I recently made a Twitter thread that I threatened to turn into a blog post—a thread threat if you will—and here it is. And ironically, it’s about Twitter itself. And Instagram. And Tik-Tok. And any of the other social media tools we use, or in some cases avoid, these days. It all started with a tweet from New York Times for their story on hot mess Rachel Hollis, a self-styled social media “influencer.” As expected, that tweet resulted in a deluge of hateful replies, like this one:
I get the hate. Much of what takes place on social media—particularly on Instagram, where the focal point is imagery—seems the height of vapidity and artifice. Seedy accounts rely on practiced poses, careful staging, and beauty filters to deliver their messages of natural positivity and self-love, a “live your dreams” mantra. They post “just woke up” images with carefully tousled hair and micro-bladed brows, or videos of artfully messy kitchens with adorably-dressed screaming kids to show a “hectic mom life” that is also somehow idyllic and charming.
Whether intentionally misleading or not, such images can be harmful when followers believe their own lives must 24/7 look like the nanoseconds of edited selfies to have any worth. This has been discussed at length already (here’s one such article), so I won’t belabor the point except to say that “keeping up with the Joneses” (something the article mentions) is exactly what pre-social media advertising has always done. It’s not new. Instead of paid actors, the salesmen are “everyday people” who still, to a degree, perform for a camera.
That’s the negative—and often the most prominent—side of social media, the perception of natural perfection. Now, let’s talk about some of the more positive aspects, and yes, there are some!
For starters, social media removes obstacles to “stardom” for some authentically talented and smart people. It gives them a voice and audience that are subject only to algorithms (which can still be tricky) and general popularity. I’ve found artists and educators through social media who I may not have known about otherwise: chefs, painters, musicians, makeup artists, comedians, photographers, etc.—all wildly creative and entertaining folks that represent a vibrant cross-section of our modern world.
Traditional means of access into many of those industries don’t necessarily equate to the most creative or appealing representatives. Rather, what you get is the subjective opinion of what a talent agency or media team thinks is the most of those. That can come with personal and social biases. Talent scouting then becomes gatekeeping, which controls who has access to and visibility in certain spaces. And historically in western society, that meant keeping most spaces white and male. Social media can remove that limitation.
You might have then noticed that the more popular a personality becomes, the more likely they are to create sponsored posts. Yes, it feels a bit disingenuous to enjoy someone’s comedic rants about modern life in one post, and then find them talking about brand name tissues in their next. But honestly, I think that’s wonderful!
Let’s face it, when it comes to our entertainment spaces, we’re never going to escape being advertised at. The fact that “ordinary” people can work hard at what they love, deliver a product they care about, build an audience, and then earn a living from it—all without having to navigate traditional gatekeeping—is a spectacular thing. If you’re watching them, it’s probably because they’re popular on social media, and if they’re popular, it’s because they’ve invested time and labor to become so. They deserve to be paid for that, one way or another.
Science and education influencers are another absolute positive for social media spaces. I follow plenty of intelligent people–flora foragers, eco-conscious living advocates, gynecologists, doctoral students, etc., who impart tons of knowledge in accessible ways on social media. They have learned to leverage the easy-to-use editing tools of Tik-Tok and Instagram to make their education appealing, entertaining, and approachable. It’s the equivalent of sneaking cauliflower into the kids’ mashed potatoes.
Even those “dumb” lifestyle influencers the Tweeter above is taking aim at can be a force for good. Messages of positivity and self-acceptance are valid and necessary, and there are influencers who deliver them in a myriad of genuine, direct and honest ways. They don’t use filters, practiced poses, or permanent makeup, or if they do, they are upfront about it. I particularly appreciate accounts that post magnificent awe-inspiring photos of tropical vacations while also posting “behind-the-scenes” snapshots of long, frustrating layovers in local airports with frazzled hair and baggy, coffee-stained sweatpants.
The best influencers inspire their followers to “live their dreams” while also encouraging them to find comfort in the lives they DO live because real life is messy and imperfect. Their point is to strive for your best self when possible and to love yourself when it isn’t. The downside to the influencer industry is that you get people like Hollis who deliver such messages in ways that are subtly problematic. The front displays look progressive and accepting but the backend is privileged, maybe even toxic, as they luxuriate in “unrelatability.”
I’m going to wrap this up by saying that I’m not an expert on any of this. Social media and the resulting influencer culture come with negative aspects, but it’s not all “dumb,” and it’s a shame to dismiss it offhand as so. I just know what I’ve found to be true with my own love-hate Instagram and Twitter experiences. The great thing about these platforms is that you curate your own feeds. In fact, your personal online experience may be the one place where gatekeeping is good and essential.