In the world of influencers, reality is in the eye of the beholder
It speaks volumes that the big viral moment coming out of this year’s VidCon was a kid dressed up as an influencer apology video. Clearly, this is yet another signal that the influencer craze has jumped the shark, adding to the list of decreasing engagement, reprehensible stunts, increasing backlash against perceived entitlement, inauthenticity and follower fraud. Right?
Not so fast. Take a closer look and you’ll likely see that influencers are only now just hitting their stride, with more kids making millions of dollars online, TikTok skyrocketing among Gen Zers, brands nearly doubling their influencer-marketing spend and platforms continuing to surface new monetization opportunities—from shoppable Instagram posts to channel memberships on YouTube.
Wherever you stand, there’s no denying that a big part of today’s youth culture is shaped by online influencers. Or, more specifically, online creators—an important but increasingly blurred distinction that separates subject-matter experts from vloggers. Also known as YouTubers, vloggers continue to rise in popularity with their (often) mindless yet arguably entertaining “lifestyle” content, heightening and in many cases manufacturing their everyday lives in a way that takes a page from yesterday’s “reality TV” stars.
Just as viewers of original reality shows like MTV’s The Real World came to feel personally connected to the show’s cast members, so do the communities of online fans who subscribe to online creators. They become devoted loyalists based on tiny slices of creators’ sensationalized lives that are carefully curated for social media syndication.
So, is this a bad thing? Is it a good thing? Or is it just … a thing?
To find out, I fabricated a social experiment atop a YouTuber’s social experiment (I know, it sounds very #meta). Earlier this year, I started following German fashion model Mario Adrion, when one of his videos about what really happens at casting calls showed up in my YouTube recommendations list (not sure why but, hey, algorithms!). What I saw, after watching more of his content, was an entertaining and provocative person on a journey to discover himself by doing things that push societal boundaries (albeit sometimes a bit risqué for my own professional brand).
Fast forward to mid-July when I saw he had posted a video announcing a dating contest, from which he would choose one girl and one guy to go on separate “dates.” In the spirit of satiating my curiosity about the good, the bad and the ugly of influencer behavior, I messaged him an Instagram video submission that intentionally “casted” myself in a way I knew would get me noticed. In a couple of his previous videos he had joked about wanting to find a “sugar daddy.” So, why not go out on a “date” with one? Me.
It worked. He replied a few days later, acknowledging my camera-friendly energy, our shared love for fitness and, of course, the sugar-daddy joke. Once we had nailed down the logistics of our “date,” he announced it to his half-million (and growing) social-media followers by overtly playing up the sugar-daddy angle. He traveled to Boston in early August where we spent a sunny Saturday into the following Sunday together, capturing footage for our “date”-recap YouTube video (below).
So, what did I learn from literally having been on the frontlines of a YouTuber’s vortex for 24 hours?
Reality is in the eye of the beholder
Like reality TV, to say that influencer content is genuinely “real” is an overstatement. I was struck (but not surprised) by how many people believed that the circumstances surrounding our date were actually real. From the start, Mario indicated to me that he wanted to “play with” the whole “sugar daddy” theme. His announcement video, which is titled “I FOUND A SUGAR DADDY!!” immediately polarized his audience, with some people leaving disparaging comments that he was selling out by choosing money over love. One person even thought “the boat guy with the money” (aka me) wasn’t trustworthy and would end up “murdering and exposing” Mario. A few others were disappointed that Mario would even consider dating another male and threatened to unsubscribe to his channel if he went through with it.
On the other end of the spectrum, I received a number of comments and Instagram message requests from Mario’s followers asking me to become their sugar daddy, while others truly wanted to “ship us” as a couple—a sentiment that was considerably amplified once our actual date video was posted. In fact, lots of people pleaded for Mario and I to go on a second date because we seemed to be the perfect fit for one another—even going so far as to call us “soul mates” who should get married.
Sure, there were aspects of actual reality in the content we created for the final video, like the fact that we were doing activities that typically fill my weekends—from sailing and climbing to drinking protein shakes and eating sushi. But make no mistake, we were performing heightened versions of ourselves and staging scenes at every step of the way. As we were out sailing, Mario wanted to capture some b-roll footage that made it look like we were having a romantic time together. So, we both played to the camera for about 30 seconds as if we were a bit love-struck, like Rose and Jack from the movie "Titanic."
In reality, our 3-hour sail was far from amorous, full of intense wind gusts but also lots of great off-camera conversation about so many aspects of life—just like two good friends hanging out on a boat together. At one point, he asked me about my coming out story which led into a deep discussion about the blurred lines of sexuality. Amidst all of this, both Mario and I continued to post silly Instagram story teasers, like him feeding me a baby carrot and me capturing him doing slow motion model poses. And, like clockwork, each time one of the cameras turned on, our on-screen personalities synchronously turned on with them.
In another instance of “not exactly real,” Mario polled his Instagram audience as to what we should do after our sushi dinner. It was fascinating to see hundreds of responses instantly appear on the IG story vote counter. Of course, his community wanted us to go to a “gay bar,” which, in reality, neither of us actually wanted to do. And while we captured footage that would have made it appear we were having an exuberantly great time at a crowded bar, the truth is we were both drinking soda water and stayed for just a few minutes. If you look carefully at our contrived Champagne toast on the roof deck, you’ll see that our glasses are empty—all in the name of good content.
In spite of this, however, one thing that was very real is that we both had an incredibly fun time making content together, and our on-screen chemistry absolutely reflected that. And even though the notion of a “sugar daddy” loomed as the narrative of our date, Mario (who is, in reality, pretty straight) didn’t want me paying for anything. Having that theme, however, seemed important as a means of creating a storyline to get video views. But to what end?
Content optimizing can also mean content compromising
There’s a vicious cycle that can happen with YouTubers’ content over time. It’s engineered, edited, and optimized for the purposes of generating social currency (likes, views, subscribers, and shares) that will “level up” their status and in turn give them a greater chance at fame and fortune. There’s a ton of pressure to constantly top previous videos by doing things that will stand out (sometimes through shock and awe) in each post’s caption, thumbnail, and content.
Mario was particularly fixated on making sure we captured, in effect, an exaggerated photo that would end up as the thumbnail for our YouTube video. Clearly, he had learned through trial and error what does and doesn’t get people’s attention. With the intent of prompting as many view clicks as possible, we played a bit of dress up. He told me that I didn’t exactly look like a #daddy, so we rummaged through my closet and picked out sport coats for both of us. He, of course, didn’t wear a shirt under his, as his analytics proves that “thirst traps” work as clickbait.
There’s a never-ending tug of war between authenticity and engagement, and view counts often dominate content decision-making—furthering the distance between reality and fiction. Yet, eliciting a personal connection with audiences is one of the biggest drivers of social currency and so YouTubers must create a sense of authenticity (whether real or perceived). Like many other YouTubers, Mario’s fan base has been steadily growing. The bulk of his subscribers are young, impressionable and from all over the world. The comments he gets with every post show followers that not only root for him, but in some cases even worship him. That’s a lot of weight for any one person to bear.
With great influence comes great responsibility
Perhaps what this all boils down to, when it comes to influencer culture, is that maybe reality doesn’t matter. After all, isn’t perceived authenticity just another person’s form of reality? If true, this has even greater repercussions when it comes to the power of influence. But as long as creators are being responsible with their platforms and ethical in their actions, they have the opportunity to impact society in positive ways—whether their content is actually real … or not. Isn’t that a good thing?
Coming out of this experience, what I do know for sure is that when the cameras weren’t rolling on my “date” with Mario, I got to know someone who is (in reality) mature, worldly, insightful and committed to self-growth and wanting to make a difference. We both formed a friendship that day—a real personal connection. I just wish the more substantive conversations we had, off-camera, would have ended up on-screen so that others could get a chance to see the real Mario too. But then again, would his followers honestly want to watch what really happened over the course of those 24 hours? Or are they better satisfied with the version of reality we created for them? I think we all know the real answer to that. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.