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Why are we so invested in the lives of social media influencers?

If you’re on social media like Instagram or TikTok, you are surrounded by influencers every day. It is an occupation that has soared in popularity over the past couple of years with the rise of these visual-first social platforms.

Many people have become invested in following the lives of individuals who have become influencers. For companies trying to sell or promote their products, influencers have become an integral part of their marketing process on social media.

Many popular influencers rose to fame from reality TV shows like Love Island or The Bachelor. We have come to a point where people are choosing reality TV as a gateway to forge a career as an online influencer.

We spoke with Deakin University’s Dr Paul Harrison on his view on the fascination and rise of social media influencers.

Humans are social creatures

Dr Harrison’s research (with colleague Mayra Benitez) suggests that  one of the key reasons that people create content is because humans are essentially social creatures.

‘People on platforms like TikTok and instagram create content because they want to belong to groups and contribute to the community of those groups,’ he says. ‘As humans have become less “village-based” as a society, we want to connect to others in different ways; one way to do that is through social media.’

Humans look at others that they see as close to their own lived experience to construct their identity, Dr Harrison says. The thing about influencers, athletes, actors, or others with prominence on social media is that what we see, for many people, looks attainable. Because, for the most part, they are “people like us”.

‘This is not new,’ he adds. Dr Harrison believes we have always done this even before social media.

‘It’s important for humans to feel like they belong; it’s what psychologists call social identity theory. We want to belong to in-groups.’

But social media has fast-tracked the process of how we recognise new trends and access that information.

‘Before social media and quick access to all things online, we would have to go out and look at what people were doing,’ Dr Harrison explains.

Social media isn’t creating something different in terms of the way we think, it’s just made it easier for us to access content, Dr Harrison believes. As humans we feel as though we must stay in touch with what people are doing to feel as though we belong, he says.

‘The underlying element is that social media isn’t creating something new. It’s simply making it easier to see, plus heightening the experience of it. The mere fact that people have access to that information and knowledge all the time, leads to the potential for unrealistic comparisons and anxiety, because people start to believe that they need to do these things to belong.”’

People are going on reality TV aiming to be influencers

Love Island or Influencer Island? People are now using reality TV to kickstart a career as an influencer. Despite the influence of social media, mainstream media is still a great way to build a following.

‘For a majority of the people going on Love Island, despite what they might say, “at the end of the day” it’s not to seek love. For many, except maybe Dr Alex, it is to become an influencer and get millions of followers, that leads to get a sponsorship deal as was the case with Mollie-Mae Hague, kick off a lucrative career as a brand ambassador or creative director for a major brand,’ Dr Harrison says.

But this isn’t anything new. The integration of marketing and media began back in the 1970s through the first Star Wars movie and it has simply evolved to where it is now.

‘The first Stars Wars film in 1977 was the first film where they actually built it around toys, games and merchandise,’ Dr Harrison explains. ‘Using social media as a marketing tool is just the evolution of that.’
Interestingly, Dr Harrison has suggested that Love Island’s purpose isn’t to be a really good television show but instead as a marketing tool for particular labels, especially those that are connected to the program, such as Pretty Little Thing or Rewired.

‘At its base, Love Island is not a television show, but like all TV, it’s an opportunity for promotion and merchandising. It’s the marketing that drives the programming. The famous Love Island water bottles that everyone drinks from recently sold out within a week of them going on sale.’

There’s a psychology behind it

In terms of following the lives of influencers or famous people, Dr Harrison has revealed there’s a psychological explanation for why we get so hooked.

‘There is a form of reward that comes with anticipating what happens. People get a dopamine buzz when they’re expecting things to happen. So, we get the reward in anticipation of getting the reward.’

We want to see the thrilling moments and we’re willing to watch through the boring parts to get to them. We become addicted to the buzz.

‘It’s the anticipation of the exciting moments that is important to people,’ Dr Harrison says.

It can be traced back to basic learning theory and research conducted by famous American psychologist B.F. Skinner who discovered if you give out a little reward every now and then, people become more committed to an activity.

‘Humans have evolved to seek reward but acknowledge there might be times where they don’t get that reward but they’re willing to anticipate it,’ Dr Harrison explains. In other words, he says, ‘it is what it is.’

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Dr Paul Harrison
Dr Paul Harrison

Senior Lecturer,

Faculty of Business and Law,

Deakin University

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