How Instagram Became a Non-Stop Streaming Reality Show

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Despite being a marketer, I managed to stay away from the influencer mania on Instagram — save for a few exceptions I had to research for my work. A few months ago, I decided to start following some local and some international influencers – just to check it out.

You know where this is going, don’t you? Yes, I got sucked in.

A few days ago, I found myself wondering if Chiara Ferragni’s daughter is OK (don’t worry; the kiddo is fine and out of the hospital by now). If you’ve been living under a rock, Chiara Ferragni is the world’s most famous influencer. With 2.5 million followers on Instagram, she sets the tone for everything fashion and beauty.

Prominent as she may be and cute as her daughter may be, I was still left wondering why I even cared for someone I have never met and most likely never will. Why is someone I have never met passing through my mind, albeit briefly?

Long story short: because I was invested. To harness that “authentic”, “real” vibe, influencers don’t just share things they do professionally: runway shows and new make-up line launches in this case. They invite you into their homes and into their lives until you feel like you have a real stake into what happens with them.

How Did We Get Here?

Remember the days when you’d login to Instagram and see photos of your friends’ holidays, their families, and occasionally their fancy meal? These are the same days when glamour shots were reserved for actors and singers.

But all that was when Instagram stories weren’t a thing. Today, all that has changed. Influencers are streaming 24/7 and you pretty much know all there is to know (or all they are willing to share) about their lives. You can add up to 100 stories per day, every day. 100 photos or videos are more than enough to document someone’s life in excruciating detail.

It’s an on-going, non-stop reality show. The only differences between Instagram stories and reality shows are that you can choose your characters and switch between shows anytime. If your favorite influencer hasn’t posted anything in the last four hours (the audacity!), someone in another time zone is definitely working hard at showing you their favorite morning routine or a cute photo of them sharing a late breakfast with their significant other.

Much like in a reality show, the life influencers broadcast comes with a script. But it’s scripted “lightly” enough to give the impression of authenticity. More recently, you get to see more than the usual glamour life. You see life as it is (or, as it fits their brand image) with its up and downs. There have been countless influencers sharing their personal drama online and crying on stories or live videos.

Just like in a reality show.

Has the Death of Traditional Media Birthed a New Kind of Media?

But why do we flock to influencers’ feeds? Is it because we trust them or is it because we look for inspiration? What makes us say we absolutely love someone we’ve never met or grab our digital pitchforks when an influencer does or says something controversial?

Interestingly enough, one study suggests that the lack of trust in traditional media has led to the recent influencer inflation. Most people believe that reporters are paid to cover a story and ignore another – and I’m talking about payment other than their salary.

Here’s where things get even more interesting: the same people know for a fact that influencers are paid to recommend a product or another. Oftentimes, influencer fees are public. Still, people appear to trust them more than they trust the press.

But do they, though? Another study found that only 3% of people are actually influenced by celebrity influencers, while 30% trust non-celebrity bloggers more because they seem more authentic.

Ironic, isn’t it? Non-celebrity bloggers are typically those that disclose far less about their private lives than Instagram “royalties”. Has this open-door policy stopped working? Or is it time to re-name this industry?

Influencer Marketing or Entertainment?

If influencers don’t really influence viewers, can we still call them that? Recently, more and more people are switching to the term “content creators”, although others argue that there are significant differences between the two terms.

I’m with the latter category here.

To my marketing mind, a content creator is someone who creates content on a topic that they excel at: chefs are a good example here, along with doctors who choose to educate their audience in a more informal way. This type of content comes from a place of authority. Choosing the right make-up palette or the best exotic destination for your next holiday is more a matter of taste than authority.

In fact, you’ll see that more and more social media stars use disclaimers to say that you should use the products they recommend at your own risk. They cannot be held liable if the face moisturizer they recommend flares up your eczema – they are not medical professionals.

So, if they don’t influence and the content they create isn’t authoritative content, what are these people whose lives we like to watch? For me, the answer is simple: they are entertainers.

You soak up their stories with the same interest that you soak up a new trending TV show. When the first season ends, you wait impatiently for the next one, much like you wait for your favorite influencer to post another story. Heck, you may even turn against an influencer you once loved just like Game of Thrones fans endless ranted about the show’s rather bland ending.

One important thing, though: when a TV show reaches its final season, your life doesn’t change. Sure, you may be a bit sad that you won’t get to see your favorite characters again. You may even join the fandom and talk about it for years to come (Star Wars, Star Trek, or Doctor Who communities are great examples here). But you know (I really hope you do!) that your life won’t be neither better nor worse without a TV show in it.

The same goes for social media stars. In my three months of following the activity of approximately 10 social media stars, my feed changed a lot. Some of these influencers eventually dropped lower on my feed and I literally forgot all about them and their existence.

Was my life better or worse than when they help prime real estate on my screen? Neither.

Please keep this in mind when/if you start comparing yourself to a social media star: these people are entertainers. There is a branding strategy behind each of their stories (yes, even the ones that seem to be raw emotion and nothing else), just like there is a strategy behind every episode of Keeping Up with The Kardashians. As “lightly” scripted as their feeds are, they are still scripted. If you think it’s foolish to compare your life with that of Daenerys Targaryen (because you don’t have any dragons to nurture, obviously!), it’s equally misguided to compare it with the life of a social media star.

As always, there is more to their real lives than what you see on Instagram stories. Oftentimes, that “more” refers to compromises that you wouldn’t be willing to make. So any comparison between your life and what you see on any screen is moot.

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