Friends and Parasites

I am very influenceable. I have been influenced to put raspberries on peanut butter toast by a woman who claims to have invented it. I have been influenced to eat off a tray because then you can eat in bed without feeling weird—and because it looks nice. I have not, unlike probably hundreds of other people, been influenced to stick my foot in the gap between an airplane and the jet bridge when boarding; et, when I get on a plane, I think of the story reposts this Instagram influencer shared of his followers putting their feet in the gap. I think to myself, I’m not going to do that because that would be silly. 

I’m picky about which influencers I follow on Instagram. I’m generally a judgemental person, and I don’t like to think I can be easily manipulated. I like to think I make conscious decisions about the media landscape I want to live in. So I tell myself—and at times others—that the ones I do choose to follow are “different.” They are not really influencers; they are writers, photographers, artists, comedians, and spiritual advisors. Or, as I tell myself, their accounts are performance art. 

I know other Instagram influencer accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers are made up of specifically curated posts that come together to sell an image. I also know these accounts subconsciously influence each other to the point where they may not know why they are posting the images they are posting. Whenever I see an “influencer” release a book or a song or start posting art out of nowhere, it feels wrong to me. Why should their work be reaching a larger audience than an actual writer or artist? It’s unfair while knowing how hard people without large followings struggle to get published. So, the “influencer” books I have read must be different—they must be genuine and made by people who were artists before they were influencers. In a way, I’m jealous of the attention they get automatically, without having to have their work necessarily be any good. Still, I don’t really trust my own judgment. Who am I to say content that thousands of people love is bad?

We can see influencers as friends or as parasites. We learn from and are inspired by them while they benefit from and live off of our attention and influenceability. If they sell ads, then everything they promote contributes to selling those ads. It’s weird because I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve asked for or bought something because of an Instagram ad, whether that be a #ad from an influencer, an affiliate link, or a traditional ad—but I could name countless examples of practices I have taken from social media. While my aversion to advertising may prevent me from directly supporting the ads influencers post, I am still supporting the platform where they find new customers. I like posts, I repost, I send DMs, and I’ve even bought account-branded merchandise from Instagram creators. I perform all these acts not only because I feel it is my parasocial due, but also because I love the images. I love the ideas or jokes or aesthetics they convey, and I want to be associated with them just like the people who actually swipe up on #ads to buy skincare products, loungewear, or hotel packages.

I met one of these Instagram artists this week at an event on her book tour. It was held in a small gallery space, and there was a line out the door. Inside, it was so packed that it was hard to walk. The crowd was predictable: mostly artsy-looking 20-somethings dressed aesthetically adjacent to the woman they were there to see. I did not stand out. I’m 19, and I picked out my outfit specifically to be something I felt the woman from Instagram might wear. I did my makeup like her and packed her book into a tiny bag so I could get it signed. I considered wearing her merch, but I decided it would be tacky.

She was slightly shorter than I imagined but was otherwise entirely what I expected. I’ve encountered famous people from the internet in real life before, but this experience was especially striking. Perhaps it’s more evidence of why she’s different. Her presence was so predictable it was unnerving. After having listened to this woman speak for hours, seen hundreds of photos of her, and read her writing for years, why would there be any surprises? Since she talks about people with large followings being normal and fan dynamics being weird, everyone made a point to act normal around her. There was a moment when she needed to get across the gallery space, and I moved out of her way while thinking, “I am being so normal about this. I am treating her like anyone else who needed to traverse this space.” I just smiled parasocially at her. Still, I recognized that there’s something inherently not normal about this whole thought process. When I finally did get to speak to her, I had nothing to say. I didn’t have any questions for her because I felt like an expert in her philosophies and practice. I ended up complimenting the food at the event—I knew she had picked it out from watching her Instagram story that morning. 

For me, Instagram serves to fill some void that exists in “real life.” Discussions of LGBT+ issues or mental illness can range from acting as a critical haven to a breeding ground for toxic behavior. Instagram was a window into contemporary social issues when I was just in middle school. When I was in 8th grade, I vividly remember seeing a meme on a “niche meme” page about how judging other girls for how they present themselves is falling into a misogynistic trap. This was not something my all-girls middle school was talking about. Everyone made fun of me for talking about the most basic feminist concepts by calling me angry. In high school, the memes and long captions filled a void at a time when my classes were all very prescriptive. Now, I’m taking a class where half the topics this Instagram artist/writer talks about are all over our syllabus.

Now, I think of how the woman with 150,000 followers talked about the way a Tumblr life advice blog impacted her as a teenager. She had written it at her most vulnerable moments. I know this because I went into the archives of the account to find the posts she described. I could feel her parasocial feelings through her 16-year-old self’s words. Scrolling through the blogger’s writing, I could see its clear influence on the Instagram woman, even on the things I hate about her. I hope when I’m 28 or whatever I can look back at her influence on me in a positive light—like how the Instagram millennial looks at her Tumblr mentor. I hope we all are getting something valuable out of this digital landscape. I know it’s kind of awful. I hope we have a nicer one in the future.