For those who are unfamiliar with the term “influencer,” it describes a person who has a sufficient amount of online followers to make a mental, social, or even fiscal impact. Millennials and baby boomers alike have various conceptions of what influencer culture entails: We are often reminded of the SugarBear Hair vitamin scandals, the endless string of Youtuber confessions, or the more seemingly benign Instagram creatives we follow.
The notion of influencer culture is inextricably tangled with baby boomers’ critique of social media—that it breeds dull minds and collective thinking, purporting blindness to the reality of the world around us. Simply put, influencer culture is the spawn of the rapid growth of social media, and thus, it comes with both negative and positive connotations.
Under the Influencer, a Triton Fest event that took place in Price Center Theater last Saturday, January 26, is a direct result of this phenomena. The UC San Diego-sponsored event is proof of the economic value attributed to followers and likes. The event, which boasted of its “#aesthetic,” used jargon taken from social media to introduce the featured influencers. It incorporated giveaways and meet-and-greets, components of influencer culture familiar to the average college student. Students were lured in with free boba and Instagram photo-ops. It is undeniable that influencers have become commodities for the consumer, and the event organizers took note of it. Social media acumen is now inseparable from corporate job hunting: Creating relatable captions and using viral meme formats have become essential tools for effective marketing.
Makeup artist and Youtuber Vicmram (Victor Ramos) was introduced with terms like “snatched” and “slay”; albeit innocent, this is a common occurrence found in the pervasive use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in online stan language. Popeye the Foodie Dog was described as a “pupper,” a word that is often used in memes. Students were encouraged to cultivate their personal brands with Instagram-worthy photos. There is no denying that a large portion of us are committed to building and presenting our best selves on the internet. There is satisfaction in partaking in the viewer and performer dynamic even on a smaller scale amongst friends.
Similarly, the Fyre documentaries that were recently released by two of the largest online streaming services, Netflix and Hulu, have incited a new wave of criticism regarding influencer culture and the vapid, misleading nature of social media as a whole. But are influencer culture and social media really as evil as they seem? The eternal inner conflict of millennials and Gen Z-ers alike centers around whether to subscribe to or separate oneself from social media. What is an influencer? Are they celebrities? our friends? enemies?
To briefly gloss over what the Fyre documentary is about, it details the story behind the failed Fyre festival, scheduled to take place in the Bahamas in 2016. It is a film that presents a microcosm of a bigger issue, one that depicts our present-day relationship with technology and the resultant social hierarchies established by follower count. Many of my friends who have seen the documentary thought it was funny to see such naiveté from those who purchased tickets for the festival based solely on the enticing Instagram photos that were posted by the company and the supermodels. But was it that foolish?
Influencers aren’t necessarily wrongdoers, nor are the consumers of their content. The average person who uses social media daily is usually half-aware of what they are seeking: self-identification or idealization of the influencer. The influencer can either represent someone familiar and “real” to the audience, or an idealized fantasy built on dissatisfaction with one’s own life. It is important to realize that whether it be a makeup guru or photographer, influencers on social media are not the untouchable celebrities of the 20th century. Instead, they remain just out of reach, maintaining their fame through the illusion of intimacy and authenticity with their followers.
The romanticization of influencers—the god-complex built by both influencer and follower—is expected. Seeing a celebrity or influencer in real life is cathartic in a way that’s augmented by the mental proximity one establishes with their favorite Instagrammer via their posts. It’s one thing to have a screen create the facade of closeness, but to see or possibly meet an influencer…and in turn be seen by the influencer is another experience entirely. Maybe these wealthy 20-somethings who bought tickets to see Blink-182 in the Bahamas were idiotic, or maybe they were just an exaggerated manifestation of our own seemingly harmless desires.
Rather than subjecting Under the Influencer to scrutiny, I wish to bring attention to the role that each individual has in their own social sphere. Celebrity culture has obviously predated the Internet and smartphones, but the constant performance demanded by both normal people like me and influencers indicates an unhealthy understanding of interpersonal relationships. The extravagant disaster that was the Fyre Festival is only one example of our own addiction to living vicariously through others.
Heather Lim is an Assistant Arts and Culture Editor for The Triton.