TikTok and Instagram advice influencers are here to correct you
Are you still drinking almond milk?
If so, a big subset of wellness influencers on TikTok and Instagram want you to know what a huge mistake you are making. “Stop consuming almond milk thinking it’s healthier!” commands Ashley Brooke, who describes herself as an entrepreneur, hairstylist, and artisan soap maker. “ONE CRAZY REASON YOU’RE DAIRY-FREE & FEEL LIKE CRAP,” blares wakeupandreadthelabels, an account maintained by food coach Jen Smiley. (The crazy reason, you may have deduced, is almond milk.) Paul Saladino, also known as Carnivore MD, demands to know, “why would you ever drink almond milk or feed it to your kids?” Posing shirtless with a carton of the stuff, he harangues the helpless viewer: “This is garbage!”
But it’s not just almond milk that is garbage. (For the record, current research suggests the beverage is fine for most people.) According to the scolds of TikTok — whose shouty expertise ranges far beyond diet to include fashion, beauty, parenting, and more — you might just be a garbage human, too.
Over the past three years, TikTok has evolved from a place to post and consume viral dances and memes into a destination for snappy, 20-second tutorials and how-tos, where everyone from dermatologists to divorce lawyers to amateur astrologers can dole out their expert — or, sometimes, totally inexpert — advice on relationships, sobriety, jewelry shopping, managing anxiety, buying plane tickets, lowering your blood pressure, and yes, cutting the dreaded almond milk out of your diet. According to TikTok, the hashtag #LearnOnTikTok had 521.2 billion views as of mid-March, a 103.4 percent increase over the last year; the hashtag #Tutorial had 321.8 billion views, a 59.6 percent increase. The effect is so pronounced that “TikTok is almost becoming the new Google,” says Shani Tran, a licensed professional clinical counselor and creator of the TikTok channel theshaniproject. Younger users, especially, are searching the app for tips on topics like email etiquette or finding a therapist.
Though the advice they uncover can be helpful (How to paint a sunflower! How to make candy apple slices! How to ask for a raise!), lately, it’s being delivered in a hectoring tone that implies the viewer has already made several catastrophic errors and is in dire need of remedial education. The scoldings show up in the hair-care dos and don’ts, like the one where a woman grimaces theatrically as she applies hairspray (don’t, obviously). It’s in the parenting video that admonishes viewers to “Stop traumatizing your kids” (by letting them watch YouTube). It’s in the “Fashion Mistakes that make you look completely STUPID” (wearing black shoes with a black shirt, apparently). Despite their aggressive stance toward seemingly minor infractions, such videos have become hugely popular. The hashtag #Mistakes has seen a 59.8 percent increase in views over the last year, while #DosAndDonts is up 71.4 percent.
“Unfortunately, negativity sells,” Tran says. “We as people can sometimes be drawn in by it.”
“At first it’s interesting, but then when it’s like every day, your feed is filled with people shouting advice at you,” says Emily Hund, author of The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media, “it starts to feel like everything’s a problem.”
Part of the reason scolding advice has become so ubiquitous on TikTok and other platforms is that it can make the scold seem more credible. Using “don’t do this,” “no,” and other negative language “authenticates your own identity as an expert” by denigrating other approaches, says Sylvia Sierra, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University who has studied social media discourse. “It can actually be a pretty effective strategy.”
It’s also perfectly calibrated to our particular historical moment, when many Americans are feeling insecure, adrift, and eager to shore up their self-esteem. In 2023, many people are grasping at normalcy, reentering social and professional lives that were, for several years, put on hold or curtailed. But the norms of this weird new world are fragmented and confusing; trends are as evanescent as the wind, and many Americans have forgotten how to dress (it’s no accident that so many advice videos are fashion-focused), how to work in an office, and how to socialize. “There’s just an opening,” says Sierra, “where people are looking to others for advice increasingly on what are the socially appropriate ways to behave.” A flood of influencers have rushed into that space to tell us what to do — in exchange for our attention, our self-respect, and, maybe, our money.
“Influencers have always offered this sense of control over an unruly environment,” says Hund. When they first emerged on blogs and later on Instagram in the late 2000s and early 2010s, that sense of control centered on the promise of economic self-sufficiency. Influencers had ostensibly escaped a job market upended by the Great Recession and had learned to make a living by taking trips, having fun, and modeling enviable lives that readers and viewers, too, could attain, with the right products.
The pandemic dealt a blow to that ideal as beauty and travel influencing became less lucrative (or downright impossible), and the influencer-as-bon-vivant was replaced by the influencer-as-expert.
Hund first noticed the shift during lockdown — a time when TikTok experienced a surge in popularity. Working from home with a young child, she was served a deluge of parenting videos on topics like sleep training and dealing with tantrums. The overall message, she recalls, was something like, “I know everything feels crazy, but I can help you at least manage mealtime.”
Everything did indeed feel crazy, and a lot of people were eager for someone to tell them what to do. “How do you navigate a pandemic and all of these political and social problems?” asks Hund. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, and it created the perfect opportunity for people to position themselves as experts online.”
Amid lockdowns, some Americans also suddenly had a surfeit of free time, and used it to pursue new hobbies, productivity hacks, and other forms of self-improvement — or at least felt like they were supposed to be pursuing those things. People sought out advice on everything from growing scallions to raising well-adjusted children, and influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers all the way down to self-appointed authorities with phones and a couple of minutes to spare sprang up to provide it.
Today, a curious scroller can find tutorials that are helpful, even soothing. But a lot of what pops up on TikTok — and Instagram’s competitor, Reels — takes a strangely censorious attitude to viewers. It can be a beauty video with an influencer’s face split in half, misapplied contouring under one cheekbone, correctly blended product on (not under!) the other. Or a dietitian telling you that you are, somehow, eating fruit wrong (it must be paired with protein and fat at all times).
There’s a simple reason content creators might be gravitating toward advice that’s full of red X’s and dire warnings: It gets views. Especially on TikTok, “controversial content does really well,” said Jessy Grossman, founder of the community Women in Influencer Marketing. “Drama-filled content does really well.”
The reason may have to do with the fractured nature of American society in the 2020s. “We don’t have common sources of news,” says Taya Cohen, a professor of organizational behavior and business ethics at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied shame. “We’re not watching the same TV shows.” Americans find themselves highly polarized into political and cultural subgroups, leaving people “trying to figure out what their identity is, who their community is, and what are the standards of their community,” Cohen says.
That’s where the scolding comes in. Guilt and shame are “moral emotions” that, in a sense, help teach us how to act in society, Cohen says. We may be seeking out shaming content now as a way of “figuring out what the social norms are,” Cohen says, and “what is the appropriate way to behave.”
There is, of course, another, darker reason we turn to such content: to feel a sense of superiority. Instead of watching videos to learn what not to wear or eat or do, some people may be watching “to feel better about themselves because, well, other people should feel ashamed or bad about what they’re doing,” Cohen said. They might be trying “to lessen their own feelings of shame about things they may have done wrong by favorably comparing to other people.” In other words, I might be a socially awkward, pandemic-addled husk of a human being, but at least I don’t tuck my sweater in wrong.
Advice-shaming videos are a venue where people “can indulge in thoughts that they wouldn’t want to admit otherwise,” Grossman said. Basically, viewers get to sit back and judge the people who are wearing the wrong outfits, buying the wrong products, feeding their kids the wrong foods — the don’ts.
Often, the appeal isn’t even just the video itself. It’s the fight playing out in the comments. “You’ll have an influencer that puts out a piece of content and it’s literally like opening the floodgates,” Grossman said. “It’s just like, ‘Get your popcorn and check out what’s happening.’”
There’s a psychic cost to consuming too much shame, however. Critical videos can validate our most negative thoughts about ourselves. “If you believe that you don’t look good in a certain type of clothing, and then you’re scrolling the internet and you come across a fashion person that says, ‘Hey, yeah, this type of clothing does not look good on people,’ that confirms the bias that you have,” Tran says.
Such content can also sow self-doubt. Since 2020, parenting advice on social media has gone from novel and interesting to feeling like it’s “invading my mind,” Hund says. “I started to notice myself thinking like, ‘Well, what did so-and-so say,” she added, “instead of knowing what I know about my child and how I want my house to be.”
Those feelings of uncertainty and self-loathing can drive us to consume more advice — and stuff — a doom spiral that leaves us awake at 3 in the morning obsessively searching Poshmark for pants that are not stupid. And because the scolds of TikTok are so popular, their content is taking over more of our feeds and becoming harder to avoid. “We can find ourselves sort of in this loop of re-creating, and then if the re-creating continues to get views,” Tran said, “now you have this channel that shames people.”
The most basic antidote is just to unfollow or swipe past anything that doesn’t serve you. “It’s obviously really important to be mindful of how it makes you feel” and to seek out content “with intentionality” rather than mindlessly scrolling, Hund says.
But that kind of mindfulness is often easier said than done. “It’s something that I am definitely guilty of not doing sometimes,” Hund acknowledges.
On a broader level, we might be less susceptible to feeling like a “don’t” if we had “greater public awareness of what influencers are and the nature of their work,” Hund says. Content creators aren’t just making shamey videos because we, the viewers, are disasters and need help. “They are doing a job, and they are understandably hoping to be remunerated for that job.”
That could mean views that help them get bigger and better brand deals. It could also mean direct sales of courses and coaching, an increasingly lucrative income stream for influencers. “If you have a big following and if you can get even 5 percent of them to buy your course for $50 to $200, that can bring you quite a significant amount of income,” Hund said. Many influencers offer snippets of advice on their channels in the hopes that viewers will then decide to pay them for more.
“It taps into that age-old advertising industry tactic of manufacturing a problem and then selling you a solution,” Hund said.
Indeed, this may be the most seductive promise of the TikTok scolds in our current confusing times — that there are quick fixes to life’s complex problems. Part of what’s appealing about dos and don’ts is their simplicity. If we just avoid these five mistakes, we can emerge on the other side — of parenthood, a job interview, a night out, a makeup routine, a relationship — unscathed. That promise is inviting, even if it’s illusory.
“We go to social media because we want to feel good,” Tran said. But sometimes we’ll settle for feeling bad in a different way, and maybe feeling shamed for something concrete and changeable is more manageable than facing the full reality of life in 2023: a shaky, uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous present, and an uncertain future we can neither predict nor control.