The primary purpose of the selfie has always been to show yourself at your best. In fact, this definition could extend to Instagram as a whole, at least in its early years. Taking a photo, especially of yourself, and posting it to social media is something people have generally done when A. They look good or B. They’re doing something they think makes them look good.
But in 2022, the selfie has taken on an entirely new meaning, at least for Gen Z. Because now, for young and cool teens and twenty-somethings, taking what you might consider to be “ugly” selfies and posting weird content on social media is not only the norm, but it’s probably the best route to becoming an influencer.
When you hear the world “influencer,” a particular image might spring to mind — that of a young, gorgeous woman who takes impeccable street style photos or poses with teeth whitening strips. Maybe they found fame on Love Island or sporadically appear on episodes of Made In Chelsea? And they probably post content about the clothes they’ve bought, the food they eat, or their (often lavish or what seem like incredibly cushy) lifestyles.
Although this is a pretty limited description of the influencer — given that there have been a wide array of internet personalities creating all types of content since the start of social media — it’s certainly the one that the majority of people, particularly millennials, are most familiar with.
But the advent of TikTok has transformed the concept of an influencer. That’s because, rather than planning photoshoots and showing their followers what they bought from Zara, most of Gen Z’s favourite TikTokkers are known, instead, for posting comedic, and usually weird, content.
Maddie Grace Jepson is a TikTok influencer with over one million followers. Her first viral video was something she posted on a whim out of boredom using a TikTok sound she thought was funny. “Don’t message me ever again you f*cking little sl*g,” is the sound Jepson lip syncs to while lying in bed, as she holds her fists up to the camera and shakes them, showing off her double-jointed elbows.
“I posted it at 11 p.m., went to bed and woke up the next morning to three million views,” Jepson tells Mashable. The TikTokker has developed an online alter-ego of sorts, which involves singing (and speaking) in a strange voice, doing sketches of exaggerated real-life situations and sticking her tongue out in a very specific way, which, bizarrely, is probably the thing she is most well-known for.
23-year-old Jepson has worked with brands like Jack Wills, The North Face, and Amazon and she is undeniably making a career from being an influencer. Yet the kind of content she posts is so different to what we’ve come to expect from people with this job title.
And she’s not the only one. Max Balegde grew his following to 2.8 million, partly by posting a series of videos documenting a disagreement with his landlord about a stain on his mattress, as well as sharing other embarrassing stories from his life.
“I never saw social media as a career for me,” Balegde says, explaining that he was working as an intern for a digital marketing company when his personal TikTok started to take off. “When I first started gaining followers, it never once crossed my mind that I might be considered an influencer.” Now, he’s working with brands like Boots and Spotify.
Jepson agrees that she didn’t necessarily see herself as an influencer at first, and even now, she still struggles with the job title: “I associated influencers with Love Island, reality TV, or YouTubers,” she says. “This was a new way of influencing,” she says, of creating TikTok videos. “If I was ever going to be an influencer, this is the only way it could have ever happened — I never would have been an Instagram influencer.”
Gen Z wants weird and authentic
The content these Gen Z creators are making could not be further from what their millennial counterparts posted on social media in their first few years of influencing, which generally depicted a put-together, sometimes unrealistic version of themselves. For young creators, whose videos seem to perform better the more authentic, embarrassing, and weird they are, there’s an obvious rejection of the content they grew up consuming on Instagram, which tended to promote traditional beauty standards.
According to Dr. Carolina Are, digital culture expert and innovation fellow at Northumbria University for Digital Citizens, this generational shift is not unusual: “I don’t necessarily think it’s just a reaction to beauty standards because this is often a cyclical thing — it often happens, where a generation contradicts what the previous generation has done,” she explains.
But this generation has come of age through a very specific set of circumstances. Namely, a pandemic, the climate crisis, and now one of the biggest cost of living crises the UK has ever experienced. This means that traditional influencer content that promotes buying new things and maintaining a particular lifestyle is not only out of touch, but totally unattainable for most young people. “A lot of Gen Z creators, who are very concerned about the environment and politically active, are not interested or able to spend money [in the same way as traditional Instagram influencers were],” Are says.
Light comedic relief, however, is exactly what a lot of people have been looking for in the past couple of years. And many of the UK’s biggest TikTok stars started posting on the app simply as an attempt to entertain themselves.
“I was just bored in lockdown as I was in drama school and my third year got cut short,” says Kyron Hamilton, explaining why he started posting to the app. His most popular videos see him impersonating teachers, wearing at least 30 lanyards around his neck and speaking in a mock-condescending tone. But it was a video of him frantically scrubbing shower foam on his face — which now has over 1.5 million likes — that catapulted him to TikTok fame.
Hamilton assumed no one would see what he now considers to be quite an embarrassing video. Like most TikTok users, he felt like he could maintain a level of anonymity posting videos on the app, as, in 2020 at least, most of the people using it weren’t collecting followers or likes like on other platforms, but simply creating videos for their own amusement. But the notoriously elusive TikTok algorithm means that no one really knows what will go viral; it often only takes one popular video to land you influencer status overnight.
Gen Z’s social media use has become so authentic (or at least, perceived as authentic) that, for a lot of people, it might even feel awkward to post a flattering photo. “I did a photoshoot with a brand and I had to post the photos to my Instagram. They picked really nice, posed photos and I felt like I had to make the caption funny because it felt embarrassing,” Balegde says.
“I don’t think people are bothered about my Instagram because they don’t want to see me look nice,” Jepson agrees. “They want to see me be weird so sometimes I will put an ugly photo next to a nice one or the caption will just be like ‘slay!’ to remind people I’m still funny.”
It’s not just influencers who feel conflicted about posting nice photos of themselves on social media. Nineteen-year-old Josh, who uses apps like Instagram and TikTok both personally and as a platform for his modelling work, explains that it can be difficult to make his social media feel both authentic and flattering. “There’s definitely a pressure to find the balance between coming across as relatable while also still looking good without trying to,” he says.
So is posting ugly selfies and weird videos on TikTok really an anti-establishment move against vanity, or just another trend designed to gain followers?
Jepson, Balegde, and Hamilton all agree that they think Gen Z’s approach to social media and influencers is a positive change: “I do think TikTok is paving the way in allowing people to be who they are and look the way they do with no pressure,” Jepson says. “There’s no place for the idea that influencers have to fit a certain beauty standard anymore.”
“I feel so lucky that unintentionally I created a situation where my job is just being myself [on the internet],” Balegde says. “Over lockdown, people realised that some of the best content on the internet was from people just sitting in their dressing gowns with no makeup on so I think, from that, people have new priorities when it comes to what they want from influencers.”
So if your New Year’s Resolution is to become a TikTokker, forget the vlog camera, ditch your make-up and simply film yourself being as weird or embarrassing as you can. Ugly selfies are optional, but encouraged.