My novel about Instagram mums and vloggers, Unfollow Me, is released in ebook in the UK tomorrow! I’m very excited – and equal parts terrified – so I thought I would mark the occasion by talking a little bit about what inspired me to write it.
This book was an absolute gift to write, and I’m fairly sure that I won’t get quite so lucky again (by contrast, book 3 is slowly but steadily eroding my desire to live). The idea for Unfollow Me dropped fully formed into my brain one day, and changed very little as I wrote it. It all stemmed from a question – what would you do if the influencer you follow, who shares her life with you online every day, suddenly disappeared? And deleted all her social media accounts?
But it goes a little bit further back than that. When my daughter was born, I obsessively followed lots of family vloggers – both on YouTube and Instagram. There was something addictive about watching other parents doing their parenting in what felt like real-time. It was the ultimate voyeurism, I got to see exactly what sort of clothes their babies were wearing, what nappies, what food they were eating, what books they were reading and toys they were playing with… I was heavily ‘influenced’ by these parents’ choices on things like cots and buggies and general baby paraphernalia. I didn’t know these women or their families, but as they shared so much with me, I became quite invested in them. I remember when one of them said she was in labour, I was desperately checking Twitter and Instagram waiting for the birth announcement – and to find out what gender the baby would be. She felt like my friend. Someone I genuinely cared about.
But she didn’t have a clue I existed.
On that note, the title of this post is a massive misnomer, isn’t it? Because a real relationship is a two-way thing, and this was very firmly not a two-way thing in the same way a normal relationship is. This woman didn’t care about me, not in any meaningful sense. I was just a ‘fan’. One of the many faceless fans.
It was a realisation that kind of embarrassed me. I wasn’t angry about it, I just felt a bit stupid. Of course it’s lovely to wish strangers well, but investing emotional energy in someone who you most likely will never meet seems like a strange way to behave.
It did fascinate me though. I remember years ago someone saying that social media has legitimised stalking, and that’s exactly what it’s done. But with influencers who monetise their platforms it’s a strange symbiotic relationship, in that the person you are stalking wants you to stalk them (to some degree) because that’s how they make money. But where are the lines drawn? What if they one day they don’t want you to watch after all? Do you have a ‘right’ to their life? Especially as, by watching them, you have paid for much of it?
Of course it’s similar in many ways to mainstream celebrity, except that it’s also very different. Because normal celebrities are worshipped for their talents in music, acting, writing, whatever. That’s how they make their money. And vloggers don’t have to be good at anything in particular. They just have to be friendly, charismatic and believe that what they have to say about, well, life and stuff, is important enough to be of interest.
This probably sounds like I’m very negative about influencers. I’m not. (The journalistic side of me, of course, hates them for being smart enough to identify a huge new opportunity and making a million times more money than we journalists ever did as we stuck to our prehistoric guns and sniffed self-righteously that ‘the blogging thing will never last’). But I also see that it takes courage to put yourself out there (in the same way that it does writing novels). I can also appreciate massively the downsides with regard to your children – you’re effectively sharing their most personal, character-forming experiences with a whole load of strangers, without their permission. It’s a tough call. Part of me thinks that the notion of privacy has been so massively obliterated by the social media age that it’s foolish to imagine that you have much of it left, and that children will grow up so used to constantly being photographed that it won’t affect them in the same way as it might affect us. Human beings evolve to cope with cultural shifts. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t survive.
But part of me also thinks god, we should be protecting our children. The world is scary and big enough, let’s not hold them up to constant scrutiny from unnamed strangers too. Let’s not orchestrate every private family moment so that it becomes shareable and has monetary value. Even if the children involved don’t know what’s going on, even if they’re not old enough to understand. There’s a social media hashtag ‘#letthembelittle’ – the irony is overwhelming. Let them be little indeed! Leave them alone! Don’t make them pose and posture! Don’t upload a film of them crying at their third birthday party because they didn’t get the unicorn cake they wanted, even if it is ‘cute’!
I say this, but as a massive hypocrite. Because I am also very guilty of oversharing much of my daughter’s life. I blogged throughout my pregnancy, and then did monthly baby updates until Daphne turned about 18 months. Those posts are still live on this blog today, and get tons of hits - and I still get emails from random people who’ve read them asking me for advice on things like colic, which she suffered with. I really, really enjoyed writing those posts - it was such a strange time in my life and it was actually lovely to be sharing my experiences. If I had had the chance to monetise them more, and if I had no other viable career path (and if I’d been a bit more photogenic - ha!), I might easily have ended up becoming a mummy influencer myself.
In the novel, I also wanted to focus on the other inevitable part of the strange partnership between influencer and influencee – the jealousy. After all, many of these influencers are earning an absolute fortune through their online presence these days, and thus their lives – which once might have seemed not too dissimilar to those of their viewers – are spiralling further and further away from that of Ms Joanna Bloggs. Some of the most successful influencers are the ones with huge houses and dozens of designer handbags, and it seems that people do enjoy watching those the most. As their audience grows, so does their wealth – it’s a self-fulfilling cycle. Which also fascinates me. Do people secretly enjoy being jealous? Do they find it inspiring? Motivating?
I think for me, I found watching them all of those things. As well as completely fascinating. I stopped watching the Youtube vloggers as my daughter grew (not least because of the time commitment – many of them upload 15 minute videos every day, and I could never keep up!), but I still follow a lot of them on Instagram and recently I have noticed that I’ve started to feel a bit inadequate, and pissed off with my own lot (and my own lot isn’t exactly bad). And that’s when I realised again that it’s not healthy, to be investing so much time and energy – and comparing yourself non-stop – to people who are not showing all the bad stuff. Or even if they are showing the bad stuff, it’s totally filtered and manipulated for the audience.
Anyway, it was my hugely ambivalent feeling towards these brave women and their families that lead me to write Unfollow Me. Most of all, I wanted to write it from the perspective of the people following these women, to document their highs and lows as they try desperately to hunt down their idol. In some ways it was also a way for me to explore my own messy feelings towards influencers – and particularly mummy influencers, who are basically trying to create a career that allows them to be at home with their children as much as possible, which is something I genuinely really, really respect. I also really believe in making the most of opportunities, and if this is the best way for some people to make a living, then my God, they should go for it.
Like I said, I’m conflicted!
So Unfollow Me is told from the perspective of the fans (and the trolls) – two in particular, as they go to somewhat shocking lengths to discover just what has happened to their supermum Violet Young.
I loved writing this book. It’s something I have a genuine interest in – it’s something that feels very ‘of our time’ and I hope this comes across in the reading of it.
Unfollow Me is out tomorrow in ebook for the bargain price of £1.99. It would make my day if you bought it. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on this increasingly bewildering new world too.