Whether it be responding to your friends’ texts with “same,” praising a TV show for having “relatable characters” or sarcastically commenting on the recent exploits of the uber-rich, it seems that relatability has become an important facet of Gen Z culture. Beyond the world of YouTube comment sections and pointed tweets, relatability also seems to be a specific measure of how much we like somebody. Not just in our personal lives, but also in terms of how we view public figures. Especially during the election cycle, you’ll start to see a wide variety of social media posts detailing whether somebody is or isn’t “warm” and “relatable” — criticisms which seem to most commonly affect female politicians who tend to be criticized for their approachability or lack thereof.
For Gen Z, the most obvious way to apply the “relatability” concept is through YouTube. In her video “You’re Not Relatable Anymore,” Youtuber tiffanyferg traces the evolution of relatable content, starting in the mid 2010s. From about 2013-2016, if you were a teenager with internet access and logged onto the platform, you would be barraged by highly saturated, cutesy thumbnails full of easy DIYs, life hacks and similarly uncontroversial, broadly appealing videos. Then, starting in 2016, relatable YouTubers got a shiny, brand-new Gen Z rebrand — a younger group of creators, a trendier Brandy Melville aesthetic, etc. Part of this trend is, of course, that teenage YouTube watchers want to watch people who are also teenagers — a video about getting ready for school is going to be far easier to connect to than a video about building your baby’s first crib. From this point of view, relatability is pretty harmless — you find somebody who feels relatively similar to you, you watch their videos. Done. But there’s a darker, stranger side to the phenomenon of relatability.
The first thing to address is just how popular these YouTubers are. A 2015 survey for Variety, which compared 10 traditional entertainment stars to 10 YouTubers, found that teenagers from 13-18 ranked YouTubers above traditional entertainment stars. The survey also reported that teens were as much as seven times more emotionally attached to Youtubers than traditional celebrities, and that YouTubers were perceived as 17 times more engaging. The exact reason that YouTube stars are able to capture teen audiences isn’t clear, but if I were to guess, it definitely has something to do with a cult of personality. Viewers are able to attach somebody’s content to a clearly recognizable image — thus, the creator can choose to project whatever best suits their brand. Subsequently, their brand evolves into a lifestyle of sorts, which is easily accessible through their videos. This is also part of what allows “relatability” to be so pervasive on the platform — creators have however many minutes they want where they can present themselves however they choose. Specifically, editing styles have become a much larger part of content, with creators such as Emma Chamberlain popularizing content which, though it appears amateur in terms of effects — picture editing styles that you would use for a middle school film project — are engineered to grab audience attention. Jeetendr Sehdev, the celebrity brand strategist who led the survey, commented “YouTube has an inherent ability to create contagious content. The level of advocacy teens have about YouTube stars is out of control.”
It’s interesting that Sehdev mentions “contagious” content. In 2007, Jonah Peretti, the man behind BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, co-authored a piece for the Harvard Business Review with Duncan Watts Ph.D. ’97, entitled “Viral Marketing for the Real World.” In the article, Peretti and Watts propose a new approach to marketing called “big-seed marketing,” which combines viral marketing tools with mass media. Their analogy for spreading content is the spread of an infectious disease — their analysis uses reproduction rate, R, to calculate the success of different viral campaigns. They write: “By providing social-sharing tools that are easy to use, moreover, marketers can reliably increase the reproduction rate of their message — an important point, as even small increases in R can dramatically increase the number of additional cases.” Essentially, big-seed marketing is a straightforward method of creating viral content and reliably improving advertising yields, so “managers can dispense with the probably fruitless exercise of predicting how, or through whom, contagious ideas will spread.” Which is to say — there’s a formula to all of this, and marketing executives know it.
Therefore, if you’re trying to sell a product, you send it to relatable YouTubers. Anybody who consistently watches YouTube videos has probably seen this in action — how many product placements have you seen for Honey, or NordVPN or Curology? Even once the specific sponsored video is done, you’ll start to see clips of a YouTuber endorsing a product popping up in other places on your feed, so, whether you like it or not, you’re forced to remember which products they’ve endorsed. The fact that I could instantly come up with three examples of companies using YouTubers for advertising in less than a minute is proof of that.
Beyond the big-seed marketing approach, there’s also a psychological side to all of this. A 2016 article in the Journal of Consumer Marketing entitled “Credibility of a peer endorser and advertising effectiveness” shows that the credibility of a peer endorser (in this case, the influencer) is constructed from trustworthiness, expertise, similarity and attractiveness. Now, take a moment and think of this in relation to popular creators. The vast majority are conventionally attractive, stylish teenagers whose “relatability” allows them to present as trustworthy people who are “just like you.” The formula of a relatable content creator is also, not entirely coincidentally, the formula of the ideal peer endorser. If you don’t believe me, search “relatable.” The sixth result is for an influencer marketing brand, with a tagline that defines “relatable” and says “In other words, how people like their advertising.”
I’m not necessarily making the argument that “relatable” content creators are trying to weasel their way into your capitalist rodent brain — but I’m not not making that argument. Take a moment to consider your idea of relatability. How much of it is tied to consumerism? Why do you want — or more accurately, why do you think you want — the things you want? Beyond the YouTube platform, consider social media as a whole. I distinctly remember back when I had Instagram, taking about 15 minutes to come up with the perfect caption. Not too over the top, not too dull, the perfect mix of relatability and ingenuity. A caption which, through the process of deliberation, became increasingly disingenuous. Even in moments of trying to seem unapologetic, or real, I still find that I’m projecting a falsified version of myself, carefully designed for mass appeal. Sometimes not necessarily mass appeal, but as I jokingly told my friend while talking about dating profiles, “I know my demographic.”
So, despite not being a marketing firm, I’m still advertising myself — a tendency which extends outside of my social media profiles and into the way I choose to act in-person. The specific mode of technocapitalism perpetuated by online influencers has effectively weaseled its way into my feeble rodent brain, encouraging alienation despite a veneer of collective behavior. It all seems to be a gossamer-thin illusion, and at this point it seems impossible to fully extricate myself from the abyssal web of technocapitalism. Which raises the question: Are any of us actually real?
Mira Kudva Driskell is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Portrait of a Gen Z on Fire runs alternate Mondays this semester. She can be reached at email@example.com.