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Anthropology: The Impact of Social Media Influencer Culture on Human Behavior

In the rising tide of the digital age, the world is constantly evolving with the advancement of technology. In this modern civilization shaped by the internet, lies the much more intricate world of social media. Today, people tend to rely heavily on their social media platforms for global news, latest cultural trends, and to stay connected to their friends and families. This once seemingly innocent creation has evolved into a life of its own. Social media today has progressed into the need for guidelines and a minefield of rules. Mainly, because through social media people can gain monetary benefits and hold a certain level of influence over others. The rise of any one account’s popularity automatically gives them many perks and allows them employment to a certain extent. Consequently, this increase of influencer culture is praised by brands and businesses that pay these people to endorse them. In order to navigate these perplexing new chapters of social media, it is paramount to understand the ways in which influencer culture is becoming so intertwined with everyday online platforms. Especially considering how it can have a significant cultural impact on human behavior

The Rise of Social Media 

Image of social media icons on a phone
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Human beings are social creatures, they crave communication and connection with others. The need to connect with people is what fueled the evolution of social media. In the very beginning, before the formation of the internet, Samuel F.B Morse invented the Morse code in 1844. Morse code is a language made of dots and dashes. These codes represented letters of the alphabet and were used to send confidential messages, often political in nature. Morse also figured out a way to use electricity to send telegrams in his code. Thus, the beginnings of what is now known as “chat rooms” were formed. During this time, people used Morse code to communicate with others internationally or locally and bond without ever meeting in real life. 

In the early days of the internet, which was established roughly in the 1960s, communicating with people from other parts of the world was a slow task. Today, social media has advanced so that we can talk instantly to anyone from nearly any part of the world, as long as they have access to the internet. Moreover, the daily usage of social media has become deeply embedded in modern civilization. To the point where it impacts the way we meet potential romantic partners, voice political concerns, organize marches, and access global news

The true beginning of social media, as we understand it today, is thought to be in the early 2000s. In 2004, MySpace became the first social media site to gain a million active users per month. This was a huge milestone for its time as no other platform came close to this achievement. MySpace also temporarily surpassed Google as the most visited site in 2006 within the United States. However, today MySpace is no longer as active or popular among the people who frequently spend their time online. 

Therefore, one thing to note about the trend of social media platforms is that they are fickle. They can disappear and lose virtual popularity as quickly as they appeared. For example, in 2008, platforms such as HI5 and Friendster were strong competitors of Facebook. However, by 2012 these sites had no virtual popularity in the online media market. Facebook, on the other hand, continued to thrive and currently has over a billion active users. 

What Are Influencers?

woman posing in front of a professional camera and ring light, in front of pink background
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In a nutshell, social media influencers are people with a large online following, that often post an idealized version of their lives. They “inspire” people with their lavish lifestyles and document their apparently authentic existence in the form of online posts. Over the course of time, a relationship forms between the viewers and the influencer. The viewers often think of this virtual person as their friend, rather than a complete stranger.

This relationship aids the influencer in selling their followers products in a way that is subtle. Instead of being put off  by constant advertisements online, viewers gain recommendations from the people they love to watch. Brands pay influencers to “suggest” products to their viewers in exchange for financial gain or other connections. This works in the majority of cases, because viewers come to trust and admire this online creator and would like their own lives to mimic the influencers’. Therefore, they would buy anything the online creator uses or promotes without question. 

Over the years, corporate brands have observed the immense growth of online communities that show up and support their favorite content creator. This strong sense of loyalty is what makes influencers seemingly the perfect advertisement investment. More commonly, the air of authenticity that an influencer perpetuates around their account or channel, allows their viewers to trust them. Once their guard is down, they become more willing to buy whatever is being advertised. While these days influencers are more upfront about when they are being paid for promotion, there was a time on the internet when their audience was unaware. Therefore, influencer culture is definitely connected to the increase in consumerism. 

Negative Anthropological Consequences 

As the hours spent online using social media platforms increased, so did the risks to people’s physical and mental  health. Social media was once a space where people could share their day to day thoughts and pictures. Where they would post snippets of their lives, exactly as they were unfiltered. Now, however, social media has turned into an epic game of who can seem more impressive or put together. Gone are days of posting blurry pictures on Instagram with terrible lighting, and instead there are people who stage entire photo shoots for a single post. They use professional cameras, equipment, multiple outfit changes, and use the help of their assistants to curate the most perfect glossy version of themselves.

Their audience, unfortunately, is unaware of the amount of effort, makeup and Photoshop being used to “perfect” those pictures. As a result, normal people end up comparing themselves to these fake versions of their favorite influencers. The lack of transparency and honesty, ironically, goes against their “authentic” online persona. The rise of social media is directly correlated to the increase of mental illnesses in today’s youth. Online content is proving to be more triggering than entertaining for the vast majority of young adults. 

Body Image

influencer's impact on body image
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On social media sites such as Instagram, the culture of removing “imperfections” has become the absolute norm. Instagram is a platform where users can share pictures and videos online with their followers. These days, Instagram is taken over by influencers who enhance their bodies with the use of filters and Photoshop in order to appear their “best”. There are currently no restrictions put in place as to who can see these images. Therefore, young children and impressionable teens, who are in the middle of their growth spurts, are forced to see this ideal image of beauty repeatedly. Incredibly, these images are often being portrayed as natural and authentic.

 As a result,  many young girls and boys compare their own physical appearances to the ones of these influencers. And as a majority of the population does not in fact look like them, they end up incredibly insecure. The message that they internalize is that there is something wrong with their own bodies, because they don’t look like the ones in those pictures. Granted, insecurities may be phases that youngsters go through and eventually grow out of on their own.

However, with the modern digital age, social platforms play a huge part in glorifying beauty trends. These trends then go viral everywhere online and are usually met with admiration. When these influencers set an unrealistic beauty standard online, they negatively impact every user that clicks on their profile. Furthermore, this can warp their perception of their bodies and lead to body dysphoria or an unhealthy relationship with food. 

Influencer culture is essentially claiming that the high level of fitness, the perfectly flawless skin and “healthy” diets are all achievable by the average person. The idea being sold to users is that if they just commit enough, and buy all the products influencers recommend, then they too can look flawless. Not only is this untrue, it can also trigger eating disorders among viewers. In reality, there is a distinct lack of transparency about cosmetic surgeries that influencers have done and the resources at their disposal. 

They claim their bodies and faces are natural, all the while getting cosmetic work done, having professional chefs dictate their diets, having the best nutritionists and skin care experts. Due to the distinct differences in social class and environmental stressors  between viewer and influencer, it is completely unrealistic to expect the same outcomes from similar exercises or diets. However, the viewers are often conditioned to believe otherwise. 

Diet Culture and Mental Health  

types of icons of diet pills and diet culture on colorful backgrounds promoted by influencers
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Diet culture can be defined as a belief system that emphasizes “thinness” as the ultimate mark of health and beauty. Thus, diet culture encourages restrictive eating, counting calories and weighing yourself regularly. The toxicity of diet culture is sometimes completely ignored in mainstream media as it has become the norm online. Influencers, whether it is intentional or not, perpetuate diet culture through their extremely modified pictures. People who then view these images, attempt to go on extreme diets in order to alter their bodies drastically. They do this to look like the influencers they follow. 

These platforms give a voice to people that encourage damaging products such as diet pills, teas and body altering corsets. All of which have extremely harmful side effects that, consequently, influencers never post about. They tend to prioritize looks and “quick fixes” over genuine healthcare. The extreme internalization of society’s fat phobia online continues to harm the young and the old that use these platforms. This is, of course, further enhanced by magazines and popular websites photographing women that are naturally thin, or have gotten thin as a result of some extreme foreign diet.

These women and men are shown everywhere in all aspects of media and film. They are portrayed as society’s beauty standard and everyone else is to meet this or be, by default, unattractive.  Additionally, when influencers refuse to be honest about the way they achieved their bodies, they set their followers up for failure. This failure can trigger mental breakdowns for those already struggling with their mental health. Moreover, the pressure to keep up with societal beauty trends causes an array of mental illnesses to flare up or progress further. Some examples include anxiety disorders, clinical depression, and body dysphoria

Positive Cultural Footprint 

Although there are many negative ways to influence an audience, some influencers do use their platforms for good. Youtubers like Zoe Sugg, Louise Pentland and Jonathan Saccone Joly use their online platforms to discuss important matters and spread more positive messages. Sugg, for example, uses her brand Zoella to discuss women’s healthcare and rights. She does this alongside her lifestyle content.

 In addition, sometimes influencers use their platforms to encourage their viewers to take part in important matters such as presidential elections. For some, the personal thoughts of an influencer on politics, can greatly determine their own political stance. When viewers see their favorite influencer educating themselves and becoming an active ally, they too are motivated to do the same. Social media can also assist in bringing attention to important global issues such as being environmentally conscious, the MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement and so much more. In the right hands, internet fame can have a deep and meaningful impact on others. 

Influencer Marketing 

Influencer marketing
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Currently, the influencer marketing business is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Brands have come to view advertisements through social media as a necessity in this modern age. In the past, the relationship between influencers and respective brands was largely in favor of the corporations. These companies could decide whether they were willing to pay a small fee to the influencer in exchange for a shout out on their socials.

Currently, due to the vast amount of popular influencers hiring publicists and agents, the power dynamic between them has shifted. Brands are no longer in full control, because now influencers can safely demand higher compensation for their efforts. This shift in balance only encouraged brands into more competitive markets online. The prices for posting in favor or against competing companies continued to rise. Furthermore, using influencers to promote products has become such a lucrative business, and is deeply intertwined with social media in general. Platforms such as Instagram, now have an updated feature which allows influencers to display their brand deals more clearly. It also offers a shopping tab, making it easier for users to buy the products influencers promote. 

 Along with YouTube, Instagram has become the center for ads, brand deals, affiliated links and sponsored coupon codes. Affiliated links and coupon codes associated with influencers allows them to keep  a small percentage of the profits made through that particular product. They gain this profit every time someone uses their sponsored code or link. 

Accordingly, today’s most popular social media sites include Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, and pinterest. Studies have found that these different platforms cater to specific age groups, particularly in the U.S.  For example, Instagram is typically used by young adults and people in their 20s rather than people aged 30 or over. 

a bar graph displaying age groups and social media popularity in the U.S
 A bar graph displaying the usage of social media platforms by age groups in the U.S. credit:       ourworldindata.org    

These observations are susceptible to progress over time as the younger generation continue to grow up with social media. Large corporate brands tend to use these unpredictable trends of popularity to their advantage. By keeping track of their target audiences, these brands can then cultivate content that specifically suits each age group. Thus, they use this information to boost their own sales and further their reach. 

The Anthropological Importance of Transparency 

In the modern digital age, social media has become deeply ingrained in our day to day life. We are constantly consuming large amounts of content in short periods of time. In order to thrive, it is crucial that we understand the relationship social media  has with our mental and physical well being. The only way to co-exist with the intricate ways of social platforms, is to recognize the harmful conditioning and patterns. Blindly consuming hours of influencer sponsored content without the understanding of how staged it can be, tends to distort our sense of reality. Additionally, it can also misinform us about the way people in the real world communicate or the ways in which they prioritize their life. In an effort to understand the online culture of social media, examining its origins, progress and current side effects can better equip us to safely use these online spaces. 

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References: 

Chen, J. (2021, February 08). What is influencer marketing: How to develop your strategy. Retrieved from https://sproutsocial.com/insights/influencer-marketing/

Day, H. (2019, February 15). How we’re all being changed by influencer culture. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/b5488f38-e9c4-4e0c-95e2-3002f47f88f8

“Diet Culture” & Social Media. (2021, January 28). Retrieved from https://recreation.ucsd.edu/2021/01/diet-culture-social-media/    

Hazell, C. (2019, October 15). The Rise of the Social Media Influencer. Retrieved from https://viewpoint.pointloma.edu/the-rise-of-the-social-media-influencer/

Martineau, P. (2019, June 12). The WIRED Guide to Influencers. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/what-is-an-influencer/

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Link Between Social Media & Body Image. (2019, October 9). Retrieved from https://online.king.edu/news/social-media-and-body-image/

Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2019, September 18). The rise of social media. Retrieved 2021, from https://ourworldindata.org/rise-of-social-media

Rosenwald, M. (2020, June 12). Before Twitter and Facebook, there was Morse code: Remembering social media’s true inventor. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/05/24/before-there-was-twitter-there-was-morse-code-remembering-social-medias-true-inventor/

The Evolution of Social Media: How Did It Begin and Where Could It Go Next? (2021, March 03). Retrieved from https://online.maryville.edu/blog/evolution-social-media/

Valentine, B. (2020, March 24). Diet culture promotes dangerous relationship with food. Retrieved from https://temple-news.com/diet-culture-promotes-dangerous-relationship-with-food/

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