Social media is everywhere. It follows you from the early morning when you wake up and check Instagram, to lunch break when you retweet a video of a funny dog, and into the night when you scroll endlessly through TikTok videos. All of us, without a doubt, have felt the impact of social media on our lives. But has social media impacted societal functioning as well?
Jordan Foster is a graduate student in the sociology Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto St. George. He grew up with social media platforms blossoming around him and, as a curious undergrad, he began asking questions about social media’s role in society. As a graduate student, he got to transform those questions into research. His research studies focus on culture, consumption, and class politics, with a particular emphasis on how “taken-for-granted” trends and social media platforms emphasize and reproduce existing inequalities.
Social media has changed the landscape of our society in the past couple of years; there is no question about it. “It’s something that a lot of us are thinking about,” says Foster. His main concern is how social media has changed social visibility and how we view the status of others. “Social media has changed the rules of sociality, how we interact and engage with one another,” continues Foster. Analysing this shift allows us to understand how inequality functions on social media. We have to ask ourselves who succeeds on social media and, most importantly, who doesn’t to understand the full dynamics of the issue.
For instance, popular applications like TikTok promise that anyone and everyone can achieve popularity on their platform. However, Foster disagrees that all users have the same amount of visibility on the app. “In my perspective, based on my industry contacts, there is a notion that the [social media] algorithms unquestionably favour some users over others,” Foster explains. “When TikTok was developing, their algorithms were actively working against its minority users, disabled users, overweight users, or any user that was perceived as ‘unattractive’ by the app.” Thus, the playing field on the platform is not levelled, and users who have certain characteristics are less likely to become popular, no matter what TikTok would like you to believe.
This is a grim observation, but Foster highlights that although it might be more difficult for some people to achieve a large following, these social media platforms still carry a lot of potential to drive positive change. Such positive change includes bringing more representation to minority groups who have largely remained invisible in the past. “My concern is that more often than not, these inclusive potentials are undermined or very-short lived,” says Foster. “I am very excited about the diversity that I have seen in the past years, but I approach this excitement with caution.” In our day-to-day use of social media, we may not take the time to reflect upon the accessibility of social media platforms. While other users, such as those with visual or hearing impairments and minority groups who lack representation and content relatable to them, experience severe discrimination on these platforms.
Algorithms tend to complicate this potential for visibility and inclusivity. There is very little information available to the public on how these systems work. “The applications themselves have been very silent about this question,” Foster explains. When asked, social media giants tend to give a vague response, saying that the content that is most engaging will perform the best. The issue is that the social media algorithms determine which content is shown most, meaning that the engagement achieved by each post is predetermined.
So, how do influencers or “micro-celebrities” tie in all of this? “Influencers play a role in the economy of social media,” Foster explains. His research focuses on how influencers affect users’ beauty and lifestyle decisions and how they sometimes, often unintentionally, reinforce the existing inequalities. As algorithms tend to favour a certain type of influencer, the top creators remain relatively homogenous and embody the existing social privileges. Statistical models also observe that racial disparities occur on social media. For example, on TikTok, numerous users have expressed their concerns about discrepancies in the treatment of white and non-white creators.
At the root of it all, social media is dependent on the needs and wants of its users. Foster notes that “Today, social media users are increasingly looking for authentic content or, at least, content that appears that way.” That’s how TikTok skyrocketed in its popularity almost overnight—it quenches the thirst for authentic yet relatable content. However, not all content that is presented by internet personalities is a reflection of reality, as we all want to present the best version of ourselves online. But often, users disregard the understanding that social media only provides a mere glimpse into someone’s highpoints in life. This misunderstanding changes how we perceive ourselves and each other. “Influencers can produce unrealistic expectations—not just about the things that we should have in our lives, but our lives in general,” says Foster.
This is why hiring an influencer to promote a company’s products is so appealing to many brands and has become a popular marketing strategy—after all, influencers’ main appeal is their lifestyle. When they are advertising a mascara, blanket, or detox tea, influencers are also promising their followers that buying this product will bring them closer to their lifestyle or make them more conventionally attractive. This is a false promise, but an effective one as it plays deeply into the insecurities of influencers’ audiences.
It’s easy to perceive social media influencers as poor leaders, but the issue itself is not black and white. After all, influencers’ sponsorships and brand deals are their livelihoods. Foster brings up his contacts in the industry, stating that many of them would not intentionally deceive their followers or negatively impact their mental health. “Many of them are incredibly well-meaning and work with the brands that they genuinely believe have good products,” Foster explains.
Influencers are just people, and their ability to work in this industry depends on their ability to produce engaging, authentic content. Although that content might set unrealistic expectations of beauty and lifestyle, it can also work in a positive manner while bringing more visibility to societal issues. “There’s a push for real representation of beauty on social media platforms, mainly on Instagram,” Foster says. “Influencers have the potential to work in an opposite direction, resulting in greater self-esteem and boost their followers’ confidence. All the potential is there.”
The Covid-19 pandemic changed all aspects of our society, and it should come as no surprise that influencers felt the change as well. At first, many were quick to call it “the end of influencers as we know it,” as major brands ended their sponsorships with influencers. “It was very uncertain in the beginning,” says Foster. In reality, once the initial panic settled, it turned out to be the complete opposite. Influencers are now reporting that their revenue has increased as all eyes are now on screen. Influencers had to adapt their content to be pandemic-friendly, keeping in mind travel restrictions, limited gatherings, and restricted social interactions. Internet celebrities had to tap into their creativity like never before.
The pandemic has also increased the number of users consuming content. TikTok, gaining the most popularity during the pandemic, now has 1.1 billion users, which is almost 100 million more than Instagram. This again can be explained by the ease of access to authentic content and the platform’s addictive features—once you start scrolling, the content never stops. “We can see other platforms are adjusting to compensate for this shift,” Foster explains. “Take Instagram, for example. They introduced Reels to compete with TikTok.” Foster believes that the landscape of social media is changing as well as user behaviour.
When asked about the future of social media, Foster says, “I really hope that social media can bear its democratic and inclusive potential. I really want to see it happen.” He firmly believes that social media has what it takes to increase representation and provide better inclusivity as well as visibility. It might be a difficult process, but an attainable one. “I do really hope that this is the direction we are heading towards,” Foster concludes. Creating this safe and inclusive space requires two things: acknowledging the current marginalization on social media platforms and holding social media corporations accountable so major reforms can continue to foster this space.