We’re breeding a generation of social media fakers.
Admit it. You follow someone on social media with a picture-perfect lifestyle, but you suspect that they’re just faking it.
In the wake of Techlash, I hear people complaining about social media fakers all the time. Many are frustrated about how ordinary people in their feeds are simply trying too hard.
It used to be lifestyle bloggers putting on a dazzling show for their followers, but now it’s your neighbour, your co-worker, and your old classmate.
“If you experience negative emotions, just unfollow them,” I usually say.
But it’s often not that simple. We live in an economy of likes where you can’t separate your online network from your physical world.
Unfollowing someone, blocking someone—even stopping to like a friend’s status updates on Instagram, well, that’s something that may cause real social discomfort. Thus we get pulled into this world of social media fakers.
How did we end up here? And how do we get out of it?
The Reality TV Effect
In 1997, the Swedish public service broadcasters SVT launched Expedition Robinson; the reality tv show spun off the British tv format Survivor.
A group of chosen non-celebs (commonly referred to as “regular people”) participated in a contest set on a Malaysian island. People got voted off, one after the other, until one winner could claim the title.
The Swedish mainstream audience devoured the show, partly because of the palm trees, the beaches, and the fact that “ordinary people” were running around half-naked with low blood sugar. It was addictive.
We also saw a new type of love- and hate relationship with these new reality stars. People genuinely loved their favourite characters just as much as they genuinely hated some of the most original ones.
The public engagement caused serious trouble for some reality stars who hadn’t succeeded in becoming loved.[note]The situation got even worse as the first person who voted off the show committed suicide tragically, forcing SVT and the production company to re-cut the rest of the programs to lessen the drama.[/note] They found it challenging to cope with being publicly hated, and so they publicly lashed out against the production company, all asking the same question:
“I’m a human being with many sides. Why portray me as a monster?”
The participants of those early reality shows failed to understand the new format’s drama, and without this understanding, they felt victimised.
Fast forward to 2016.
Today, reality stars understand how to play the game. They want to be edited as dramatic as possible.
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. They’re just in it to put on a show and kickstart their careers, name recognition, and online following.
In Sweden, we turn to popular reality shows like Paradise Hotel. Participants quickly acquire substantial social media followings and tons of tabloid attention—because they put on a show.
Internationally, the Kardashian family must be considered the reigning masters of massive social media spin.
What happened during those 19 years between 1997 and 2016? Both the audience and the participants eventually came to terms with the inherent media logic of reality shows. It follows the principles as outlined in the law of diffusion of innovation:
Authenticity is less critical than making the performance feel authentic. It’s a digital form of what storytellers would refer to as “suspension of disbelief.”
In short: It’s social media showbusiness.
It took 10+ years for the mainstream audience to figure out that reality television isn’t real. It will take the mainstream audience 10+ years to figure out that social media isn’t real, either.
Where does this leave us?
Breeding Grounds for Social Media Fakers
It’s nothing wrong with only showing one side of something. Most mediums aren’t suited for complex forms of communication, especially if likes and shares are what drives them.
And all social media naturals know how to play the game.
If you want to show off the parts of your life that are beautiful and picture-perfect, then by all means—go ahead. We must all adapt to each medium’s format.
But here’s where the media logic turns into a double-edged sword:
Social fakeness can cause stress and frustration for both the content creator and the follower.
You might be painting a picture-perfect lifestyle on Instagram, but most people understand that you’re only putting on a show to get more likes. Fishing for likes reveals more about the content creator than the content itself.[note]There have been many conversations lately about the “fakeness” of social media. One recent talking point is how Essena O’Neill, a young Australian Instagram influencer, publicly ranted about her (and everybody else’s) fakeness in social media. She “quit social media” and deleted both her Instagram and her Youtube account—only to use the attention to launch her next online enterprise.[/note]
We start asking questions like:
- “Why is this person trying so desperately to paint this picture of a perfect life?”
- “What is this person compensating for?”
- “Don’t they understand that we can see what they’re doing?”
People desperately seeking attention and validation through social media are at risk of becoming victimised. Instead of becoming an elite class, the mainstream increasingly frowns at their desperation by placing them at 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
It’s possible that we will see a sub-class of social media fakers desperately screaming for approval, literally trying to keep up with the Kardashians.