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Arts CriticismSocial Issues

Why We Hate Follow: A Cultural Addiction in the Digital Age

“Hate-following” is a modern phenomenon, unique to the 21st century, in which one obsessively keeps up with influencers, artists or celebrities, while simultaneously fostering a relentless dislike towards them. From reality television to Tiktok, it is likely that most individuals have partaken in some form of hate-following. From constantly tracking social media pages of controversial politicians they despise, to following “hate pages” dedicated to dissecting and criticizing the lives of celebrities and influencers, all these behaviours can fall under the umbrella of hate-following. 

It is no secret that social media provides an optimal environment for comparison with others. Social media feeds are curated highlight reels; they allow a rose-tinted lens to be carefully positioned over day-to-day life. Even algorithms, which allow the content we already obsess over to be constantly fed to us, can perpetuate addictive behavioural patterns. Naturally, social media presents endless opportunities to compare ourselves with those we perceive to be better than us, prettier than us, wealthier than us, happier than us, even healthier than us.

 

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(Image Source: Shorthand)

Conversely, these benchmarks for self-evaluation can also be found in ample supply on the other side of the spectrum. Contrasting ourselves with individuals we perceive to be worse than us is not a new phenomenon, but one that is amplified by the accessibility of social media. “From a neuroscience perspective, when we see something on social media we don’t approve of, we hit our self-esteem button through the brain and release dopamine,” explains psychologist Lilly Sabir. “But what happens over time is that in wanting to release more dopamine, the level of anger and hate has to increase.” 

This cultural addiction can be examined under psychologist Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory, which proposes that humans have an innate desire to evaluate themselves in relation to others. His theory can be divided into two major subcategories: upward social comparison, the act of comparing oneself to an individual they perceive to be better than them, and downward social comparison. 

Hate-following classifies under Festinger’s theory of downward social comparison, the act of comparing oneself with an individual they perceive as worse than them in some way. This behaviour is often driven by a desire to disapprove, as suggested by psychologist Dr. Leslie Prince. “‘I don’t like this state of affairs so I oppose it’ is much easier than proposing something new,” she explains. 

 

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(Image Source: Fix)

“When we compare ourselves with others, we are often subconsciously determining a benchmark with which we can evaluate ourselves. In comparing ourselves to the “inferior other,” Festinger suggests we are fulfilling a purpose of either assimilation or contrast, ultimately contributing to an overarching goal of assessing ourselves. Through contrasting downward comparison, we are differentiating ourselves from a ‘them,’ while simultaneously identifying with an ‘us.’’ 

Probing deeper into this phenomenon, the Kardashians, an iconic American cultural object, may come to mind. Since its premiere in 2007, Keeping Up With the Kardashians has amassed curiosity from viewers worldwide, and their somewhat unconventional rise to fame, privileged lifestyles and countless scandals and controversies prompt many to beg the question, “why are they even famous?” 

Unsurprisingly, social media provides an optimal ground for social comparison. Studies suggest that as a result of social networking sites, “information about similar comparison targets is available at an unprecedented scale.” In simpler terms, when browsing social media platforms, the intimate details of the lives of people we hardly know but can easily compare ourselves with are at our fingertips, from Kim Kardashian to an old childhood friend. 

 

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(Image Source: The Jakarta Post)

So why the Kardashians? “The Kardashians, if you think about them from cultural or sociological terms, [are] in many ways really definitive of contemporary life,” says Dr. Meredith Jones, organizer of Kimposium in 2015, the world’s first academic conference dedicated entirely to the Kardashian family. Dr. Jones suggests that the Kardashian’s reflect the entrenched values and ideologies of western culture, consumption and consumerism. The Kardashian family, often berated for being talentless, shallow and self-absorbed, likely evoke uncomfortable self-reflection for some “haters,” proposes the academic consensus.  

We all like to believe that we do not fall into societal traps like consumption and consumerism, and next to celebrities like the Kardashians, it can often be easier to come to the conclusion that we do not. This is exactly why we crave downward social comparison; our flaws can shrink significantly in the shadows of someone else’s. 

When scrolling through social media, comparison—both upward and downward—is simply unavoidable. However, the addictive nature of hate-following can result in obsessive behaviour all too normalized in our culture. So when you next feel tempted to stalk the page of an offensive political figure, seemingly self-obsessed influencer or even an ex-friend, consider your motivation in doing so, and feel free to hit “unfollow”.

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Why We Hate Follow: A Cultural Addiction in the Digital Age