Reinvented Idols: Digital Influencers and Representation


Technological evolution makes way for new models that increase representation and enhance the power of transformation in the real world

by Brunella Nunes cover Chad Wys translated by Pronoia Tradutória

With the rise of social media, people born before the 2000s are asking: What is life like for the youth of today? Who do they look up to? What are their hopes and dreams? These questions seem increasingly difficult to accurately answer. In the past, our idols were untouchable and we had a pre-established model to follow – be born, grow up, work, get married, have children, and grow old. It is difficult to apply these rules in the modern world, because they no longer have space to form and become consolidated as an object of order and security. Breaking the rules is not new, but what is happening now is that established standards are fading away as a new generation takes shape.

“The youth of today is not more creative because they have a greater capacity for inventiveness, but because they are aware of technology and change.” — Rafael Araújo, professor and social scientist

There is one outcome of this that reflects the new economy: social media as a source of income and inspiration. Social media offers more than just likes or a legion of fans – it can provide influence, purchasing power, and independence, especially for young people. More than ever, people have the power to turn themselves into a commodity. What used to be solely for Hollywood celebrities is now available to everyone. These people have become known as digital influencers; a well-known online figure whose voice and image is able to reach millions of people. Thus, emerges another niche in the frenetic social media market.

Instagram was initially designed for people to share their day-to-day lives in small, 640 × 640 photographic fragments. With the growth of this and other social networks, people began to feel like they must participate to be socially involved, because the virtual world is a constant topic of interest in the real world.

When parents began to “invade” Facebook, the network lost 11 million young users who migrated to other networks in search of more privacy, to avoid embarrassing family situations like getting told off by their mothers in public.

Instagram and Snapchat took advantage, as spaces where users could feel closer to their idols and further from family. YouTube also won many fans between 2011 and 2013 thanks to the rise of vloggers, who are mostly under 25. Uniting more than a billion users, it is the birthplace of many of today’s young teens idols, such as Kéfera Buchmann, Felipe Neto, Lindsay Woods, and Christian Figueiredo. They all gained financial independence before the age of 25 by posting videos on YouTube. With so much success, being a youtuber has gone from a hobby to a profession. It is not uncommon to hear children saying that they want to have a channel, and teenagers are already becoming true producers of digital content.

The end of the image

At first, social media celebrities were interesting because they were different from TV stars. They were real people, not personalities created to please the audience and to be politically correct. But as these profiles started to take on a business dynamic, not all were able to maintain their initial appeal. Originality and humanity are becoming increasingly rare on the internet, and this premise is inevitably breaking into the real world. The result is not healthy for those who consume content or for those who produce it.

The boundaries between real and virtual are being blurred, and it can be dangerous when the virtual world begins to be the only reality. Australian Instagram star Essena O’Neill, 18, had more than 600,000 followers and a variety of commercial contracts when she grew tired of internet celebrity life and unexpectedly threw in the towel. “I’ve never been so miserable. Likes, views and followers are not love,”, she vented on her social media account. On her old profile, she began describing the sad truths behind the photos she had posted.

“Mais uma foto tirada puramente para promover meu corpo de 16 anos de idade. Isto era toda a minha identidade. Era tão limitador. Fazia com que eu ficasse incrivelmente insegura. Vocês não fazem ideia.”
“And yet another photo taken purely to promote my 16 year old body. This was my whole identity. That was so limiting. Made me icredibly insecure. You have no idea.”

“Social networks reflect the disparities of society. Facebook is a little more democratic, because people’s words can project ideas, popularizing them through their writing. Instagram emphasizes a specific lifestyle and aesthetic that follows trends and reinforces the modern pursuit of being famous simply for being famous. There is room for irreverence and reflection, but the projected image is what really matters on an image network.” — Frederico Mattos, psychologist

Cases like Essena’s are becoming increasingly common. People are growing tired of this obsession with perfection, and they are fighting against a frantic movement that makes it difficult to expose faults and makes life less fun. Under these circumstances, it has been proven that simply generating content is not enough; you must have content. The image itself is becoming tired, and sooner or later, success will only be sustainable where there is quality in the content offered.

Conscious idols

A countercurrent of tangible, mature, conscious people is gaining momentum. This means that digital influencers do not only represent themselves; they represent a section of society that finds in them a voice to echo their own feelings, anxieties, desires, and struggles.

Some people may argue about the harmful effects of such a deep connection to the digital world, but this exposure is amplified in a positive way. The internet is a great place for debating important issues, creating a dialogue, giving minorities a voice, and demystifying antiquated taboos. While feminism has been discussed in schools for almost 60 years, today it is a current and constant topic of interest that has gained a lot of ground thanks to social media.

Jout Jout uses her channel to address feminist issues. She helps women to recognize abusive relationships, for example, as well as showing men that chauvinist conservatism no longer has a place in our society and that it needs to end, once and for all.

Nátaly Neri, 22, uses her YouTube channel, Afros e Afins, to talk about affordable fashion and issues relating to ethnicity and society. Young people like Nátaly can talk more directly and easily with others through social media, not only reaching a wider audience, but also raising awareness of issues and even improving the self-esteem of her viewers, because representation is a way of contemplating issues and celebrating image. The internet offers a place for acceptance and respect. While dealing with prejudice in the real world, the internet can be a refuge and for some, the home they never had.

Helen Ramos also flies the feminist flag, but from a perspective of motherhood. Her channel, Hel Mother, addresses postpartum issues, the labor market and mom-shaming with character and humility. She welcomes and represents modern mothers with her motto, “no nonsense motherhood,” reminding the world that a woman does not cease to be a woman after having childrens.

Transform to transcend

With so many good examples already available, the next generation may find a way to create a non-superficial digital landscape. The rise of real young idols, full of transgressive ideas, opens the door to discussion and expansion of a school of thought free of outdated conservatism. The issue transcends generations and evokes reflection.

In this case, one of the Internet’s positive points is the opportunity it provides for creating a democratic and safe space where ideas can flow beyond physical boundaries. In his book, The Network Society, released in 1996, Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells discusses the effects the network society has had on economies and social lives around the world as a result of the internet phenomenon that emerged 20 years ago. He argues that the role of the network society is to change the values that shape society. “What technology does is to provide a wide range of possibilities. What then happens to the technology depends on what happens in society.”

In 2008, youtuber and LGBT activist Tyler Oakley published a video about authenticity, explaining how it was important to come out and tell people he was gay at the right time. Years later, with several million subscribers on his channel, he received a message on Twitter from singer Ricky Martin, telling him that the video played an important part in him publicly declaring his homosexuality.

To say that “this generation is lost” because “they spend their whole lives on the internet” is fallacious. The central theme in the reinvention of digital influencers is the creation of healthier bonds. And what’s more, through democratic language, these digital natives can deconstruct paradigms and promote social progress. Depth of thought does not need to be difficult. The value of this new type of idol is not the projection of a utopia, but representation and identification.

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