The Influencer Warning Us About the Internet

My longest parasocial relationship, with a popular beauty influencer named Jenn Im, is going eight years strong. I discovered her in a vlog titled “Meet My Boyfriend” and have, along with more than 3 million other subscribers, kept up with what she eats in a day and her monthly beauty favorites ever since. Her videos have become a salve for my brain, allowing me to relax by watching someone else’s productive, aesthetic life.

Jenn, however, has complicated things by adding an unexpected topic to her repertoire: the dangers of social media. She recently spoke about disengaging from it for her well-being; she also posted an Instagram Story about the risks of ChatGPT and, in none other than a YouTube video, recommended Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, a seminal piece of media critique from 1985 that denounces television’s reduction of life to entertainment. (Her other book recommendations included Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari, and Recapture the Rapture, by Jamie Wheal.)

Social-media platforms are “preying on your insecurities; they’re preying on your temptations,” Jenn explained to me in an interview that shifted our parasocial connection, at least for an hour, to a mere relationship. “And, you know, I do play a role in this.” Jenn makes money through aspirational advertising, after all—a familiar part of any influencer’s job. “This is how I pay my bills; this is how I support my family,” she said. “But that’s only a small portion of it.”

I first noticed Jenn’s social-media critiques in a video Q&A, where she discussed parasocial relationships. The video is exceptionally aesthetic. Jenn is dressed to the nines in her California kitchen, wearing a pair of diamond knocker earrings from 8 Other Reasons; she fluidly carries out an Estée Lauder ad in a Parachute robe before the first two minutes are over. She’s pro–parasocial relationships, she explains to the camera, but only if we remain aware that we’re in one. “This relationship does not replace existing friendships, existing relationships,” she emphasizes. “This is all supplementary. Like, it should be in addition to your life, not a replacement.” I sat there watching her talk about parasocial relationships while absorbing the irony of being in one with her.

[Read: The influencer industry is having an existential crisis]

Lifestyle vlogs romanticize the most mundane parts of daily existence in a way that can feel nonsensical to the uninitiated. People record themselves grocery shopping and brushing their teeth, but aesthetically, with soothing background music and voice-overs of the influencer’s thoughts. Watching someone else live their life is easier than living my own, and it gives me ideas on how to optimize my existence. But the more aware I become of the scaffolding beneath the facade, the more disoriented I feel.

The open acknowledgment of social media’s inner workings, with content creators exposing the foundations of their content within the content itself, is what Alice Marwick, an associate communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described to me as “meta-content.” Meta-content can be overt, such as the vlogger Casey Neistat wondering, in a vlog, if vlogging your life prevents you from being fully present in it; Meghan Markle explaining, in a selfie-style video for the Harry & Meghan docuseries, why she and Prince Harry recorded so many videos amid a family breakup; or the YouTuber Jackie Aina noting, in a video about YouTube burnout, that making videos is fundamentally about getting views. But meta-content can also be subtle: a vlogger walking across the frame before running back to get the camera. Or influencers vlogging themselves editing the very video you’re watching, in a moment of space-time distortion.

Viewers don’t seem to care. We keep watching, fully accepting the performance. Perhaps that’s because the rise of meta-content promises a way to grasp authenticity by acknowledging artifice; especially in a moment when artifice is easier to create than ever before, audiences want to know what’s “real” and what isn’t. As Susan Murray, a media-studies professor at NYU, explains, “The idea of a space where you can trust no sources, there’s no place to sort of land, everything is put into question, is a very unsettling, unsatisfying way to live.” So we continue to search for, as Murray observes, the “agreed-upon things, our basic understandings of what’s real, what’s true.” But when the content we watch becomes self-aware and even self-critical, it raises the question of whether we can truly escape the machinations of social media. Maybe when we stare directly into the abyss, we begin to enjoy its company.

Digital authenticity—which Marwick noted is “culturally constructed” to begin with—has shifted over the years. On Tumblr and early Instagram circa 2014, curated perfection was the preferred way to exist online—an image of the back of a girl’s head, for instance, with bouncy ringlets and a robin’s-egg-blue bow. The next few years brought the no-makeup selfie and the confessional, long-form Instagram caption to the fore, indicating a desire to accomplish authenticity through transparency and introspection. Those genres were eventually questioned too: Cultural critics began to argue that being online is always a performance and thus inherently a fabrication. In her 2019 book, Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino described how online spaces, unlike physical ones, lack a backstage where performance can be suspended. “Online,” she writes, “your audience can hypothetically keep expanding forever, and the performance never has to end.” Online scams of this period, such as Fyre Festival and the Caroline Calloway moment, relied on the social-media presentations of doctored realities. If everything is fake anyway, why bother with the truth?

Then came BeReal, a social app that sends users once-a-day push notifications to take simultaneous front- and back-camera photos without filters or captions. It was positioned as a counter to online inauthenticity, but as R. E. Hawley wrote, “The difference between BeReal and the social-media giants isn’t the former’s relationship to truth but the size and scale of its deceptions.” BeReal users still angle their camera and wait to take their daily photo at an aesthetic time of day. The snapshots merely remind us how impossible it is to stop performing online.

It can be difficult, in this context, to imagine how much further the frontiers of our digital world can stretch. Jenn’s concern over the future of the internet stems, in part, from motherhood. She recently had a son, Lennon (whose first birthday party I watched on YouTube), and worries about the digital world he’s going to inherit. Back in the age of MySpace, she had her own internet friends and would sneak out to parking lots at 1 a.m. to meet them in real life: “I think this was when technology was really used as a tool to connect us.” Now, she explained, it’s beginning to ensnare us. Posting content online is no longer a means to an end so much as the end itself.

[Read: ‘Scar girl’ is a sign that the internet is broken]

I asked Jenn if she ever worried about discussing the risks of social media, given her position as an influencer. She told me that, to the contrary, this is exactly what motivates her: “I can’t change the world, but if I can affect my sphere of reach, then I’m going to try and do that.” But it’s not that simple. Meta-content reminds us that a performance of authenticity is still a performance. The artifice of the internet stays, even when we fold it in upon itself. It’s easy to think of our online self as just one of the many versions of us—who we are at work is not the same as who we are with our parents or friends. But the online version can be edited in ways that the others can’t.

Audiences, likely familiar with posting on social media themselves, recognize these constructions. There are times where I look at the tiny digital version of myself on Instagram that looks and acts like me but remains a bit too polished—an uncanny valley between me and myself. “There’s still a question and interrogation of what’s real at the base, but [audiences are] more willing to accept … distortions or performance” than they were in the past, Murray says.

We used to view influencers’ lives as aspirational, a reality that we could reach toward. Now both sides acknowledge that they’re part of a perfect product that the viewer understands is unattainable and the influencer acknowledges is not fully real.

A few weeks after our call, Jenn put up a vlog. I watched a clip of our interview in it, a different angle of our Zoom call than I had experienced. “As you saw, we just had an extremely long conversation about social media, parasocial relationships, and the future,” she says in the clip, later adding, “I forgot to say this to her in the interview, but I truly think that my videos are less about me and more of a reflection of where you are currently … You are kind of reflecting on your own life and seeing what resonates [with] you, and you’re discarding what doesn’t. And I think that’s what’s beautiful about it.”

As I watched a video of her being interviewed by me for the article on meta-content you’re reading on this very page, I found that this sentiment rang true. Watching Jenn’s wedding video made me seriously consider marriage as a choice I would one day make; watching and bookmarking her newborn-essentials video made me feel more prepared for the daunting task of pregnancy (despite having no plans to undertake it anytime soon).

But meta-content is fundamentally a compromise. Recognizing the delusion of the internet doesn’t alter our course within it so much as remind us how trapped we truly are—and how we wouldn’t have it any other way.