Fionnuala Jones didn’t plan on becoming an influencer, but much of her income is now made online. Here, she writes about the parasocial relationships that define our online lives, talks to other influencers, and asks where is the line when it comes to sharing things with, and befriending, strangers…
Brandon Flowers, easily recognised as the frontman of The Killers, was my first notable celebrity crush.
It was something about the handlebar moustache (don’t) and that old American/undertaker wardrobe he donned during the Sam’s Town era. As a child of the internet, I spent the early days of YouTube obsessively watching him in their music videos, his image littered across my desktop profile. Of course, it goes without saying that the Las Vegas rock star knew nothing about me or my life in Ballymore, Cobh, Co Cork, aged 11 – and still doesn’t, much to my dismay.
In 1956, sociologists Richard Wohl and Donald Horton originally coined the concept of parasocial relationships to refer to this phenomenon: a person invests emotional energy and attachment in a media figure, and they develop a sense of kinship and intimacy that makes them feel as though they know the celebrity intimately — even though the celebrity has no idea they even exist.
“The spectacular fact about such personae is that they can claim and achieve an intimacy with what are literally crowds of strangers,” the sociologists Richard Wohl and Donald Horton wrote in Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance.
“This intimacy, even if it is an imitation and a shadow of what is ordinarily meant by that word, is extremely influential with, and satisfying for, the great numbers who willingly receive it and share in it.”
Noah Centineo, who earned the nickname of The Internet’s Boyfriend after a slate of appearances in Netflix rom-coms, recently referred to the phenomenon in an interview. “I enjoy being The Internet’s Boyfriend,” he said. “It’s an honour!” However, with technology advancing and social media continuing to play an intrinsic part of our lives, it’s also bridging the gap between fan and idol – at least, from the fan’s perspective. “What’s interesting is, you do something and then people are like, ‘what the fuck are you doing?’” Centineo explains.
“You make funny decisions as a joke to yourself and your friends and people are like, ‘fuck you! What are you doing to my face?’ And you’re like ‘no no, it’s my face.’”
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
As well as that, the definition has now expanded to include content creators and digital influencers, i.e. your fave girl-next-door demonstrating her smoky eye look on Instagram stories, or the podcaster who accompanies you on your daily commute.
Laura Young is a content creator originally from Carlow but living in Dublin. Generally, her content falls into the lifestyle category, with the topics of her YouTube videos ranging from what she eats in a day as a vegan and a review of a posture corrector. Since starting in 2010, Young has amassed 81,000 followers across all her social channels.
“I watched the handful of beauty YouTubers there were at the time and one day said, ‘fuck it, I have a camera, I can do that!’ and started recording myself. There were practically no Irish doing it at that point.”
Having retired an older, cringier account (by her own admission), she found herself drawn back into the world of YouTube in 2015 during an extended period of leave from her day job at the time. As her following has grown, so too have the number of opportunities that have arisen for her to make money from her hobby.
“It’s only really in the last 1-2 years I’ve seen potential for it to be a decent side-earner. It wasn’t when I hit a certain number per se, I guess because my niche is still quite small, I think I’ve become one of the go-to vegan/cruelty free content creators?”
Since the early days, Young has maintained a connection with her audience, regularly holding Q&As and events while taking feedback to shape her content schedule. However, the growth of certain channels has meant she’s had to compromise on what she can offer them now.
“I find lately since my Instagram following went over the 20k mark, it is essentially impossible for me to keep up with the one-to-one connections I once had,” she says. “At the start I saw it as me chatting with a group of friends. Nowadays it’s less so, which saddens me. I never set out to make a big following, in fact if I could pare it back, I actually would, to get that intimate personal connection back.”
While the creator may suffer as their community grows, it’s been argued that fans feel the opposite effect. Research shows that belonging to a fan community – whether it’s a popular YouTuber or a your favourite podcasting troupe – can help you develop a sense of purpose. But what happens when they in turn begin to rely on the influencers – often seen by them as their peers – as leading the charge?
“Since making some ethical/moral changes in my life, I feel like I do come under more scrutiny for my actions,” Young admits.
A regular host of wellness workshops, she found herself facing the ire of her followers when she gave attendees goodie bags containing non-vegan health bars. “For example, I popped some health bars into one of my workshop goodie bags last year and I was shocked at the amount of messages I got telling me that as the bars contain honey, they had no business being in my goodie bags. Such a minor, minor thing but yep, scrutiny has increased,” she continues.
IN REAL LIFE
Initially, I used my own personal social media accounts to promote my full-time writing and podcast Bandwagons. Real life and work life bled into each other when I began talking about a variety of topics on my Instagram Stories – namely TV, lifestyle and beauty. In quite a short space of time – roughly nine months – I went from 6k followers to almost 45k. I’ve been presented with opportunities aplenty.
The world of influencers, which I previously derided in tongue-in-cheek sketches, I now find myself a part of. I signed to an agency. I get paid what I feel is, quite frankly, silly amounts of money to promote brands – money which I’ve assigned to a mortgage fund to justify my actions.
And yet, there’s a part of my brain that hasn’t acknowledged the transition from personal to public matter.
I had to delete a photo of myself in ass-less chaps from a festival because followers started making troll accounts to call me a tramp.
I’ve had to turn off comments on posts featuring my boyfriend because seemingly innocuous tags of random accounts drove my paranoia through the roof. I’ve had to respond to people berating me for not being online at a certain time serving them free content. How can people that speak to me like I’m their best friend also freely harass me?
Ultimately, first world problems – but valid problems nonetheless if creating online content is something you a) fundamentally enjoy and b) occasionally make money from doing so. Beyond these specific examples, there’s also the issue of followers breaching basic personal boundaries.
GIVE AND TAKE
On the other hand, influencers can often get as much as they give from their audience. Maeve Madden, a fitness influencer whose content revolves around workout videos, now considers her followers (all 195,000 of them on Instagram), to be her friends.
“I started off just like everyone posting random pictures on the ‘gram,” she explains. “I had already been doing commercial modelling in the UK and Ireland and was sharing a lot of the campaigns of brands.” Upon leaving the world of modelling, Madden found the app taking up more of her time as she shared her self-described journey of going from “strong to skinny”.
“My following just grew,” she says, simply. “It wasn’t intentional, it just happened.”
Understandable, given the honest approach she takes with her followers when it comes to sharing her health struggles, from managing her Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) to her Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
Last year, Madden underwent laparoscopy surgery to remove a large fibroid from her uterus. “I guess over time the app has developed so much that we have so much connection. Now it’s my full- time job – I love my followers because I have developed friendships from this. I began to share so much and brought my girls on the journey with me.”
Madden believes her audience have a deep understanding when it comes to her work as a digital content creator, and don’t necessarily hold her to impossible standards. Trolling is also not something she deals with on a regular basis. “I believe, having such a large audience, there are always people who will be out to go against your opinion or views,” she says.
“I create content to the best of my ability. Any advertising I personally do is because I am honest and enjoy working with such brands – I am lucky that my audience know this. “I suppose I’ve grown a thicker skin. In the past, I would get so upset at mean comments and now I just laugh and delete.”
Young, who has at times received unsolicited medical advice from her followers, has had to draw a line under sharing details of her personal life with her followers. “I will never ever EVER post about my relationship online again,” Young shares.
“I’ve had my private life very much violated in the past, multiple times, mostly about my romantic relationships and truth be told, that violation was a factor in the demise of said relationship. You could say I’ve been burned, and I won’t allow myself to be burned again.”
CAN THEY SHUT UP SHOP?
Can content creators afford to close those doors though, when brands and agencies often favour organic content that’s “real”, where influencers give a behind-the-scenes of their day- to-day lives? “I think you can still have an online persona and an online authentic relationship with your community,” Lynn Hunter, head of Hunter Communications and The Collaborations Agency says.
“Some people choose to have a no-holds relationship with their audience, whereas some people find clever ways of not sharing everything.”
She uses the example of model and author Chrissy Teigen to demonstrate her point. Where bona fide celebrities and your local influencer will always differ is the degrees of separation – Teigen will always maintain a level of distance between her and her fanbase and can afford to bare all as she so often does across Twitter and Instagram.
“If you’re a content creator, you will only share certain aspects of your life,” Hunter says. “I still think you can have a very balanced life and attitude towards content with regards to what you’re willing to share or not.” However, while a symbiotic relationship isn’t make-or-break for a content creator’s career, she also acknowledges the appetite for content that followers can feel involved with.
“Video content is where it’s going. A lot of people will bring the audience on the journey, using polls to get people to make their decision. It’s taking it to a whole new level. There are levels to it, and I think it depends how deep you want to get in there.”
So, where do we go from here? Try as we might, the Pandora’s box of an influencer’s existence will never be entirely closed, and followers continue to ask for content that connects with them. Contrary to what any modern-day episode of Barney & Friends might tell you, and the negative experiences I spoke about earlier, I think I’ll continue to talk to strangers online.
It’s easier to make friends thanks to a shared love of reality TV in the DMs than it ever will be for me to speak to a stranger at a sewing class. I learn something new everyday thanks to my followers, and hopefully they get something from what I do. Although the question remains.
Where do you draw the line when it comes to befriending online?[/restrict]