Follow the (Social Media) Leader

To what extent does Influencer culture feed on our own lack of self-confidence?

Remember before social media, when the word follower had only negative connotations? If you were a follower, you were not a leader. Being a leader was good. Being a follower was bad. In high school, the popular kids were leaders. Their minions were followers. Nobody wanted to be viewed as a follower.

Fast forward to 2019, and the Influencer has become a recognized and impactful engine for marketing and selling… well, anything. Increasingly, brands are partnering with social media Influencers to sell their products. Who are these Influencers selling to? Their followers. The tribe of people who unashamedly follow them for their content, tips, tricks, and of course their product recommendations.

People are spending hours scrolling through their Instagram and Facebook feeds devouring content. Some of it is posted or shared by their friends. But, much of it is coming from people they follow but don’t know personally: the Influencers.

This follower phenomenon didn’t happen overnight. It escalated slowly, sneakily, over a span of years. When Facebook launched, you connected with someone by adding them as a friend. The label was perfectly unoffensive. “Add Me as a Friend”, a new acquaintance would say to you at a party. “Send me a Friend Request”. Who doesn’t want to be a friend?

Later, when Facebook offered business pages, you could connect with a business on Facebook by becoming a fan. Just like becoming a friend, who doesn’t mind becoming a fan? Of course you’re a fan of that business! That’s why you want to connect to their content, after all. Again, perfectly unoffensive. No shame in being a fan of a business or brand, or even a celebrity you like.

Twitter was the first mainstream social media platform to use the term follower, or at least that’s how I remember it. When I started using Twitter in 2011, I don’t remember feeling bothered by becoming a follower of the people and businesses I wanted to follow on Twitter. “Who are you following on Twitter?”, friends would ask. Nobody seemed to focus too much on the subtle transition from being a fan or a friend to being a follower.

It’s hard to say if it’s the label of follower or just the mindset shift toward following others, but it’s become normal to allow a stranger you follow on social media to Influence your purchasing decisions. With my clients and my peers (30-somethings), Instagram reigns supreme as the most popular social media platform. With Instagram stories and IGTV in addition to regular posts, the line between a stranger and a friend is blurring more every day.

The fashion blogger you followed for inspiration is now talking to you, one-on-one it seems, in a video where you can see her real life. You’re basically besties. Want to know more about the skirt she’s wearing or the necklace you noticed in her latest post? Just click on her link and those items can be yours in mere minutes! Let’s say you decide to try Whole30. There’s no need to do it alone! Instagram hosts a whole community of Whole30 experts for you to follow. You start following a few of them to get new recipes, and the next thing you know, you’re buying new spatulas, food storage containers, and a Le Creuset dutch oven. If you’re a new to yoga, you may start following some popular yoga instructors. When they all sing the praises of Lululemon leggings, you must have a pair. They tell you about a product in their stories, and all you have to do is “swipe up” to be directed straight to the product website. You’re buying things you didn’t even know existed before, and it’s all because of your connection to a stranger. A stranger whose opinion you value. Why? You’ve been influenced.

Here’s the question I’m pondering lately. To what extent does Influencer culture feed on our own lack of self-confidence? As kids and teenagers, it’s typical to develop a “need” to own something because all the cool kids have it. Whether it’s a pair of shoes, a jacket, or a backpack, I can see the wave of a new trend making it’s way through a group of young people. Those cool kids? The ones who start the trend? They’re Influencers.

Trends, and their followers, exist in adults also. But, were grown-ups always this influenceable? Are we diminishing our self-confidence by following Influencers? Or are Influencers so successful because we were lacking self-confidence already? If a person is truly confident and self-assured, do they still feel that need to buy the Lululemon leggings? Can you be self-confident and also be a follower?

In my own social media, I do follow a fair number of Influencers. I value their opinions in their respective fields. If there’s a new veggie chopper that could simplify my dinner prep, I want to know about it. If a clean, toxin-free mascara is getting rave reviews, I may want to give it a try. But lately, I’ve made an effort to be more mindful about the impact of Influencers on my own purchasing decisions. Is this a product I really desire and value? Or, would this purchase be to follow the crowd for optics alone? Is this something I want or need, or just something that would make me look “cool”? I want to preserve my own uniqueness, and I’m comfortable being different than the crowd. But, I honestly do love Lululemon. That’s the balance I’m trying to strike in my own life: it’s a focus on being true to myself.

Wife, Mother, Daughter, Believer, Lifter, Achiever, Producer, Dreamer, Overanalyst, Problem Solver, Atlantan.

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