In 2017, a 16-year-old girl named Emma Chamberlain uploaded her first YouTube video. The city-inspired lookbook, filled with a mid-2010s array of Brandy Melville and Pacsun, has now amassed almost 2 million views. She models the clothes with carefree, ironic self-awareness, though “model” feels like the wrong word to describe her skipping through the streets of San Francisco. She is of the utmost relatability, inviting the viewer to forget the screen mediating their interaction altogether.
Since that first video, Chamberlain has entirely redefined the YouTube landscape. Gone are the days of highly produced morning routines and American Eagle hauls; instead, her casual non-poses, self-deprecating jokes, and endearing awkwardness are the foundation of the new vlog style of YouTube. After rapidly gaining millions of subscribers, she is now the blueprint of a distinctly female Gen Z: think ironic mental illness meets Urban Outfitters obsession.
The household names of Gen Z comprise a list of figures like Chamberlain: Instagram stars, YouTube vloggers, and TikTok creators, all of whom entice users with relatability. Not only is it financially beneficial for these influencers to amass a following, but the subtle “I’m just like you” branding builds up their social clout and trust. The best influencers make followers feel like they aren’t influencers at all.
Except, that’s not completely true. The best influencers make followers feel like a version of themselves, yes, but with a trendier closet and more interesting friends. This is where relatability and envy begin to intertwine. While traditional models and celebrities may be hot and trendy, they are certainly not relatable; influencers make followers feel like they too could achieve internet popularity and It Girl social status. Envy of celebrities is obvious, but envy of influencers is hidden under a guise of relatability. An influencer is not an untouchable goddess. She is so close that you feel as though you could be her. Influencers collapse time and distance, selling the fantasy of intimacy and relatability.
Obviously, fans are not friends with celebrities, and followers are not friends with influencers. But social media integrates posts from peers and influencers, convincing us that influencers are on the same social level as friends. The public no longer looks forward to tabloid celebrity sightings of Britney Spears or Paris Hilton because we now have an extensive catalog of images sourced from the figure themself. Celebrity relies on inaccessibility and fame, while influence relies on a fantasy of constant, inviting access. While paparazzi culture may force celebrities to cover their face and hide from unpolished public appearance, social media has designed a system of celebrity that encourages constant visibility. Paparazzi is now a digital audience with an expectation of constant uploads, extensive personal details, and unfiltered access to the influencer’s self. Fans and followers are now able to shrink a sense of distance in order to feel closer than ever to public figures.
The surge in relatability has, in many ways, reduced the negative side effects of celebrity. Famous actors, singers, and models speak out more regularly on social issues, body image, and personality, dispelling the myth of perfection. After all, hearing a popular actress share her experience with sexual harassment or disordered eating is a healthy side effect of influencers regularly sharing those stories online. But this feeling of personal connection to figures of popular culture is constantly stretched to the extreme. As one TikTok user put it, social media has created a standard of interaction where it is acceptable to “burden strangers with their mental illness…and respond with immediate pity.” Pseudo-vulnerable comments like “I ate today” normalize mass oversharing in the comments of an influencer’s video, perpetuating the notion that the influencer is entirely at the user’s dispense. Recovery from mental illness should not be shamed, but its place on the internet has grown far too large. We expect constant relatability and connection and get upset when influencers express discomfort with digital oversharing. We trouble influencers with our personal issues and get upset when they don’t respond, or don’t want to come to our immediate rescue. The myth of personal connection is intoxicating, but it is utterly false. As much as the internet would like you to believe otherwise, it is impossible to form a real relationship with someone within the dynamic of social media influence.
Connection is the foundation of social media, and the backbone of the influencer market. Enticing followers with the myth of connection is how influencers operate, and it is ingrained in the practices of Instagram and TikTok. This makes it incredibly difficult to separate false realities from social media, even as we are continually reminded that they are one and the same. Deep down, we know that the follower will never become the influencer, but that myth is what keeps us addicted to the entire culture of fame, popularity, and envy. Celebrities and influencers are both figures we strive to replicate and become, only now the influencer is so ubiquitous that we have fooled ourselves into creating a world where everyone is an influencer. Celebrity has become dangerous, as we begin to affirm a reality built upon worshipping influencers as our best friends, and worse, as ourselves.
Honestly, I want to feel further away from Chamberlain. I want the world to feel larger and more anonymous. I want to feel grounded in the people I surround myself with rather than the people whose photos I envy. We must reject the notion that we truly know influencers, or else we will become convinced that the essence of personhood can be distilled to YouTube videos and an Instagram feed. Personhood is all the things you’ll never know about someone and all the things you’ll never tell others. I don’t know what Emma Chamberlain or Britney Spears thinks about at night. But at least with Britney Spears, that was never the expectation. As life has shifted almost completely online over the past several months, perhaps the most important early 2000s trend we can bring back is distance. I, for one, would be pretty excited for a good old-fashioned celebrity sighting.
By Katherine Williams