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2021-02 Lab Notes Header—Social-Media In

Social influencers and
the impact of technology

Buried among the throngs of Instagram accounts and users is a little known, invitation-only account called “Influencers in the Wild.” Ostensibly a simple parody page, its posts consist of photos and videos taken of influencers in the process of creating content for their influencer pages. Yet, it doesn’t take a long scroll to get a sense of how the source of humor lies in the process it takes to create content in the visual language of Instagram: short, often looped micro-clips of video, usually zoomed in so far as to eliminate any context, and all about glamour over depth. A sleek shot of a teenager’s designer handbag while she struts by a coffee shop looks entirely more comical when you observe the whole scene of the camera operator doggedly following the teenager, kneeling or bending down to track the handbag while she walks in a stiff gait that is fully tailored to maximizing the angle for the camera.

Many of us have heard of so-called social media “influencers,” perhaps as a nebulous millenial concept, or a by-product of the modern technological age. Influencers are the marketing term for people who have gained enough of a following on one or more social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook, etc.) to be seen as viable marketing channels. If you have a brand-new line of hair-care products that you want people to learn about, you might send a sample or even cut a formal marketing deal with an influencer who will create a post or video about it for all their throngs of followers to see and learn. Whereas previously marketers were limited to working with celebrities for endorsements, influencers can target much more specific audiences for less cost than a Hollywood superstar.

One way or another, we have all experienced the impact of technological developments on the world of marketing, and how this impacts daily life in the United States. Those of us who spend more time on the Web than on cable TV may be more acutely aware of the ads that seem to follow us no matter where we point our browsers to, only two days after making a purchase on an unrelated site: signs of retargeting and other forms of Web behavior-based online targeting. Anecdotes abound about young couples being targeted for diapers before either finds out that they are in fact about to become parents, as their browsing habits shift in subtle ways that, as marketers have come to learn, correlate with pregnancy.


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Yet the world of marketing and targeting is anything but omniscient, as we can all attest by the staggering amount of advertising we all encounter for products that we have absolutely no interest in. Marketers know this as well. Even with all these technology-enabled developments in behavioral tracking and ad targeting, John Wanamaker’s famous quote rings as true as ever for advertisers: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” 


If all of today’s technology can be brought to bear with such unreliable results, it should really come as no surprise that the industry continues to fall back to one of the oldest methods in the book—celebrity endorsements—even as it evolves with new technologies. If there is one new development that has been enabled by social media, however, it is that it has become possible to become a “celebrity” simply for the sake of endorsing products. As silly as the notion sounds, it has become sufficiently profitable and lucrative that platforms like Instagram and Facebook now have to contend with a trove of fake social media accounts designed for the sole purpose of boosting the visibility (and therefore value) of influencer accounts. These fake accounts will view, “like,” and even comment on the posts of a chosen Influencer and make that user seem that much more popular. There are even sites where you can purchase “followers” in the thousands if you want and then purchase “likes” and “comments.”  


This development lies at the heart of HBO’s recent documentary “Fake Famous.” The premise is simple: take three teenagers who aspire to be famous, then find out how big a budget it takes in fake follows, likes, and comments, for them to become a viable marketing product unto themselves. “Fake Famous” explores the toll it takes on the three participants in their experiment, but also sheds light on the reasons this can still come across as a lucrative and glamorous career to a young person viewing the content and seeing the appearance of a lifestyle that they then want to achieve for themselves. 


What an untrained eye sees is a fashionable and affluent jetsetter enjoying all sorts of luxury products and treatment for minimal effort, which one could hardly be blamed for feeling envious of. Yet, this documentary dives into the grueling work that it entails, while accounts like Influencers in the Wild poke fun at their quirky habits. We could laugh at how ridiculous a teenager looks dancing around his own tripod in public, or we could focus in a bit more on the fact that the content he creates will generate very tangible benefits or even compensation. Who, then, is truly the butt of the joke?


One of the words being thrown around since the beginning of the Internet is democratization: the idea that things are now possible for individuals or very small groups that were previously unachievable except through exceptional means. An aspiring musician in the 1980s depended on finding and signing a record label to have any chance at commercial success, but can now post a full album on YouTube or Spotify and begin reaping streaming benefits. On the surface, this would seem like a positive development: anyone can now make music. However, it is easy to miss what a double-edged sword it is to be able to load any content and have it available to all the billions of users of the Web—and therefore have to compete with all of them at once, since they have the same ability.


Social media and the social-media bot accounts featured in “Fake Famous” shine a light on just one of the insidious ways this system can be abused, to the detriment of all. St. James Faith Lab will continue to monitor these issues as we move forward in our research.

The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees

Executive Director

St. James Faith Lab

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