Under The Influence: Idolatry
So I’ve written a few posts about influencer culture before, and it’s been mostly about the ethical conundrums facing the influencer themselves. Since writing this, I’ve become more interested in the experience of the follower and their relationship to the influencer themselves. You may have heard the term “parasocial relationship” thrown around recently. Allow me to explain. Or rather, allow Oxford Reference to explain;
“A term coined by Horton and Wohl in 1956 to refer to a kind of psychological relationship experienced by members of an audience in their mediated encounters with certain performers in the mass media, particularly on television. Regular viewers come to feel that they know familiar television personalities almost as friends. Parasocial relationships psychologically resemble those of face-to-face interaction but they are of course mediated and one-sided.”
The parasocial relationship is what drives the influencer-follower dynamic. It’s the personality cult that sells t-shirts, collabs, and event tickets. It’s the adoration for the influencer who is both idol and friend that drives followers to shower them with praise, money, and even act in their stead by spreading their gospel or helping take down their enemies. The term “cult” is not always hyperbolic.
Take, for instance, a popular influencer with millions of adoring fans, a scandalous past (and present) and a eponymous make up brand. I’m not going to mention their name, but I’m sure you can figure it out. This influencer has been caught in one conflict after another, in particular with other influencers at their level. In these conflicts, the followers often become foot soldiers, hurling abuse at their idol’s perceived nemesis.
It’s a filthy business, and unfortunately not uncommon, as it happens at almost any level of internet fandom – even a small influencer may ask their followers to do their bidding to “take down” a digital enemy, painting a target on their back and then washing their hands, saying they can take no responsibility for the actions of their followers.
It’s gone so far as to cause some influencers to actively and frequently discourage their followers from leaving mean messages and comments on rival pages. I can’t imagine it would feel very good for an influencer who, upon criticising somebody, finds that people are harassing said somebody in their name. I’d feel like shit about it. Or, if I were that kind of person, I’d feel sinisterly powerful. So you see the trouble.
As an influencer, you’re deified and objectified. It’s a long fall from that pedestal, and your mobility is limited. Adoring fans will inevitably turn you into a thing, a representation, but never a person. At the same time, that pedestal makes a great vantage point to deploy your troops from. Who can resist hordes of adoring fans who, if you’re a big enough deal on social media, will shower you with easily-monetized affection. To the fan, the influencer is a thing, and to the influencer, the fans are potential servants.
Hello, health police? Can we talk about how scary and dangerous this is?
I’ve never been one to have idols. And I know that sounds holier-than-thou, but I’ve never really been the adoring fan type of person. I admire people. A lot of people! But I don’t think they could be anything more than people to me. If I admire someone, I might at most fantasize about inviting them to a dinner party or to interview them about their work, but as far as personality goes, I don’t care a lot.
I’ll get flustered around someone like an award-winning journalist whom I dream of working with, but it’s more to do with my own feeling of inadequacy (which is a mighty force.) than about deifying them. That’s why I get so perturbed by this. I don’t understand it, and that frustrates me.
Even someone like myself, who has a follower count below 2000 on instagram, sometimes feels the pressure of admiration. This sounds gauche. I know it. I’m saying it anyway. It’s happened that people send me messages about how great they think I am (I’m sorry, I know this is gross) or that they look up to me and so on.
It’s very flattering.
So I like to imagine I understand the influencer point of view to a degree – I understand how seductive it is to be adored. It inflates the ego. But it also makes me wary, worried, uncomfortable. I’m not all that, not really, and I think social media can very easily be used to appear better than you really are. I know I’m not the person I appear to be on instagram, so one could reason that this is true for everyone.
Instagram, and social media in general, is a well-pruned, cropped, well-lit representation of reality. No person can be portrayed accurately because they wouldn’t fit. So when people say things to me that imply any form of idolization, I feel as though they’ve been misled. Because they have.
Nobody is deserving of worship.
Especially not those who seek or demand it.
(to be continued.)