Catherine Toth Fox: Why we can’t leave social media

It happens all the time: someone uploads a photo to Instagram, adds a funny caption and a few hashtags, then waits, reloads, checks the likes, waits some more, scrolls through the feed, feels depressed, eats carbs.

This is the cycle of a content creator, a fancy name for someone who creates videos, photos, graphics or blogs and posts them on websites or social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok.

Some do it for a living; others do it for fun. I happen to belong to the first category. And while the Venn diagram might suggest an overlap – that there are people who do it as a job and actually enjoy it – I don’t fall into that common area.

“A Common Consciousness”

There was a time when I first joined these platforms – Facebook in 2008, Twitter in 2009, Instagram in 2011 – the whole concept of social media was exciting and new. I reconnected with childhood friends, long-lost classmates, old professors, former co-workers.

It was a sure way to meet new people; Instead of giving out my cell phone number, I could just friend her on Facebook and lurk. That’s how I got in touch with my husband – before talking to him about a story I was writing, I followed his Facebook page. (That’s also how I discovered he had an adorable dog and ate fried chicken and waffles.)

But social media quickly turned into a global competition over who has the most friends, whose photos get the most likes, who is the best mom, the best cook, the best dressed, the prettiest, the most successful, who is the most amazing who has the best kitchen, the cutest baby, the smartest dog and the best life ever.

It became the ultimate Hoss pick, and if you didn’t make the most likely list in high school, good luck trying to be relevant on social media.

And it’s only gotten worse.

Ever since these platforms gave people ways to make money – 18 year old dancer Charli D’Amelio has made $17.5 million from TikTok in 2021 and soccer phenom Cristiano Ronaldo is getting paid an average of $2.3 million per post on Instagram – there are incentives for people to grow their followers.

And if there is an incentive, there are dubious methods to achieve it.

Vector illustration 3D social media like icons on transparent background.  Design elements for web
Influencers make money by racking up likes on their photos and videos, but the rest of us like to see those thumbs ups and hearts too. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Pay for followers

Ever heard Jay Alvarrez?

(Me neither. I had to google it.)

Apparently he was born and raised on Oahu, around 26 years old and likes to jump out of planes. Oh, and he has 7.6 million followers on Instagram. That’s not nearly as many as Ronaldo, for example, who tops the list with 462 million followers. But Alvarrez tops a definite list: He’s the celebrity with the most fake followers.

Yes, fake followers.

Lots of people have them.

Sometimes it’s not on purpose. Like infestation, bots can hook up to your Instagram, post random comments, or ask you for DMs. (This is a direct message for you Facebook users reading this.) More than 2.7 million of Alvarrez’s followers, or 36%, are considered fake. according to a report by international marketing agency Sortlist.

But often these fake followers are bought. yes, bought Paid to increase followers, which companies often only pay attention to when hiring influencers.

In short, the more followers you have – real or imaginary – the more attractive you appear to companies that hire social media users to promote their brands. This makes it harder for us, the people who grow their followers organically, to compete without the help of third-party providers who promise more followers, more likes, and more engagement for a fee.

I’ve never used any of these services, although I get emails from them asking if I want to sign up. A recent pitch claimed that this service would “unleash the potential” of my Instagram profile, allowing me to get more than 150,000 new active followers — “non-computer-generated passive followers” — for just $89. The email listed four of her top accounts, each with more than 1.6 million followers. However, one of the four has since been deactivated. (No surprise.)

The services offer everything from providing new followers to posting comments, and the demand is there. I remember giving a talk at a local community college on how to grow your social media presence and I had mentioned these services how the platforms tackle fake followers that it’s not the best way to grow your brand online.

A woman in the audience then interrupted me to talk about these services. She wanted to become a travel influencer to get free trips for her family and was curious how to buy more followers. I asked her if she heard what I said about the ethical issues surrounding fake followers — that companies would pay you for actual influence when you’re not actually influencing anyone — and she said emphatically, “I don’t care. I want more followers.”

Rich influencers

I spoke to some social media experts and some social media obsessed friends this week and they all had the same sentiments: They love the social aspect of social media, how it connects people, how effectively it helps businesses and brands grow, how it helps you stay relevant and informed, how it fills in the gaps between face-to-face interactions with friends. As one eloquently put it, “I think the world is a better place because it creates a shared consciousness, which makes it a useful tool for society and education.”

But ask about fake followers, self-proclaimed influencers, highlight roles, and Elon Musk, and the conversation quickly, and often irrevocably, turned.

They railed against influencers at media events aimed at working journalists. They complained that people on social media weren’t authentic, posing as experts, or living the perfect life. They referred to the dissemination of inaccurate messages or the incitement of negative user behavior (such as the January 6 riot in the Capitol) or Musk proposing to lift the Twitter ban on Donald Trump.

Using social media can be associated with adverse mental health effects in young peopleand some are speaks of a mental health crisis. And services like Facebook and Twitter face the possibility of government regulation, which can force these platforms to host content that might otherwise violate their terms of service. You know, such as hateful behavior or violent threats.

So what do we do? And, perhaps more importantly, why are we still on social media?

Good question.

Because we love it. And sometimes we love what we’re supposed to hate.

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