly beautiful teenager dancing, around her bedroom, brushing her hair, getting dressed or “working” from her unmade bed. It is from here she offers sage advice on relationships or body image or straight to camera postulating soliloquies on nothing in particular.There is something innately addictive but profoundly disturbing about this newfound window onto the life of a complete stranger. To follow someone is to imbue them with power. The power to influence your thoughts and your purchases, the way you dress, the things you eat. We as humans have always sought influence, reassurance we are moving in the right direction, or at least the same one as everyone else. Celebrity endorsements have long been viewed with suspicion. As a consumer I would be unlikely to purchase an acne treatment on the basis of one clear skinned starlet’s recommendation, mostly because I know she’s being paid handsomely for it. The internet has blurred the lines. DIY shorts filmed on webcams or phones proselytising for skincare or shoe brands appear in earnest, when in fact they are part of a darkly conceived marketing strategy.
I have little interest in Methodic make up routines or “the perfect” contour tutorials. I will generally bypass the Primark hauls, fashion hacks and daily vlogs which feature baking, dog walking and a confusing amount of sitting on the sofa talking about nothing in particular. It is a mixture of activism, fashion and sex positive rhetoric that pervades my corner of the internet. Writers and artists, makers and thinkers populate my slow growing herd of followed and followers. The social and political issues I deem vital to my life and generation feature heavily in my personal work and are inevitably echoed through my social feeds. Taking a step back into the realms of reality I can’t help but cast cynical eyes over the ever evolving digital landscape. I have met many self proclaimed activists in recent years, I have worked for several, some with a large following on social media others without and others still, with a modest but loyal readership. I speak from experience when I say the face people present online is rarely their real one.
The phrase “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” Was attributed to Andy Warhol circa 1968. A man who mastered the art of personal branding 50 years before influencer culture was even conceived. The internet has given this prophecy legs, allowing otherwise unremarkable individuals to capitalise on an artfully contrived identity and in some cases forge a successful career on its back. In the pursuit of fame we are all seemingly willing to break ourselves apart and reassemble the pieces into something more palatable, more appealing to our audience. Feminism is trending, so we adopt a catchphrase and a stance. I am as guilty the next woman of jumping on the likes for likes bandwagon. I am a feminist. A huge believer in advocating for female run movements in art and business. I am slightly ashamed to admit the number of clicks on the little heart beside each photo does have an effect on my mood and on a bad day It often has me questioning my validity as a creator and even my purpose in being there. I have been known to shamelessly capitalise on hollow sentiment in the vain hope of gaining a bit of traction and increasing my reach. Hashtags become campaign slogans but without real structure or cause it often feels a little disingenuous, like diet activism.
#womensupportingwomen and #communityovercompetition are overused with comic regularity by people and businesses whose behaviour poses stark opposition to the true meaning. Passive aggression and veiled threats lay behind expertly styled floral arrangements and colourful flat-lays as the owners of popular accounts jealously stake claim over borrowed ideas. Plagiarised prints and painted leathers announce female solidarity whilst withholding metaphorical bread from the mouths of the female artists who created them. Fame and fortune are an intoxicating combination. With the rise of the internet star has come the inevitable slew of online courses and workshops offering you the chance to build your own career from your bedroom. Those who were successful in building a following become self styled experts, and as a result we have 19 year old business coaches and 21 year old relationship experts charging a not insignificant rate for unquantifiable expertise.
Herein lays my biggest problem with social networking. An egalitarian platform requiring no verification or formal qualification allows the dissemination of misinformation to go completely unchecked. Scientific and educational communities are slowly catching on but have yet to come up with anything resembling a solution, and from a marketers point of view verifiable content would be a costly nightmare. Surely in this most cynical age of data protection and regulation we know not to believe everything we read? Wikipedia, after all is written by a faceless public and dr. google is far from infallible.
Publishing houses are commissioning books by online personalities at a rate that shows no sign of slowing down, from self care to healthy eating, follower count and engagement are the only qualifications required to publish such a manual. Today I skipped through an authoritative, subtitled monologue by a childless single women in her early 20s about the correct way to raise babies. Followed by endless screenshot’s of twitter feeds highlighting the negative experiences incurred simply by existing as a fat person or a person of colour, punctuated by grinning selfies of the skinny blonde account owner. At events I am reminded, by condescending, guileless public schoolgirls, 15 years my junior that my feminism is not inclusive because I write only from my own privileged perspective. Their own Instagram lists intersectional and ally in its bio alongside the requisite pronouns and a jaunty rainbow flag. I am conscious as a white woman in size 10 jeans and a southern accent that it is not my place to comment on the black experience or the fat experience because honestly I have no idea what it feels like to face that level of adversity. I am interested to read firsthand accounts, but indolent rehashing and sharing of them feels patently insincere. Mendacious propaganda for a brand built on revolutionary spirit perhaps?
A brand requires values, and successful Internet personalities lay them out in their bios. Queerness, disability and a myriad of gender related pronouns litter our digital spaces. Keen to label, eager to belong. The reality of life for a trans person or a gay person is rarely straightforward. The internet has become a safe space to document their struggle. The proliferation of rainbow themed emojis and effusive proclamations of orientation and identity feel somewhat lacking in sincerity. A well known female instagrammer recently announced, you don’t actually have to have sex with girls to be queer. On that point I must raise a concern. As a woman who wishes to take up residence amongst the homosexuals, the historical degenerates and social outcasts once maligned simply for who they fell in love with you must in fact have sex with girls. If not isn’t it making a mockery of those who fought and died to put that iconic flag emoji next to your grinning portrait. In 2019 there is certainly less social stigma attached to sexuality than there was in 1919. Subversive is hot and Queer is the new black, in marketing terms the queer femme constitutes a solid USP and without the risk of touching a vagina or being spat at on the street it’s a winning label for an aspiring internet celebrity.
With more aspiring youtubers than either doctors or bin men, the desperation is driving more and more people towards a dark path. Lazy inarticulate bloggers appropriating tales of chronic illness and sexual abuse abound. Suffering garners attention and attention is addictive, especially when it comes replete with the promise of financial reward. Symptoms are lifted from the feeds of the afflicted or straight from NHS direct. Under the scrutiny of actual medical practitioners the often tragicomic tales of suffering simply don’t add up. A litany of other ailments is usually followed by a “go fund me” campaign to help with hospital bills or specialist equipment, conveniently not covered by the NHS. If attention starts to wane, the addition of a #metoo and a convoluted story about a bus driver with wandering hands or gang rape by a herd of orcs at a cosplay convention in 2012 garners a little more sympathy and occasionally another charity campaign, this time to fund essential self care bath bombs from lush.
If this is beginning to feel like a diatribe or a targeted attack, I apologise. I have spoken to many people in recent months about my burgeoning dissatisfaction and it shows no sign of abating. Not until we, as content creators and consumers force the hand of the businesses that back it and change the damaging culture which has grown up around it. I often consider taking my bow and walking away for good. I have deleted apps and made dormant my various accounts in the past. The thing that always stops me from vacating social media entirely and permanently is the possibility of human connection. That elusive meeting of minds across an artfully styled avocado, an avocado with a witty caption and a sustainable origin, naturally. The possibility of exchanging thoughts and feelings on pertinent social and political issues with those of a similar disposition to my own is what drew me here in the first place. I remember hearing about the mythical World Wide Web for the first time on newsround, and feeling a sense of excitement and possibility as I tucked into my mums legendary frozen pizza and chips, it will never catch on she muttered. I am reminded of that excitement each time Instagram leads me to a new discovery or twitter makes me laugh. The forced banter, sound bites and hashtags feel hollow and disingenuous to me, like the pink on pink quotes about wellness and self care that litter the digital landscape. I have met many incredible women doing incredible things. It has lead me to real life networking, Soul mates and drinking buddies, people who both share my views and challenge them. I don’t make my living on social media, but the clients I meet through the rolling text and artfully curated squares are often the ones who bring me the meaningful projects and all the joy that comes alongside doing something you love. I will never stop talking about the negatives of life online, because without recognising them you can’t fully embrace the positives. The topography of the digital sphere is constantly evolving in much the same way millennials are ageing and surrendering our platforms to those future generations, who almost certainly don’t know newsround, and don’t remember a time before the internet. Perhaps like Warhol’s factory or MySpace, Instagram will eventually fade into obscurity taking with it all that is tiresome and false. In its wake a sea of pot plants and glitter, ring lights and millennial pink backdrops. I for one look forward to the day when I no longer have a disturbing narrative to dissect.