The faux-intimacy of our social media personalities is just as troubling
Over the weekend, online personality Linus Ekenstam shared a video from an Indonesian “influencer farm”. These farms are factory-like — would-be social media stars each stand in individual pods or rooms, with ring lights and smartphones filming content, typically after some period of training. And they’re not small operations, either: hundreds or even thousands of people will occupy these venues, all in the service of creating marketable videos.
If you thought American influencer culture was creepy with everyone photographing their food or beach trips, then imagine that phenomenon at an industrialised scale. Think call centres, but instead of making a thousand cold calls a day, influencers are creating content with the hopes that viewers will click “add-to-cart”.
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This type of content generation isn’t specific to Indonesia, either: it’s also a well-known tactic in China, where live-streamed e-commerce makes up a multi-billion-dollar industry. Here, Chinese companies have created “influencer incubators” that push out content by social media personalities over eight-hour shifts specifically tailored to go viral at any given moment.
As far as we know, these same types of influencer farms don’t exist (at least, not in the same way) in the United States because, for the most part, they don’t appeal there. While there has been speculation about American viewers being manipulated by tactics like Russian bot farms, insidious, self-esteem-warping filters, unmarked #sponsored content, surreal YouTube content farmers, and more recently AI influencers — all of which suggest a sort of “uncanny valley” of almost but not-quite-human content — mass-produced videos like what Ekenstam describes are yet to be seen in high volume. Yet the US is no less susceptible to consumer trends and, more seriously, propaganda, so why not?
In the United States, online personalities occupy a unique emotional space. They create an illusion of intimacy between the influencer and users. And while American influencers may be sponsored by corporations, there is a stronger emphasis on the parasocial element of social media content. Well-known examples include the ever-controversial Dylan Mulvaney or Mikayla Nogueira, who frame themselves as “friends-in-waiting”. We’ll take their lipstick recommendations, but we’ll also listen to stories about their sex life — often affording them more time than we would our actual friends. Americans crave a certain unvarnished authenticity, even when it’s completely scripted, as with The Kardashians.
This isn’t to say that parasocial relationships between influencers and viewers don’t exist in China: they certainly do (parakin idols, which are meant to emulate family members, being one of the most intense expressions). But the texture is different — they’re more formalised and, therefore, more easily replicable. Where Americans crave at least a veneer of authenticity, in Asia there is a greater hunger for plain content — which is how the likes of 24/7 live-stream entertainers came into being.
It may be tempting to sneer at the dystopian nature of Asia’s influencer farms, but is the faux-intimacy of our social media stars any better? We now live in an increasingly dystopian world in which parasocial relationships with influencers are replacing actual human bonds. With these boundaries becoming ever more blurred, it is difficult to know where our online life starts and our real life ends. This might just be the most disturbing part about it.