Do you follow someone on social media with a picture-perfect lifestyle, but you suspect that they’re just faking it?

Yeah, me too.

I hear people complaining about social media fakers all the time. Many are frustrated about how ordinary people in their feeds are simply trying too hard. It used to be lifestyle bloggers putting on a dazzling show for their followers, but now it’s your neighbour, your co-worker, and your old classmate.

“If you experience negative emotions, just unfollow them,” I usually say.

But it’s often not that simple in the economy of likes where you can’t separate your online network from your physical world. Unfollowing someone, blocking someone — even stopping to like a friend’s status updates on Instagram, well, that’s something that many posters take personally. Thus we get pulled into this world of the social media fakers.

So we ask ourselves:

How did we end up here? And how do we get out of it?

The Robinson Effect

In 1997, the Swedish public service broadcasters SVT launched Expedition Robinson, the reality tv show spun off the British tv format Survive.

A group of chosen non-celebs (in popular culture commonly referred to as “regular people”) participated in a contest set on a Malaysian island in which people got voted off, one after the other, until one winner could claim the title. The Swedish mainstream audience devoured the show. Partly because of the palm trees, the beaches, and the fact that “ordinary people” were running around half-naked with low blood sugar. It was addictive.

We also saw a new type of love- and hate relationships with these new reality stars. People genuinely loved their favourite characters just as much as they genuinely hated some of the most original ones.

The public engagement caused serious trouble for some of the reality stars who hadn’t succeeded in becoming loved1. They found it difficult to cope with being publicly hated and so they publicly lashed out against the production company, all asking a the same question:

“I’m a human being with many sides. Why portray me as a monster?”

The participants of those early reality shows failed to understand the new format’s drama and without this understanding, they felt victimised.

The New Breed

Fast forward to 2016: Today, reality stars understand how to play the game. They want to be edited as dramatic as possible.

The new breed of reality stars understands that they must deliver drama and that the format doesn’t exist to serve their multi-faceted need for human expression. They’re just in it to put on a show and to kickstart their careers, their name recognition, and their online following.

In Sweden, we turn to popular reality shows like Paradise Hotel, in which participants quickly acquire huge social media followings and tons of tabloid attention — because they put on a show. Internationally, the Kardashian family must be considered the reigning masters of massive social media spin.

What happened during those 19 years between 1997 and 2016? Both the audience and the participants eventually came to terms with the inherent media logic of reality shows. It follows the principles as outlined in the law of diffusion of innovations:

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The law of diffusion of innovation.

Today, people are starting to realize that social media naturals and influencers are encouraged to put on a show. Authenticity is less important than the ability to make the performance look and feel authentic — even if it isn’t. It’s a social and digital form of what storytellers would refer to as the suspension of disbelief.

It took 5-10 years for the mainstream audience to figure out reality television, and it took the mainstream audience 5-10 years to figure out social media as a format.

Where does this leave us?

Fakers vs. Artisans

It’s nothing wrong with only showing one side of something. In fact, most mediums aren’t suited for complex forms of communication, especially if likes and shares are what drives them. If you want to show off the parts of your life that are beautiful and picture perfect, then by all means — go ahead. We must all adapt to each and every medium’s format.

But here’s where the new media logic turns into a double-edged sword:

Social fakeness causes stress and frustration for both the content creator as well as for the follower.

You might be painting a picture perfect lifestyle on Instagram, but most people understand that you’re only putting on a show to get more likes. Fishing for likes tend to reveal more about the content creator than the content itself2.

We start asking questions like:

  • “Why is this person trying so desperately to paint this picture of a perfect life?”
  • “What is this person compensating for?”
  • “Don’t they understand that we can see what they’re doing?”

People desperately seeking attention and validation through social media are at risk of becoming victimised. Instead of becoming an elite class, the mainstream increasingly frowns at their desperation by placing them at the bottom of the status ladder. Author Neil Strauss wrote in Wall Street Journal:

“A status update with no likes (or a clever tweet that without retweets) becomes the equivalent of a joke met with silence. It must be rethought and rewritten. And so we don’t show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us.”

It’s possible that we will see a new divide emerge between people, where we on one hand will have a generation of social media fakers desperately screaming for approval, literally trying to keep up with the Kardashians — and on the other hand, we’ll have a class of social media artisans, who are focusing their time and resources, not on shameless self-promotion, but on crafting and showcasing various forms of unique online art.

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  1. The situation got even worse as the first person voted off the show committed suicide tragically, forcing SVT and the production company to re-cut the rest of the programs to lessen the drama.
  2. There have been many conversations lately about the “fakeness” of social media, and one recent talking point is how Essena O’Neill, a young Australian Instagram influencer, publicly ranted about her (and basically everybody else’s) fakeness in social media. She “quit social media” and deleted both her Instagram and her Youtube account — only to use the attention to launch her next online enterprise.