Who’s to blame? Social media, addiction, and the role of influencers

| Junior Forum Editor
A person poses with a phone, recording a selfie video in a store. Another person stands behind the register, clearly annoyed.Illustration by Ryan Davis

Whether you secretly hate them or secretly want to be them, you probably have feelings about social media influencers. But what is it like actually being one? And if we are to criticize what they do — posting videos and sponsoring brands — is it fairer to critique them, or instead, the system which capitalizes off of them?

I ask these questions with genuine curiosity, for I’ve found myself critical of people like Charli D’Amelio, who make a living off viral videos. Yet when I’m not writing or studying, I post my own art in the zoo of human creations and even work as a content creator for Washington University’s admissions team. Whether it’s due to this semi-hypocritical distaste for large influencers or something deeper, I find that social media users like myself share a feeling of some subterranean problem causing us anxiety and discomfort, no matter how much community we find in these online spaces. 

One of the incredible things about influencers is that they can be anyone, anywhere. To get some questions answered, I look no further than my campus community. Through a quick Instagram search, I’m able to connect with Shelby Roach, a Class of 2025 architecture student at WashU. Roach has over 58,000 followers on TikTok, under the username shelby.shots, where she posts videos mainly about her long-distance boyfriend, whom many say resembles young Hollywood celebrity, Louis Partridge. 

When Roach sat down with me at an on-campus cafe, Whispers, she took off her AirPods and admitted to almost forgetting to log in to her architecture Zoom call that morning. We joked about the ridiculousness of still having Zoom classes, and she asked if I’m also in the art school, to which I replied that I am. She seemed unbothered by the idea of being candid and on the record. She told me that she “just made a TikTok ‘cause I was doing it for fun like we all do.” 

“It was the day I was leaving home to go to WashU, and ‘cause we’re in a long-distance relationship, I was like I’m going to record us saying goodbye, and anyone can relate, I’m sure,” Roach said. 

This first video went viral, sparking a tick in her follower count. Whatever she was doing, the algorithm liked it. Even when her account was closer to 10,000 followers, she was getting over 50,000 views on her videos every time she posted. 

“It went from something that was really fun to something where like, oh, I see potential in actually gaining money or gaining something out of this,” Roach said. “I feel like it doesn’t hurt to have a following.” 

With that realization of potential, however, also came the added pressure of consistency in posting.

“It’s very stressful,” Roach said, nodding her head. “I’m in college, I’m in architecture, and I have a job, and I’m in a relationship which requires a lot of time. I don’t go to sleep until past 2 a.m., and then before I go to sleep, I tell myself, ‘I need to have a video for tomorrow.’ So then it’s 2 a.m., and I’m like, ‘What is my video?’” 

I have never been this committed to posting, but I can relate to this stress, and I’m aware that architecture students are widely accepted to be the most overworked at our school. When I question why one would put themselves through this commitment, I think back to an article I read, which mentions that Mikayla Noquira bought a house from her TikTok income. Top profiles, like Kylie Jenner’s, can make over $1 million per sponsored post, and even lesser-known accounts can accumulate high earnings; take Jalisa Vaughn-Jefferson’s rise to a $700,000 earning in only six months as a prime example. 

However, despite the potential for financial success, building an online identity can come with the pressure of creating a persona that isn’t true to the person behind the account. 

“With my followers, I’m very transparent, even when I do have a bad day. I’m just documenting my life on a platform like I do on Instagram with just friends and family who follow me. And yes, every so often there will be a sponsorship, but really I’m only going to accept them if I feel like they fit within my life,” Roach said.

Roach’s solution is to be honest with her followers. Still, she acknowledges there is more to be considered in terms of transparency and the time she and her followers spend on their phones. 

Emma Lembke started The Log Off movement in an effort to encourage people to rethink the ways we interact with social media. In Lembke’s New York Times feature, she makes the point that social media isn’t going away, but rather, we should consider how we’re spending our time with it. Roach recognizes that this is something she plays a role in too.

“I am posting every day, and I’m forcing myself to post every day, so that means that I’m on social media all of the time,” Roach said. “I have to know what the trends are. I have to know what sounds are doing good.” 

Not only is this work a real job, but it’s one that can become all-consuming. 

“The whole day I’m just checking the video. So my brain is just constantly there,” Roach said. Sometimes, I’m never fully in the moment. I’m always thinking ‘How is my video doing?’ Some days, it can be like my head is fully in the app. Even if I’m not on it, I’m thinking about it. So I do think that there is a part that social media influencers play in it.” 

Roach questions the extent to which she plays a role in a world where the Log Off movement is needed, however, making the point that different TikTok accounts have different levels of influence; celebrities like Emma Chamberlain have influenced a lot of fashion movements and trends, whereas Roach considers herself more of a content creator than an influencer, really. 

In my view, the work I do for WashU is content creation, while branded sponsorships fall more within the realm of being an influencer. But even if the semantics are unclear, is this simply a result of othering, a desire to distinguish my art-centered posts from those of more traditionally defined influencers? And even if there are varying levels of social influence from infrequent posters to paid content creators to verified influencers, does this directly link to a hierarchy of guilt? Does more social influence mean more responsibility in keeping people on the apps, or are we all victims of the same system? 

“Even just the apps, they tell you specific times when you should post,” Roach said. “It’s like a pattern. That’s why I always post at 11 a.m. The platform plays a really big role in how people use it.” 

From my own experience on TikTok, it sometimes feels a bit like gambling –– a dopamine rush from a good TikTok that goes viral, and the desire for that feeling again resulting in posting another video, and another. Not to mention that when you see people thriving, making millions of dollars off of everyday videos, you get the same desire as watching someone win the jackpot. You think to yourself that maybe that could be you, no matter how improbable that really is, given the fact that billions of users are on these apps.

“Yeah, it definitely is,” Roach said. Then a bit quieter, “I feel like that can become an addiction.” She drags out the ending of this last word. “But yeah, and then when it doesn’t do good, you start feeling like, ‘Oh, is this it? Am I done?’” 

I appreciate her trust and authenticity. As we discuss this with smiles on our faces, there’s something sinister about what we’re coming to terms with: the fact that we’re deeply addicted to our phones, that the place we’ve been directed to for entertainment and art and relatability has sucked us into a void, translated our sense of joy into followers and comments and little red hearts. 

Before wrapping up, I had to ask her about something probably equally as significant as the grueling effects of social media: whether or not she’s aware of the fact that her boyfriend looks like Louis Partridge.

“I don’t watch movies — I can’t — I have a really short attention span,” Roach said. We laughed about how this is at least partially a result of social media. 

We both settled back into our roles as students in a cafe, pretending like the reality that apps have such a large grip on our personal lives isn’t still at the forefront of our minds. There’s not much we can do. I don’t intend to stop creating content, and I don’t suggest she stops making videos. 

Maybe the inability to suggest change is part of the problem. Maybe, like so many issues, it is important to recognize an individual responsibility, even when it seems like the root of the problem stems from a larger social or systematic mess which no one person can change. But in the conversation of social media, the question of responsibility is muddied. It’s diluted by the fact that like plastic straws and motor vehicles, social media brings us genuine ease which seems to validate our desire to use it.

I’m reminded of “The Social Dilemma,” a movie that discusses Facebook’s role in worsening mental health, generating fake news, and influencing election results. Everyone I’ve spoken to about it says they were deeply disgusted by social media after watching it but within minutes returned to their phones. 

It’s not because they didn’t care. It’s because that movie simply confirmed suspicions everyone already had before watching it, suspicions not strong enough to pull us away from the technology which connects us, allows us to share our stories and creations with people around the world, and makes our lives so much easier in so many ways. We don’t want to pull away because the value we gain from staying on our phones seems to outweigh the harm we know the apps are doing to us. 

In looking into the response to this movie, which seems to have naturally fizzled out of public concern, I’ve found Facebook’s own response to it. They outline seven things the movie misconstrued, and with statements like, “We know our systems aren’t perfect and there are things that we miss. But we are not idly standing by and allowing misinformation or hate speech to spread on Facebook,” they emphasize a surprisingly self-aware tone, discussing how their policies have changed as a result of cultural criticism throughout the years. 

I am inclined to read this list of points as Big Tech propaganda. I think that in many cases, concerns are answered in a round-about way, avoiding the actual problem — like when it denies selling direct user data, it avoids the fact that it profits greatly off of its own complex audience ad targeting which any company can buy into, effectively doing the same thing. Yet, reading this, a part of me wonders if even if there are still flaws, Facebook itself actually believes it is trying to do what it can to address large social concerns. 

Watching TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew during the U.S. TikTok hearings, I also find myself sympathizing with him during many moments which are painstaking to watch. While navigating answers to embarrassingly ignorant questions about technology asked by U.S. representatives, he emphasizes many times that his company does not participate in any unusual or illegal codes of conduct, and that TikTok has a heavily regulated entertainment feed for young users who are barred from viewing comments or creating a profile, as well as several privacy and sensitivity features for all users. 

So if these companies are truly trying to respond to criticism and sincerely attempting to do as much as they feel they can to protect their users, then who is to blame for the monetization of entertainers and the anxiety influencers feel? Who is fueling the addiction that Shelby and I both agree is being generated by these apps? It isn’t the individual performers and artists and creators, and it may not entirely be the fault of the individuals running these companies. 

The problem lies in the overarching economy that social media fits within, for no matter how well social media companies attempt to protect their users, they make the vast majority of their profits through selling access to user data. The more traffic on their apps, the more incentive for companies to buy into this access; the more targeted the data, the more effectively it can be used. As niche communities form of users surrounding themselves with content they enjoy, companies see monetary gain by buying into social media ads and sponsoring prominent social media influencers. As hard as social media companies may try to protect people, disincentivizing user addiction would be biting the very hand that feeds them. The users are not the customers; we are the product. 

I acknowledge that even though the root problem is systemic, individual people’s actions uphold this system. Regardless, I do not intend to avoid the idea of corporate responsibility altogether, but rather to remind us that behind every account, app, and company are real human beings grappling with very difficult questions, wrapped up in a layered, complicated disaster. 

If social media is a zoo — as it often feels, with everybody peeking into a curated depiction of everybody else’s personal lives — then users are not the bears on display. We’re the fishes in the bear habitat. And while the zookeepers may do everything to keep our waters clean so that we live full lives in good conditions, keeping the bears well-fed will always be at the top of their priorities. In their eyes, how can they afford to pay maintenance workers and keep our enclosures clean without the money earned from the bears, which bring in the most customers? Here lies the paradox of blame in social media companies; it is easy for all individuals to avoid responsibility in a system that cycles back in on itself. 

From personal experience, to a one-on-one conversation with a prominent TikToker, to an investigation into social media companies, to a general critique of a larger economic concern, I have found myself far removed from my initial question of what it is like being an influencer. I think that this is because while interviewing Roach, I’ve come to think that what she does is real work and have found that every influencer does their work and participates in social media differently. I am less concerned about proving why this position, which makes people money and provides entertainment to people, is a real job than I am in analyzing the addiction and struggles that come with it and why one would even question an influencer’s work at all. 

The basic question of whether or not being an influencer is a real job can be broken down into many assumptions on what defines a job and what defines an influencer. And even if luck and the gift of being born talented and attractive plays a part in who does well in the social media algorithm, I don’t find that to be enough to criticize those within the career. 

Hollywood and TikTok are incredibly different in many ways, but telling professional performers of all kinds that all they do is smile in front of a camera, as if the job doesn’t come with practice and failure and stress from always being in front of an audience, seems like an ignorant understanding of what it means to be a performer or creator or anyone who puts work into the world. In the context of social media, the layers of practice and failure and stress can manifest in many complicated ways. 

Influencers are misunderstood. Mysterious, unknown algorithms guide social media, and criticism of influencers’ careers is just one of the many quiet criticisms that occur in the invisible world of online platforms. The more important questions are: How do we criticize something that inevitably plays a role in our daily lives, no matter how far removed we are from it? How do we distribute responsibility for the harms influencers and social media users face? And how do we escape from a system that’s built to hook us through genuine value and then take advantage of us in order to sustain itself? 

“Nobody talked about it,” Roach said, referring to the fact that no one warned her about the addiction and stress when she first started using TikTok. “Maybe in the summer, I’ll feel a different level of intensity, because I won’t have as much else to do. So maybe I’ll feel that pressure even more. But, yeah, people are really closed off about it, and I don’t really know why,” she tells me, her hands interlocked in front of her. 

She suggests that maybe people don’t talk about it because there’s money involved, and they don’t want to discuss personal finances. But it’s not like users don’t already know that money and marketing are a part of social media. 

“I think when you go on social media, you know that your time is money for people,” Roach said. 

We know that we’re the product on these platforms, and yet we hardly ever discuss our feelings of unease about that, other than in frequent jokes about how we’re all addicted to our phones. And I wonder if maybe people don’t even know where to start a conversation, and in some recognition of the lack of power we have as individuals, we feel that all we can do is joke about it. As we stood up, I still felt the urge to joke about it. But Roach looked serious. 

“I’m always open to talk about it. I don’t see why not,” she said. 

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