The imitation game: how Instagram turned us into copycats

    4 January 2019

    I follow a few people on Instagram – normal people, not celebrities – whose posts have had me scratching my head of late.

    Take the person who routinely name-checks the swanky hotels or restaurants that they visit, using the establishment’s official handle, offering effusive praise and adding a deluge of hashtags – just as a paid ‘influencer’ would do. Or the acquaintance who, despite working in a conservative, white-collar industry and being followed by several colleagues, posts selfies that are racy enough to make a Kardashian blush. Perhaps you can think of a few examples like this from your own feed, too.

    At first I was baffled. But now I think I might understand what’s going on.

    It recently emerged that wannabe influencers have begun to post fake ‘sponsored content’ in the hope of landing genuine paid endorsement deals. As several aspirant instagrammers explained to The Atlantic recently, ‘brand deals’ – even pretend ones – make you ‘seem cool’. Being a salesperson used to be seen as uncouth: we’ve all put the phone down on a cold call or closed the door on someone trying to sell us something. But, online, the ability to sell and promote is the ultimate status symbol.

    Although that doesn’t directly explain the behaviour of my electronic acquaintances, it might hint at what’s driving them. After all, there is an age-old human impulse to copy.

    Influential people have always been aped by the rest of us. Take the convention of leaving the bottom button of a waistcoat unfastened – thought to be a throwback to the social circle of Edward VII (then Prince of Wales). Noticing that HRH had become too portly to fasten his, hangers-on left theirs undone as well and, to this day, it remains the ‘proper’ way to wear one. Latterly, during the Nineties, almost every single boy at my school had the heavily-gelled ‘curtains’ hairstyle popularised at the time by David Beckham. And, of course, from the Birkin bag to Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there are countless examples from Hollywood and the fashion world.

    So today, as we continue to get to grips with what is still a relatively new way of expressing ourselves, it makes a certain kind of sense for the example set by the most prominent people to become a standard of behaviour. However, whether we should regard it as what scientists call ‘imitative learning’ (a useful, normal process) or an example of ‘ecophenomena’ (‘pathological repetitions of external stimuli or activities, actions, sounds, or phrases, indicative of an underlying disorder’) remains an open question.

    In its crudest form, copycat behaviour like this can be amusing. When ‘Dr Alex’ emerged from the hit reality TV show Love Island last summer, he immediately started pumping out a stream of bizarre social media posts that were ersatz influencer fare but, on closer inspection, were somehow more vapid than usual. It was suggested that he might have been performing a kind of experimental conceptual art – perhaps in the vein of Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix’s ill-fated mocumentary I’m Still Here. More likely, he (or his new agent) thought that it was just what you had to do if you wanted to be famous.

    Dr Alex from Love Island rebrands himself as an instagram influencer

    At the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, however, imitation can seem almost too calculated. Think of the people who keep their eyes peeled for trending joke formulae on Twitter (those lists and memes that crop up now and again) so they can produce their own, less funny versions. Their posts might still garner retweets and new followers but, if you ask me, they’re just as transparent as Dr Alex. They come across like internet sociopaths: charming on the surface, but with a more cynical motive hidden just out of sight.

    Fortunately, it is possible to minimise your exposure to all these copycats and fakers. Through painstaking research (hours of scrolling through social media when I should be working) I’ve discovered that there is a time when Twitter, in particular, is almost bearable – funny, even. On a Friday afternoon people tend to relax, and give up the pretence, projection and ‘echophenomena’ in favour of genuine humour and warmth. In short, it’s when social media becomes – all too briefly – a bit more like real life.