The PR BlogPR TrendsOnline 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 by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

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 elite 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

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

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.


  1. Great post, Jerry! I love how social media can bring us together. It’s a great opportunity to be real. At the same time, the truth is that the world teaches us to be “fake,” and this approach is starting to break. Ahh, the tricky balance between vulnerability and strength – it’s truly an art form. I think it’s something we should openly discuss more, and I love how you covered it in this article.


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