“Meta-content” is taking over the web

My longest parasocial relationship, with a famous beauty influencer named Jen Im, has been going on for eight years. I discovered her on a vlog called “Meet My Friend” and along with over 3 million other subscribers, I’ve been following what she eats in a day and her monthly beauty favorites ever since. His videos have become an outlet for my brain, allowing me to relax while watching someone else’s productive, aesthetic life.

Jenn, however, has complicated things by adding an unexpected topic to her repertoire: the dangers of social media. He recently talked about giving it up for his own well-being. he also posted an Instagram story about the risks of ChatGPT and in none other than a YouTube video, Neil Postman advised Amusing ourselves to death, a seminal 1985 article in media criticism decrying television’s turning life into entertainment. (Recommendations for his other books are included Stolen focusBy Johann Hari and Recapture The Raptureby Jamie Will).

Social media platforms “prey on your insecurities. they prey on your temptations,” Jen explained to me in an interview that moved our parasocial connection, at least for an hour, into a direct relationship. “And, you know, I do play a role in this.” After all, Jenn makes money through pretentious advertising, a familiar part of any influencer’s business. “This is how I pay my bills. This is how I support my family,” he said. “But that’s only a small part of it.”

I first noticed Jen’s criticisms in a social media video Q&A where she discussed parasocial relationships. The video is exceptionally aesthetic. Jen is dressed to the nines in her California kitchen, wearing diamond earrings for 8 other reasons; she smoothly performs an Estée Lauder ad in a Parachute outfit before the first two minutes are up. He explains to the camera that he’s all for parasocial relationships, but only if we realize we’re in one. “This relations do not replace existing companies, existing relations,” he emphasizes. “All this is additional. Like, it should be in addition to your life, not a replacement.” I sat and watched him talk about parasocial relationships while absorbing the irony of being in one with him.

Lifestyle vlogs romanticize the most mundane parts of everyday life in a way that seems meaningless to the uninitiated. People log their grocery shopping and brushing their teeth, but aesthetic, with soothing background music and audio recordings of the influencer’s thoughts. Watching someone else live their life is easier than my own, and it gives me ideas on how to optimize my existence. But the more I realize the scaffolding beneath the facade, the more disoriented I feel.

By revealing the inner workings of social media, content creators reveal the foundations of their content within the content itselfThis is what Alice Marwick, associate professor of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described to me as “meta-content.” Meta-content can be overt, as vlogger Casey Neistat thinks vlogging, if vlogging your life prevents you from being fully present in it; Meghan Markle explains in a selfie-style video Harry and Meghan Documents why she and Prince Harry recorded so many videos amid family breakdown or YouTuber Jackie Aina stated in a YouTube burnout video that making videos is mostly about getting views. But meta-content can also be subtle; the vlogger walks through the frame before running back to grab the camera. Or influencers vlog themselves, editing the very video you’re watching in the space-time warp.

Viewers don’t seem to care. We continue to watch, fully accepting the performance. Perhaps this is because the rise of meta-content promises a way to grasp authenticity while embracing artifice; especially at a time when craft is easier than ever to create, audiences want to know what’s “real” and what’s not. As NYU media studies professor Susan Murray explains: “The idea of ​​a space where you can’t trust any source, there’s no place to sort the land, everything is questioned, is a very disturbing, unsatisfactory way of living. “. So we continue to search for, as Murray notes, “the agreed-upon things, our basic understandings of what is real, what is true.” But when the content we watch becomes self-aware and even self-critical, it begs the question of whether we can really escape the machinations of social media. Perhaps when we look directly into the abyss, we begin to enjoy its company.

Digital authentication, which Marwick noted is “culturally constructed” from the start, has changed over the years. In the early days of Tumblr and Instagram circa 2014, the preferred mode of online existence was curated perfection; for example, the image of the back of the girl’s head with prominent ringlets and a robin’s egg blue bow. The next few years brought the no-makeup selfie and the confessional long Instagram caption to the fore, demonstrating a desire to achieve authenticity through transparency and introspection. Those genres were eventually questioned as well; cultural critics began to argue that being online is always a performance and thus essentially a fiction. In his 2019 book: Mirror trickGia Tolentino described how online spaces, unlike physical ones, have no backstage where performance can be suspended. “Online,” he writes, “your audience can hypothetically expand forever, and the show never has to end.” Online hoaxes of this era, such as the Fyre Festival and the Caroline Calloway moment, relied on social media representations of doctored realities. If everything is false anyway, why bother with the truth?

Mirror trick. Reflections on Self-Deception

By: Gia Tolentino

Then came BeReal, a social app that sends users push notifications once a day to take photos with the front and rear cameras simultaneously without filters or captions. It positioned itself as an anti-inaccuracy online, but as RE Hawley wrote, “The difference between BeReal and the social media giants is not the former’s relationship to the truth, but the size and scale of its deceptions.” BeReal users still tilt their camera and wait for their daily photo at the aesthetic hour of the day. The images just remind us how impossible it is to stop speaking online.

In this context, it’s hard to imagine how far the boundaries of our digital world can stretch. Jen’s concern about the future of the Internet stems in part from motherhood. She recently had a son, Lennon (whose first birthday party I watched on YouTube), and worries about the digital world he will inherit. Back in the MySpace era, he had his own Internet friends and would sneak out to parking lots at 1 a.m. to meet them in real life; Now, he explained, it begins to trap us. Posting content online is no longer a means to an end, but an end in itself.

I asked Jen if she ever bothered to discuss the risks of social media given her position as an influencer. He told me that, on the contrary, this is what motivates him. “I can’t change the world, but if I can affect the sphere of my reach, then I will try and do it.” But it’s not that simple. Meta-content reminds us that a representation of authenticity is still a representation. The artificiality of the Internet remains even as we fold it back on itself. It’s easy to think of our online identity as one of many versions of ourselves. who we are at work is not the same as who we are with our parents or friends. But the online version can be edited in a way that others cannot.

Audiences likely familiar with social media posts recognize these structures. There are times when I look at a little digital version of myself on Instagram that looks and acts like me but remains a little too polished, an uncanny valley between me and me. “There’s still a question and an interrogation of what’s in the real base, but [audiences are] more willing to accept … distortions or performance” than they were in the past, Murray says.

We saw the lives of influential people as an aspiration, a reality we could achieve. Both parties now acknowledge that they are part of a perfect product that the viewer understands is unattainable and the influencer acknowledges is not entirely real.

A few weeks after our call, Jenn blogged. I watched a video of our interview in it, a different perspective on our Zoom call than I had experienced. “As you saw, we just had a really long conversation about social media and parasocial relationships and the future,” he says in the clip, later adding: “I forgot to tell him this in the interview, but I really think my videos are less about me and more a reflection of where you are right now… [with] you and you give up what doesn’t. And I think that’s what’s beautiful.”

When I watched a video of him being interviewed for an article about meta-content that you’re reading right here on this page, I found this sentiment to be true. Watching Jen’s wedding video made me seriously consider marriage as a choice I would make one day; Watching and bookmarking her newborn essentials video made me feel more prepared for the difficult task of pregnancy (even though I have no plans to undertake it anytime soon).

But meta-content is fundamentally a compromise. Realizing the fallacy of the Internet doesn’t change our course so much as it reminds us how trapped we really are, and how we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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