The PR BlogDigital PROnline SubculturesSocial Media Fakers—Oh, They Seem So Perfect Online

Social Media Fakers — Oh, They Seem So Perfect Online

A picture-perfect lifestyle—or desperately seeking validation?

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Are social media fakers becom­ing a severe issue?

In the wake of tech­lash, people are frus­trated about social media fakers.

Many com­plain that ordin­ary people in their feeds are simply try­ing too hard. Many com­plain that influ­en­cers are too des­per­ate for likes, clicks, and shares.

And amongst the com­plain­ers, I sense uncon­scious envy lurk­ing in the shad­ows. We all crave atten­tion and recog­ni­tion, but most get none.

What’s going on?

Get Famous Online — Or Die Trying

Admit it. You fol­low someone on social media with a pic­ture-per­fect life­style, but you sus­pect they’re just fak­ing it.

It used to be life­style blog­gers put­ting on a dazzling show for their fol­low­ers, but now it’s your neigh­bour, co-work­er, and old classmate.

Read also: Online Wannabeism: Why We Mimic Social Media Influencers

If you exper­i­ence neg­at­ive emo­tions, just unfol­low them,” I say.

But it’s often not that simple. We live in an eco­nomy of likes where it isn’t easy to sep­ar­ate your online net­work from the phys­ic­al world. The lines are blurred.

Typical Social Group Sizes

Have you ever heard of the social brain hypo­thes­is? 1Zhou WX, Sornette D, Hill RA, Dunbar RI. Discrete hier­arch­ic­al organ­iz­a­tion of social group sizes. Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Feb 22;272(1561):439 – 44. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2970. PMID: 15734699; PMCID: … Continue read­ing

The ‘social brain hypo­thes­is’ for the evol­u­tion of large brains in prim­ates has led to evid­ence for the coe­volu­tion of neo­cor­tic­al size and social group sizes, sug­gest­ing that there is a cog­nit­ive con­straint on group size that depends, in some way, on the volume of neur­al mater­i­al avail­able for pro­cessing and syn­thes­iz­ing inform­a­tion on social rela­tion­ships.“
Source: Discrete Hierarchical Organization of Social Group Sizes

Scientific evid­ence sug­gests that people tend to organ­ise them­selves not in an even dis­tri­bu­tion of group sizes but in dis­crete hier­arch­ic­al social groups of more par­tic­u­lar sizes:

Alas, there seems to be a dis­crete stat­ist­ic­al order in the com­plex chaos of human relationships:

  • Support clique (3 – 5 people)
  • Sympathy group (12 – 20 people)
  • Band (30 – 50 people)
  • Clan (150 people)
  • Megaband (500 people)
  • Tribe (1,000 – 2,000 people)

Such dis­crete scale invari­ance could be related to that iden­ti­fied in sig­na­tures of herd­ing beha­viour in fin­an­cial mar­kets and might reflect a hier­arch­ic­al pro­cessing of social near­ness by human brains.“
Source: Discrete Hierarchical Organization of Social Group Sizes

Read also: Group Sizes (From Support Cliques to Tribes)

Unfollowing someone, block­ing someone, or even for­get­ting to like a friend’s Instagram pic­ture may cause social dis­com­fort. We get pulled into this world of social media fakers. 

How did we end up here? And will we ever get out of it?

The First “Reality Stars”

In 1997, the Swedish pub­lic ser­vice broad­caster SVT launched Expedition Robinson; a real­ity tele­vi­sion show spun off the British format Survivor.

A group of chosen not-yet-celebs par­ti­cip­ated in a con­test set on a Malaysian island. One after the oth­er, people got voted off the show. 

The Swedish main­stream audi­ence devoured the show, partly because of the palm trees and the beaches but mainly because “ordin­ary people” were run­ning around half-naked with low blood sugar. 

In the dark of a long Swedish winter, the show was exot­ic.
And it became a media phe­nomen­on.

A fierce love-and-hate rela­tion­ship with these new real­ity stars emerged. The audi­ence genu­inely loved some char­ac­ters just as much as they hated oth­ers. And that pas­sion­ate engage­ment caused severe issues for those real­ity stars who failed to become loved. 2The situ­ation worsened as the first per­son to be voted off the island, Sinisa Savija, com­mit­ted sui­cide, for­cing SVT and the pro­duc­tion com­pany to re-cut the rest of the pro­grams to lessen the … Continue read­ing

Many early “real­ity stars” found the pub­lic hate so unbear­able they lashed out against the pro­duc­tion company:

I’m a human being with many sides,” they cried. “Why por­tray me as a monster?”

The First Class of Professional Social Media Fakers

Fast for­ward from 1997 to 2016.

Today, real­ity stars under­stand how the game is sup­posed to be played. They want to be edited as dra­mat­ic characters. 

Internationally, the Kardashian fam­ily must be con­sidered the reign­ing mas­ters of massive social media spin. Authenticity is less crit­ic­al than mak­ing the per­form­ance feel authen­t­ic. It’s the online equi­val­ent of “sus­pen­sion of disbelief.”

In Sweden, we still turn to real­ity tele­vi­sion shows like Paradise Hotel. Participants quickly acquire sub­stan­tial social media fol­low­ings and tons of tabloid atten­tion — because they put on a show. 

The new breed of real­ity stars under­stands that they must deliv­er drama and that the format doesn’t exist to serve their multi-faceted need for human expres­sion. The unspoken agree­ment is straight­for­ward: treat the audi­ence to a show, and they’ll grant you stardom.

In short: It’s social media show busi­ness.

Today, the main­stream audi­ence under­stands the real­ity of real­ity tele­vi­sion. But we’re not there yet when it comes to social media.

New Media Adoption Takes Decades

How long did it take for the main­stream audi­ence to accept the media logic of real­ity tele­vi­sion fully?

By my count, the pro­cess in Sweden took 19 years (1997 – 2016). That’s nearly two dec­ades to grow accus­tomed to a spe­cif­ic media phe­nomen­on (that nev­er was a secret).

The pro­cess fol­lows the prin­ciples as out­lined in the law of dif­fu­sion of innov­a­tion:

Diffusion of Innovation - Social Media Fakers
The law of dif­fu­sion of innovation.

Compared to real­ity tele­vi­sion, social media is far more com­plex. And it has changed the fab­ric of human inter­con­nec­tion in a way that real­ity tele­vi­sion nev­er did.

How long will it take the main­stream audi­ence to come to terms with the inher­ent media logic of social media?

Will two dec­ades suf­fice? Or will digit­al media keep pro­gress­ing and nev­er allow us to catch up?

In Real Life” and Reality

In the early days of the Hippie Web (2005 – 2015), IRL — In Real Life— became a pop­u­lar expres­sion. It accen­tu­ated the dis­tinc­tion between online real­it­ies and the phys­ic­al world.

But as early as 2006 – 2007, many began to ques­tion the IRL expres­sion. “Our online lives are as real as our phys­ic­al real­ity, so we should talk about AFK — Away From Keyboard — instead.”

Unfortunately, they were wrong.

Social media is many things, but unequi­voc­ally real isn’t one of them. It only feels real.

Now, it’s noth­ing wrong with only show­cas­ing one par­tic­u­lar side of some­thing. It’s not wrong to enter­tain an audi­ence. It’s not wrong to tell incred­ible stor­ies and to cre­ate cul­tur­al expres­sions through art.

But we’re all still learn­ing how to deal with social media.
We still have tons of social media issues to manage.

It took two dec­ades for the main­stream audi­ence to learn that real­ity tele­vi­sion isn’t real. And it will prob­ably take the main­stream audi­ence at least two dec­ades to learn that social media isn’t real — prob­ably longer.

Social Media Fakers and Online Wannabeism

If you want to show off the parts of your life that are beau­ti­ful and pic­ture-per­fect, then by all means — go ahead. If you want to put on a show for your fol­low­ers, it’s your prerogative. 

But we would all be wise to remem­ber that social media isn’t real:

Social media fake­ness can cause stress and men­tal health prob­lems for both the con­tent cre­at­or and the follower.

Read also: “I’m Quitting Social Media”

There have been many con­ver­sa­tions lately about the “fake­ness” of social media. One example is how Essena O’Neill, a young Australian Instagram influ­en­cer, pub­licly ran­ted about her (and every­body else’s) fake­ness on social media. “I quit,” she said and deleted her Instagram and Youtube accounts — only to use the extra atten­tion to launch her next online enterprise.

Read also: Essena O’Neill and the Show Business of Social media

If noth­ing else, we should remem­ber that social media soon has been around for two dec­ades. We might be at the tail end of the adop­tion curve. While not every­one has been caught up, many people today under­stand social media logic.

Beware of Social Media Desperation

Someone might be paint­ing a pic­ture-per­fect life­style, but trawl­ing for likes might reveal more about the con­tent cre­at­or than they wish to share. 

Younger gen­er­a­tions are already call­ing out “boomers,” “simps,” and “weird flex.” “Cringe” might be on sale, but they’re not buying.

Today, we must expect a sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion of the audi­ence to be ask­ing cyn­ic­al ques­tions like:

  • Why is this per­son so thirsty for attention?”
  • What is this per­son com­pens­at­ing for?”
  • Don’t they under­stand that we can see through them?”

A word of caution:

Anyone too thirsty for atten­tion and val­id­a­tion through social media risks becom­ing a pari­ah. Instead of pro­mot­ing an élite class, the main­stream might equate des­per­a­tion with weak­ness and shove them to the bot­tom of the status ladder. 

A status update with no likes (or a clev­er tweet that without retweets) becomes the equi­val­ent of a joke met with silence. It must be rethought and rewrit­ten. And so we don’t show our true selves online, but a mask designed to con­form to the opin­ions of those around us.”
— Neil Strauss, Wall Street Journal

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

1 Zhou WX, Sornette D, Hill RA, Dunbar RI. Discrete hier­arch­ic­al organ­iz­a­tion of social group sizes. Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Feb 22;272(1561):439 – 44. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2970. PMID: 15734699; PMCID: PMC1634986.
2 The situ­ation worsened as the first per­son to be voted off the island, Sinisa Savija, com­mit­ted sui­cide, for­cing SVT and the pro­duc­tion com­pany to re-cut the rest of the pro­grams to lessen the drama.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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