Research

Instagram Influencers: What’s the Appeal?

If you’re on Instagram, you cannot escape social media influencers; young women or men who have gathered large numbers of followers and share photos and/or videos on their Instagram pages (or YouTube) about a specific topic. But what makes these Instagram influencers so popular? And what distinguishes these individuals from ‘traditional’ celebrities?

Social media influencers are so-called micro-celebrities who exert influence over their followers or social network on social media, such as Instagram or YouTube. These influencers have gathered followers and constructed their fame on one or more of these platforms. They are usually heavily involved with their followers, or fans, respond to their comments and feel a sort of obligation to do so, in order to boost their online popularity. In doing so, they break through the traditional performer/audience dichotomy that exists with more traditional celebrities.

Social Influencers vs. Traditional Celebrities

What distinguishes a social media influencer from a traditional celebrity? First, celebrities usually keep their fans or followers at a distance. They generally do not have a lot of social media activity, and don’t usually interact with their fans (or very sporadically). Oftentimes, they don’t even run their own social media accounts.

In contrast, social media influencers continuously update their social media accounts, usually in a very predictable way (one post a day, multiple posts a day, or a specific day in which a new vlog appears online). In doing so, influencers come across as available, connected and authentic. This is also related to the content they post which is often highly personalized. Even though we know that most of the pictures influencers upload are heavily edited, we still (generally) believe in their promise of authenticity.

Online Authenticity

This ‘rehearsed authenticity’ of social influencers makes them seem approachable and credible. The problem is, that this authenticity is heavily edited and even for sale. Social influencers work according to a so-called ‘popularity principle’ whereby likes, followers and comments have financial value online and these aspects are now easily bought. Research shows that popular social media influencers are seen as more credible, more attractive and more trustworthy. Some people even build a type of one-sided friendship with social media influencers, or a so-called ‘parasocial’ relationship. As a result, these people are heavily influenced by their influencer ‘friends’ and are more likely to buy the products they promote.

Idealized Impression Formation

How did this happen? How did social influencers come to be and why are they worshiped online? The medium, Instagram, for a large part facilitates this process. Because of the asynchronous nature of Instagram and the ability to edit your photos and captions before uploading, the medium allows us to present ourselves in an optimal way which results in idealized impression formation. We hide our flaws, ignore our bad days and present ourselves as ideally as we can. We are, in turn, confronted with other people’s ideal selves, which leaves us in a positive feedback loop on Instagram whereby we only post and view positive, beautiful content.

Social Comparison on Instagram

Why does this matter and how are we influenced by all of this? Research shows that we like to compare ourselves with people we perceive as similar to ourselves, our peers; and social influencers are often seen as a new type of peer. This is especially true for women who are found to compare themselves with ideal, beautiful photos of their peers online – more so than with celebrities. This can result in a more negative body image. The problematic thing is that young girls often think that manipulated Instagram images are an accurate presentation of reality – which they are clearly not. This social comparison can result in envy, like dissatisfaction and overall unhappiness.

Social influencers are a new type of highly influential celebrity, who are unique in the sense that they come across as ‘normal people’ who present themselves as authentic peers online.  As a result, young people experience dissonance with what they see online and what they experience in their offline lives, which can result in life dissatisfaction and discontent. The important thing to remember is that authenticity on Instagram is heavily edited and rehearsed which suggests that when young people feel envy for the lives social influencers lead, this means they in fact envy something that doesn’t even exist.

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