Populism’s only certainty is uncertainty: the causes and consequence of populism on a democratic society

Story by OWEN BENSON

Authoritarian governments are sinking their claws into every corner of the globe. Creeping command of complete control in Orban’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, Maduro’s Venezuela, is ripping their populations asunder. Upending citizens stable lives for pursuit of fleeting power via relentless institutional dismemberment. In the United States, citizens grip to a belief that its institutions are infallible. That its system of governance upholds the bulwark between freedom and tyranny.

Yet tyranny is only ever one generation away from usurping power. In the U.S. many believe that the nation is slowly careening toward this disaster. That a government will be elected that will ignore, or even tear down our safeguards. To prevent this from becoming a reality it is imperative we identify these forces before they overwhelm our governing institutions.

Many point to populism as the root cause of this decline. Populism — an obscure term, one too often applied to disparate concepts in the mind of the American citizenry. Until Jan. 6, 2021, when the concept crashed to the center of American politics during The Capitol Hill Siege. The actions perpetrated that day are often attributed to former President Donald Trump’s speech prior to the riots. This would be an oversimplification, a fundamental confusion of addressing symptoms rather than the underlying disease.

In his speech, Trump highlighted the uncertainty of the election, the political uncertainty of a volatile democratic process, and the uncertainty of a globalized society. Uncertainty makes people susceptible to populism. Politicians who claim they can manifest certainty in an uncertain world apply appeals to the most basic senses of human stability – shelter, food, money.

“Psychologically none of us like the experience of uncertainty,” said Ethan Busby, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University. During a Zoom interview, he emphatically motions toward his head with rolling wrists in an act to mimic the chaos one can feel via these forces in one’s mind.

Ethan Busby is an assistant professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University, specializing in political psychology, extremism, public opinion, racial and ethnic politics, and quantitative methods. Busby studies extremism in democracies, and the factors that encourage and discourage extremism both at the public as well as at the elite levels. Busby’s research relies on lab experiments, quasi-experiments, survey experiments, text-as-data, surveys, artificial intelligence, and big data from Google and Twitter. Photo courtesy of Ethan Busby.

Yet, the United States possesses some of the highest rates of uncertainty in the western world according to FRED Economic Data. This is concerning, especially when one looks at the cultural uncertainty currently facing the U.S. People cite concerns over immigration, high rates of job loss due to globalization, and wealth gaps.

But Busby noted people yearn for certainty in their lives and will pursue it in any way they see fit. The use of populist rhetoric clearly defines and separates the world into tangible right and wrong. Strategic political actors can then exploit this perceived certainty, and through the use of their rhetoric provide their supporters with a feeling of moral righteousness, Busby said.

“I don’t fundamentally believe that extremists are a different kind of people than the rest of us,” Busby said. As a specialist in political psychology, he focuses on the forces that cause individuals to become susceptible to populist rhetoric. The same people you stand in line with at groceries stores, wait behind in traffic, and pass by on the street every day. These are not enigmatic boogeymen, they are our fellow citizens — fathers, aunts, cousins, and neighbors.

Everyone can be susceptible to this form of rhetoric. Populism isn’t an ideology that is reserved for a select group of people, it is an ideology built from the supposed “common people”. Attempting to project an individual — or movement — as the legitimate voice of all the people. Asserting that one person, or a particular group of people, can save the country from the elites and those who wish to dispossess them of the American Dream. Populists point to supposed oppressive forces that keep the American public subjugated, claiming the country can shed these chains and rise into prominence once again by following their vision, Busby said.

In American governance one of the bulwarks to curb this rise of deceptive rhetoric that cements populist power is through freedom of the press. Our Constitution enshrines the right to criticize the government and share ideas openly in the marketplace of ideas. Thus, our media structure has taken the form of being a crucial institution within our democratic society.

For a populist, institutions are synonymous with the ruling elite. This places a large red bullseye on the back of our media establishment for populist politicians. By discrediting the media structure, the populist politician not only scores points with their base by attacking the elites, they can begin to structure the narrative around themselves. With the rise of the digital age the threat of these institutions being worn away rises every day.

The speed at which information and misinformation flows in the digital age is unlike anything that we have seen before in human history. The proliferation and broad acceptance of social media and fake news are fracturing society, increasing uncertainty. For RonNell Anderson Jones, a law professor at S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, “It is one of the most significant challenges facing American democracy today.”

RonNell Anderson Jones researches the critical intersection of media, law, and the press. She strives to address press access and transparency, the role of the press as a check on government, newsgathering rights, reporter’s privilege, and the increasingly important and emerging role of social media law. Jones’ scholarly work has been published in a variety of books and journals from across the country including the Northwestern Law Review and Harvard Law Review Forum. Photo courtesy of RonNell Anderson Jones.

Jones specializes in media law, and particularly the newly emergent space of social media law. The rise of fake news within American society is nothing new. We have combatted its rise multiple times throughout the nation’s history, she said in a Zoom interview. However, the nation is not just seeing the rise of another wave of yellow journalism, in which salacious stories were spun by specious salesmen. We are facing something altogether new.

The fake news that proliferates today typically has a severely specific partisan point of view, purposely intended to maximize the interactions that these stories will receive via social media. Intended to inflame passions and prejudices for a precise outcome dictated by those who benefit, and even profit, from these outcomes. Jones said this resurgence of fake news in an online environment is exceedingly dangerous. Through these new avenues Americans are receiving a hyperinflated sense of reality, truly fixed within their echo chambers.

Heightened partisan tensions can only spell inevitable disaster for the United States. Through this degenerative process Americans are beginning to lose the shared common ground between themselves. “All good democracies throughout history have had some shared baseline of objective truth in their society,” Jones said. Sitting up from her chair she leaned toward the camera, emphasizing with her raised eyebrows and meticulous diction the point that we may be straying too far from this ideal.

So, with the degradation of our shared baseline, citizens are more likely to believe charismatic leaders who are professing to be telling their truth, the truth of the average citizen. This places enormous power within the hands of populist politicians since many see them as the arbiters of truth. With instant communication, Jones reiterated, this raises even more concern and speculation from followers about what truth really is. Is truth what your community tells you, what leadership tells you, what you believe, is it objective?

A populist will capitalize on this uncertainty, presenting a truth that appeals to a broad base of people. Yet, lies told big enough and loud enough, with enough uncertainty present, begin to chip away at the foundational tenets of objective truth, Jones said. Dismantling our shared common grounds, destroying our trust in each other, and devouring our relationships. This is where power for the populist snowballs.

The centralization of power within the hands of powerful charismatic leaders is dangerous, since it will perpetuate the forces of populism. A positive feedback loop is obtained through the cycle of certainty constantly being just on the horizon. The populist will strive to maintain this loop. Populism must be addressed prior to gaining any form of traction with our system of governance, for once a populist politician has obtained enough power to begin influencing a democratic process, it may already be too late.

“The populist sees an election not as an exercise of fair competition, but as an expression of the will of the people,” said Kirk Hawkins, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He furrowed his brow, eyes closed, accentuating each word so that it hung in the air for just a moment longer.

Kirk Hawkins is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, specializing in comparative politics with an emphasis in Latin America. Hawkins’ current research focuses on political organizations and populism. This includes being a director of the global scholarly network Team Populism. His current projects include the creation of a global populism dataset, experimental research on populism’s rhetorical mechanisms, and the mitigation of populism’s negative consequences for society. Photo courtesy of Kirk Hawkins.

If a populist has already accumulated enough power to be democratically elected to government, it is hard to oust them from that position. They emphatically believe themselves to be the personification of the will of the people, and thus anything that contradicts this belief cannot be true, Hawkins said. With a degraded perception of the truth already in place this narrative begins to propagate.

The effective implementation of misinformation was witnessed in full by the American public in the final days of Trump’s presidency. Neither Trump, nor fanatical sections of his base, could accept the electoral loss since it violated this perception of the supposed will of the people. The will of the people — or at least a specific segment of the people — was on full display in the form of mob mentality. This was seen in stark reality the day of the riots on Capitol Hill. As Hawkins put it, “Populism is a response to the very things the rhetoric invokes.”

Hawkins is a director of Team Populism — a global project intended to bring together scholars from across the world to share their research on the causes and consequences of populism — of which Busby is also a member. Hawkins’ research focuses on populism’s effect on large systems, such as a democratic society. Through the knowledge he has gained from research Hawkins said assuredly, “Americans are not real cool with populist rhetoric; they think it’s strange and unnecessarily provocative.”

Major news agencies, polling sites, and Americans themselves repeat this sentiment. According to Reuters, The Hill, and Forbes — in addition to others — more than half of Americans believed Trump should not have completed his term following the events that transpired.

This is undoubtedly a hopeful sign for the present, but what about the future? We are only at the beginning of the age of social media, the American people are still fumbling their way through this new medium of interaction. There are a few things that can be done at the governmental and individual level to combat the rise of populist rhetoric in the future, Hawkins said.

Education is the future. Through reinvigorating the spirit of the Enlightenment, whose ideals our government was founded upon, we can combat not only the rise of extremist rhetoric but the proliferation of misinformation. The American public needs to find its passion once again for critical thought and critical literacy, Busby said.

As a society we must repair our degrading shared baseline of ideals, facts, and direction, said Jones, the law professor. By holding each other accountable for the preservation of our way of life we eliminate the driving force of us versus them, and we reenter into a community minded future.

Through the restoration of our shared common ground, we will begin to drive out misinformation, thus eliminating another force that drives populist rhetoric. However, Jones said, none of this manages to address the problem of uncertainty in American society. Arguably the basal source of this issue in the first place.

Life may never be free of uncertainty. But if the American public can begin listening to each other again we can begin taking the first steps in the right direction. The American people need to once again recognize that people who think differently are not inherently bad or immoral people, Busby said. This sentiment destroys the bonds that hold us together.

The American public ought to stop believing that we must dominate each other to profess our particular viewpoint. To value other voices and opinions is the only way to create a more perfect solution to any given problem. No one person can be the will of the people. No individual has every answer to every problem. For Kirk Hawkins, the professor at BYU, “The way you correct prejudice is by helping people get better informed about things they don’t like.”

The rise of Utah’s standout e-commerce company during the pandemic

Story and photos by SKYLAR YENCHIK

The development of tech start-ups within Utah over the last decade has accelerated both innovation and the creation of high-paying technical jobs. The growth of the tech sector has been so impressive that the area, which houses a long stretch of companies ranging between Salt Lake City, and Provo, Utah, has been dubbed Silicon Slopes, with the epicenter being located in Lehi. 

The term “Silicon Slopes” was coined by Josh James of DOMO, who also founded a widely successful company called Omniture that was acquired by Adobe Systems in 2009 for $1.8 billion. James created this term as a reference to the original Silicon Valley located in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is legendary for its creation of some of the first high-tech companies dating back to the 1970s.

Silicon Slopes in Lehi, Utah.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have reached a point of stagnation in which they are no longer growing, largely due to a halt in economic expansion. E-commerce, however, has exploded and continues to build and innovate due to an influx of business as citizens have turned to online shopping. 

Route App Inc., the foremost e-commerce company in Utah, more than doubled in size in 2020. Starting with only eight employees upon opening in 2018, Route now has upward of 350 employees, and the mobile application is number 35 on the list of most downloaded apps in the App Store. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many businesses to close their doors to the public, Route is helping customers stay connected and maintain a positive shopping experience. As the name suggests, Route allows users to accurately track all of their packages in a single application, as well as provides its customers shipping insurance to ensure the safe delivery of packages. Route not only enables single users to track their packages, but provides a format for businesses to provide streamlined tracking for customers with this platform.

Steph Black, head of talent and culture at Route, said in a Zoom interview that she was one of the first 50 employees at the company. Route has now outgrown several office spaces as the company continues to expand, currently occupying a very large office space at Innovation Pointe in Lehi. 

Innovation Pointe offices in Lehi, Utah.

Route plans to create more than 3,000 high-paying technical jobs in Utah in the next 10 years. This expansion will greatly stimulate the local economy, and is also an exciting opportunity for local graduating university students. 

This rapid expansion and success is in large part due to the unique customer experience that Route aims for, and there are no other competing e-commerce companies in Silicon Slopes. The other part, Black explained, is Route’s value of unique, creative, and innovative employees. “Culture at Route is incredibly organic,” Black said. “We focus on hiring the right people.” 

Black also stated, “E-commerce has been on a steady growth path for 10-plus years. What happened during the pandemic kind of catapulted e-commerce forward at least an additional five to eight years. Demand for individuals to purchase what they need online, and also for businesses to transform their offerings to this growing space. A lot of businesses had to pivot very quickly in order to offer and meet their e-commerce demands.”

Route is revolutionizing and changing how consumers view e-commerce. Route has recently released a unique feature, the Discover page, on the app. This feature allows brands to directly communicate with consumers using targeted advertising. 

University of Utah alumnus Nick Lloyd is one of five software engineering managers at Route. He said about the development of the Discovery feature, “Our latest large scale initiative was around a feature set that we call ‘Discover,’ allowing people to see new things in the app from different merchants.” 

After exploring the Discover product, a Route customer will find that Discover is helping unearth interesting brands some may not ordinarily purchase from. There is very engaging content to showcase the brands, and customers can even shop directly within the app.  

Over time, Lloyd said in a Zoom interview, the aim of the Discover product is to analyze the purchasing behaviors of customers and connect them with unique and relevant brands, both local and international. Both the shopping and purchasing will remain in Route’s app, essentially creating a new e-commerce marketplace.

It is this kind of innovation from this local e-commerce company that has led to Route’s rapid growth and exciting expansion. 

Lloyd said Route has created many student internships since expanding, and has interacted with the University of Utah to get students involved in the company. Though Lloyd was hired on directly as an engineer, he has participated in recruiting events targeted toward U students, specifically in the engineering field. Route is also very active in reaching out to students at the U through the Handshake portal.

Lloyd personally reflects on his University of Utah experience as having been full of passionate people like himself when he was in the Computer Science program. “One of the things I really felt like I got from the University of Utah was a strong sense of community,” Lloyd said. At Route, he feels that there is the same kind of important community. 

Since the U puts such huge emphasis on innovation and helping to build creative minds, employment at Route is a great opportunity to capitalize and build on that innovation and creativity.

“It’s really interesting to be a part of e-commerce in a time like this,” Black said. “So many companies closed their doors unfortunately during these times, and e-commerce has only opened theirs wider.”

How three Salt Lake City women are fighting modern day gender inequalities with their social media platform, Fluence

Story by KATYA BENEDICT

A Salt Lake City-based company is combating gender inequalities with empowering social media posts. Nicole Wawro, Alba Fonseca, and Sinclaire Pierce are the three women behind the social media platform known as Fluence

In a technologically driven world, Fluence is discovering innovative approaches for practical solutions geared toward women.

The idea of women being at a disadvantage in society is a concept that many consider to be antiquated. But for Wawro, Fonseca, and Pierce, this was one of their founding principles — to educate and advocate for women who always felt as though they were falling behind, but couldn’t figure out why. So, after sitting down together and coming to the same realization, they decided to start a company designed specifically for women. 

Nicole Wawro sits in the Fluence podcast studio. Photo courtesy of Fluence.

The three shared similar experiences of gender-based workplace discrimination. This was a huge factor in what drove them into their research. “They fired all the women in my firm who were eligible to take maternity leave because they didn’t want to pay it out,” Wawro said in a FaceTime interview. This was what ignited her desire to stand up for women in the workplace. 

Fonseca shared instances in which she would bring up good ideas that were instantly dismissed. In later meetings a man would bring up the same idea and it would be labeled as “genius” and “perfect.” 

Pierce had always struggled with being interrupted, and it wasn’t until their research was conducted that she realized maybe there was a gender piece to it. “I always thought people interrupted because they were mean, not because the person talking was a woman,” Pierce said in a FaceTime interview. 

These new realizations led to a shared understanding — that until they made people recognize there is a problem, they couldn’t begin to solve it.

The company experienced immediate growth, quickly gaining the attention of thousands of people. “Part of it was timing, and part of it was strategic,” Pierce said. “We saw an opportunity with TikTok and we jumped on it.” They attribute a large majority of the growth to the fact that the stories they were sharing resonated with so many women, and TikTok was becoming an incredibly popular app for young women.

Fluence’s TikTok account has more than 308,000 followers.

The inequalities women face tend to remain swept under the rug, and for Fluence this seemed controversial. The entire purpose of the brand is to achieve more influence and affluence for women, which is why these inequalities are publicly recognized. “We believe that when women have more influence the world becomes a better place,” Wawro said.

Upon obtaining more recognition, Fluence received an overwhelming amount of responses from women who didn’t even understand that these were real issues. And since they didn’t understand they were real issues, they didn’t understand there were real solutions. 

Emma Watson, the actor and feminist advocate, said in her 2014 speech to the United Nations that what many young women fail to realize is that they are living in a society that for hundreds of years has been working against them.

This ideology has become a huge focal point for Fluence. “A lot of people don’t even know where to find information. Being a platform that challenges a perspective to see things differently is something so powerful,” Fonseca said.

The company produces content across Instagram, TikTok, and even music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. A recent video addressed a hand signal used to signify domestic violence in the home.

A main goal of the company is to create refreshing and accessible content that can reach a diverse group of people. Its success is based upon how many people Fluence is able to reach in terms of followers and views.

“Our audience is global — the U.S., Canada, Germany, the UK, Australia,” Pierce said when asked about its demographic. It strives to appeal and market itself toward young women. “If you can catch a 13-year-old before she experiences these horrible things … before she decides, ‘I’m not going into STEM’ — that’s so powerful,” Pierce said.

Fluence targets high school women, educating them on topics such as building confidence and fighting the stigma. From lower left: Katya Benedict, Isela Ayala, Jackie Helbert, and Karen Bruce.

Ultimately, the goal for this company is to change the world, and these three founders believe it has the power to do so. When women are lifted, when women become more active in their homes, communities, and businesses, the result is better for everyone, Pierce said. 

Alba Fonseca wears the Women’s Empowerment Pullover, which features the names Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Serena Williams, and Aretha Franklin. Photo courtesy of Fluence.

Fluence understands that to reach a global market, it has to keep in mind how differently women live in different parts of the globe. But the first step begins with education in order to help women feel more independent, valuable, and capable, no matter their situation.

“I want to empower women to do something about these issues. I want to enable them with very specific tools and resources and practical solutions to then make changes,” Pierce said. Fluence is a community, and the more people it is able to reach, the stronger this community can become. 

Alba Fonseca, left, and Sinclaire Pierce working behind the scenes for a TikTok video. Photo courtesy of Nicole Wawro.

The company does not define itself as the stereotypical feminists people most often picture. The image the owners want to portray does not include feelings of anger or distaste, but rather optimism. The brand intends to be fun, sarcastic, and lighthearted but based on high quality information.

“This company helps people feel validated and understood,” Fonseca said. Fluence centers around being a positive light for women everywhere, no matter what inequalities they might have experienced. So whether it be an informative Instagram story based on well-detailed research, or a goofy TikTok video mocking sexism in the workplace, Fluence is changing the lives of women everywhere.

Sundance is evolving: how the Sundance Institute’s programs are encouraging artists and locals alike

Image

Story and photos by Charlene Rodriguez

The Sundance Institute has been a prominent organization for independent filmmakers and Utah culture since its creation. However, the Institute has significantly evolved. While filmmaking and collaboration remain at its core, the Institute continues to expand its reach by encouraging diversity and inclusion through its programs. 

According to the Institute’s website, the Sundance Film Festival was first established in 1978 by Sterling Van Wagenen in Salt Lake City. Yet the Institute wasn’t founded until 1981 by Robert Redford. 

 Having initially started as an organization aimed at promoting American-made films and Utah filmmakers, the Institute now extends past its local reach, offering opportunities for upcoming filmmakers from national and international backgrounds. 

Hands-On Experience 

Among the plethora of programs the Institute provides, its fellowships for young filmmakers stand out.

The Ignite Fellowship, as detailed on the Institute’s website, is a collaboration between the Institute and Adobe that is open to filmmakers between the ages of 18-24. Out of thousands of applicants, only 15 are selected for the year-long fellowship. The experience includes an all-expenses-paid trip to the Sundance Film Festival, as well as mentorship from Institute alumni professionals and access to workshops, labs and other associated programs.  

“The Sundance Ignite Fellowship is a great opportunity to learn more about the ins and outs of the industry and also be connected with other emerging filmmakers,” stated Maya Cueva, a 2019 Ignite Fellow, during an email interview.

Ignite Fellows are selected based on their submission of their one-to-eight-minute short films as well as “their original voice, diverse storytelling and rigor in their filmmaking pursuits,” according to a 2018 news release posted on the Institute’s website. 

Cueva detailed her experience attending the 2019 Sundance Film Festival: “It was an amazing experience going to films and events, being able to discuss and pitch my first feature documentary, and being able to connect with the other fellows in the program.” 

When asked how this experience has impacted her perspective on filmmaking, Cueva said, “This experience has definitely given me an opportunity to challenge the way I make documentaries and my style of filmmaking, particularly because the group of fellows do both narrative and documentaries.” 

Opportunities like the Ignite Fellowship allow young filmmakers to network and learn from professionals in the field. This has the potential to jump-start careers while providing the professional environment to further foster individual voice and style. 

Rooted in Utah

While expanding its home offices, broadening its reach and diversifying its stories, the Institute remains grounded by its Utah roots. It aims to encourage the participation of audiences of all ages through its community screening programs. 

The Filmmakers in the Classroom program began in 2000 but is now an annual opportunity for local high school students to view and later discuss a short film with the creators themselves. 

“We’re definitely doing those to bring those middle, junior high and high school students in and kind of expose them to independent films but also giving them the opportunity to meet filmmakers as well,” said Laralee Ownby, assistant director of Utah Community Programs, during a phone interview. 

Year-long programs like the Summer Film Series serve as an option for Utah locals across the state to experience independent films without having to trudge through the grueling festival traffic and crowds.“All of our year-long Utah programs are free and open to the public. That’s one thing that we want to make sure of. That we’re reaching everyone in Utah.” 

The effectiveness of these programs speaks for itself. Through an email interview, Jenny Diersen, Park City special events and economic development manager, shared statistics from previous years’ programs. 

During the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, the Institute’s Utah Community and Student programming reached a total of 11,387 people. This includes Filmmakers in the Classroom, free screenings for high school and college students and various other community screenings. The 2018 Summer Film Series reached a total of 4,113 people over the course of eight screenings. 

Elevating Art and Culture Locally 

Even outside of its own programs, the Institute continues to contribute to community programs that support the development of art and culture in Park City. Project ABC is one of these outreach efforts. 

According to the Project ABC: Arts, Beauty, Culture website, Project ABC is a Summit County initiative that focuses on the promotion, expansion and implementation of artistic and cultural opportunities for local emerging artists and individuals interested in the arts. 

This project includes recommendations for City, County, Businesses and individuals to help grow many areas of arts and culture,” Diersen said. “As arts and culture grows in our community I think it will be important to make sure we continue [to] represent our unique community, history and environment.”  

Collaborative community efforts like Project ABC ensure artistic sustainability throughout the city. Although Sundance focuses primarily on filmmaking and film production, its outreach encompass a variety of expressional styles. 

While the Sundance Institute continues to grow and develop new opportunities for upcoming filmmakers, it doesn’t lose track of its background. With its community programs reaching thousands of individuals each year and support for local artistic cultivation, the Institute keeps inspiring new generations of artists and filmmakers.

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A look at parasocial relationships

By: Elise Dunaway

SALT LAKE CITY — Many people feel attachments to celebrities or fictional characters. They treat them as if they knew them in real life. This is known as a parasocial relationship. The term was first used in 1956 by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in their paper “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance.” It originally referred to television figures, but has since been expanded to include celebrities, fictional characters, athletes, and other media figures.

Originally thought to mbe mostly formed only by lonely and isolated people, studies have since shown that everyone experiences parasocial relationships, regardless of how lonely they may be. In extreme cases, parasocial relationships can result in stalking or other problematic behavior, however most people treat them as they would a normal interpersonal relationship.

University of Utah freshman Lily Chidester thinks that parasocial relationships are more common today due to how prevalent social media is. Social media allows people to interact with others who have a parasocial relationship with the same figure, which then can help develop real friendships with those people.

University of Utah freshman Lily Chidester on April 7, 2019. (UNewsWriting/Elise Dunaway)

“Networking among people with a common interest is greatly amplified by social media because it increases the fanbase of the thing in question, whether that’s a fictional character, like in a book or a TV show, or a celebrity, who’s a real person, but is just one person,” Chidester said. “They can’t interact with everyone that knows them.”

Social media also increases the access people have to celebrities. People have the chance to interact with public figures, which can increase the likelihood of forming a parasocial relationship.

Logos for Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, which are popular platforms for fans to interact with celebrities.
Instagram/Facebook logos: Wikimedia Commons
Twitter/Snapchat logos: Pixabay

“It seems that liking, sharing, and commenting on social media increases perceived intimacy between the person and the celebrity or character, increasing the person’s perception of their bond,” said Dr. Julia Moore, a Communication professor at the University of Utah.

Parasocial relationships offer many benefits to the person engaging in them. They provide a sense of companionship and can supplement real interactions with people. They also provide a sense of connection and community. People are able to bond with others who have a parasocial relationship with the same media figure. This gives them a group of people they can relate to.

Parasocial relationships are still relationships even though there is no reciprocation involved. People tend to get attached to celebrities they view as similar to themselves. These relationships can give people an emotional outlet. They can be themselves because there’s no expectation to meet a certain standard or act a certain way.

“The greater the intensity of the parasocial relationships, the more likely it is to have a significant impact on one’s life in terms of time spent, goals, and emotions or feelings of attachment,” Dr. Bert Uchino, the Department Chair of Psychology at the University of Utah, said.

Data showing which type of celebrities adolescents formed parasocial relationships with. (UNewsWriting/Elise Dunaway)

study done in 2017 looked at what kinds of public figures adolescents formed parasocial relationships with. It also looked at how they classified those relationships. Subjects were asked to name one celebrity they’re attached to and explain why. Their responses were then categorized into Actor, Singer/Musician, Athlete, Other, and Writer. The Other category included figures like talk show hosts and comedians. For girls and boys, actors were by far the most popular public figures to be attached to.

According to Dr. Uchino, access to actors and other public figures via social media can increase the likelihood of forming parasocial relationships. 

“It gives them yet another platform to interact with fans and often involves disclosure of personal information, which we know deepens relationship development,” he said. “It is likely that celebrities know this and are trying to foster a more devoted fanbase.”

While celebrities can’t form relationships with each individual fan, their actions on social media can encourage the fans to do so with them. Appearing to be relatable can increase a sense of connection and devotion. This can also increase how many people are part of the fanbase.

Social media may not play as big of a role in the formation of parasocial relationships with fictional characters. As they aren’t real, the characters can’t make posts or interact with fans in any way, shape, or form. The development of a parasocial relationship would then have to come from the source material and original content generated by fans.

“I have these fictional characters that I have built relations with, and particularly Harry Potter is super interesting because it’s something that was from my childhood. I’ve read the series an insane amount and basically have it memorized. It’s a huge part of me and how I define myself,” Chidester said. “It’s taught me ways to better myself as a person and the characters have taught me things about myself that definitely still could have come about in relationships with people where it was reciprocated, where they’re not fictional characters in a book.”

Popular franchises with characters people tend to form parasocial relationships with.
Star Wars/Disney logos: Wikipedia
Marvel/Harry Potter logos: Wikimedia Commons

College students can receive companionship and support from parasocial relationships. This can be very beneficial, especially when trying to balance school and having a social life.

“Parasocial relationships can be especially beneficial for college students with low self-esteem. Parasocial relationships with fictional characters or real celebrities can make people feel a sense of belonging,” Dr. Moore said. “So even though parasocial relationships are not ‘real’ in that the two people don’t actually know one another or interpersonally interact, these relationships have real effects on people, and many of these effects are positive.”

Elise Dunaway’s Reflection Blog

Utahns finding success for personal brands and business is largely thanks to their social media presence

Story and gallery by ISABELLE CURRAN

Utah and social media. How are these two big entities related?

For the past four years, social media has become less of a memory sharing platform, and more of a business. Almost anywhere you look, there are people trying to make a brand off of themselves or otherwise enhance their growing businesses.

This phenomenon is especially apparent in Utah. Many Utahns have strong social media followings in the hundreds of thousands.

While social media might be newer and has helped more people gain success and more exposure, many top social media people in Utah started with their own blogs. Themes of such profiles and blogs range from health and wellness to fashion, art, and lifestyle.

Social media platforms are the new hub of bloggers, specifically Instagram. Instagram first came on the market in October 2010, its original purpose being a streamlined photo sharing and editing site.

Nowadays, Instagram is a balance of real-life content and advertisements, which has proved to be the secret to success. Mixing the right amount of business and personal attributes bode well with internet communities.  

One San Diego State University student, Karis Bailey, 19, who is very outwardly vocal about the Utah social media scene, says, “Many accounts I follow of Utahns are inspiring and they make me want to go and experience what they are experiencing.”

Bailey has been active on social media, specifically Instagram, for close to seven years. Around two years ago she noticed that some of the people she follows, whom she didn’t know personally, were mostly from Utah.

“These people make their followers feel almost like family members,” Bailey says. “They are all very humble and grounded individuals.”

Bailey explains that she feels as though most of the Utah-based people that she follows create authentic content that engages followers into their lives.

Some of the Instagram accounts she shared are Cara Loren (@caraloren), The Bucket List Family (@thebucketlistfamily), and The Devines (@haileydevine, @bradleydevine, @somewheredevine).

For businesses, is it wise to utilize Instagram? Even newer than the concept of social media personalities is that of making your social media profile into a business. Now, posting and reviewing products on a profile can turn a profit.

The balance of original and personal content with ads and promotions is a tricky one.

“It is all right when they genuinely like the product they are advertising but I think there is a limit to what and how much you advertise something,” Bailey says. “Pushing things on to followers is unethical but I see nothing wrong with suggesting.”

Social media in Utah serves as a large community for people to connect and share ideas with each other. A popular social media Utahn who can attest to this is Renata Stone.

Although she is a newer Utah resident, her Instagram and company success is constantly influenced and inspired by her surroundings. With over 21,000 followers, her Instagram (@renatastone) is the connection between her business, her personal images, and her followers.

After Stone and her husband bought a house together, she started making macramé pieces to decorate their house.

To transform her creative hobby into a business, Stone utilizes her website and Instagram to share her inspiration, existing creations, and allow for commission requests.

In an email interview, Stone says, “Being authentic and real is the only thing that matters.”

Providing an accurate visual representation of one’s life is an essential way to gain favor with followers and promoting loyalty.

Stone says she does not consider herself a typical Utah social media personality, but recognizes that her Instagram very much follows a theme, something very common in not only successful Instagram pages in general, but Utahn Instagram pages especially.

“I think my Instagram account is as much about me as a human (or at least what I choose to expose to the outside world) as it is about my work. I think as an artist the personal and professional go hand-in-hand —it’s almost like you are your brand,” Stone writes.

Social media platforms are not only central to personal profiles but also to enhance businesses, as Stone noted. Normal Ice Cream is a food truck that is standing its ground among retail storefronts at Trolley Square, using Instagram to do so.

The Normal Ice Cream website and Instagram profile (@normal.club) give a comprehensive overview of the products as well as the story behind it all.

Owner Alexa Norlin, who has been a pastry chef for eight years, decided the ice cream business was more her speed after working in popular Salt Lake restaurants such as The Rose Establishment, Current Fish & Oyster, Fresco Italian Cafe, Cafe Trio Downtown, Cafe Trio Cottonwood, and Faustina and Niche.

She opened the Normal Ice Cream truck and became operational in June 2017. Later the truck took up residence in Trolley Square starting in January 2018 and has been there ever since.  

Norlin praises Instagram saying, “I truly think that I would be out of business without Instagram.”

The Normal Ice Cream truck is an example of good social media marketing. The Normal team utilizes its profile to promote the business by posting photos of products, updating hours, sharing, and serving as a place to allow customers to connect with the business.

Norlin says that, “Instagram has allowed a really natural way to engage with customers on a seemingly one-to-one basis.”

She has noticed the social media Utah phenomenon, but her social media involvement is mostly consumed by being a business profile only, not a personal journal. Still, Norlin credits her business’ success largely thanks to a clear and consistent social media presence.

Utah will continue to be the house a substantial amount of popular social media figures. For those who have a business and those who wish to share their lives online, Instagram seems to be the desired platform.

Looking into the future, there is no limit to how influential social media platforms can be to people’s personal brands and the business they create.


Comics create common ground in Salt Lake City

Story and photo gallery by GREG HOUSE

It’s Wednesday and for those in the know, that means new editions of their favorite comic books are hitting the shelves at Black Cat Comics, located at 2261 Highland Drive in Salt Lake City.

The walls of Black Cat Comics are brightly colored, seeming to come from the comics that line its shelves. Customers walk in and out throughout the day and Greg Gage — the man behind the operation — greets many of them by name, often with a prearranged stack of new arrivals set aside for the customer to purchase.

Gage grew up reading comic books, but gradually stopped as he got older.

“I kind of got back into them on a whim,” he said. “I picked up a couple of books I used to read and was like ‘God, this is cool,’ and after that, it was over.”

Gage reintroduced himself to comics as a young adult and he saw that the stories being told were not just the shallow, fun superhero romps he remembers from his childhood.

“There’s some real, honest-to-God literature in here,” he said. “It’s not just people jumping around like idiots punching people. There’s more to this than I thought.”

When he decided to open his own comic book store in 2004, he knew that creating a welcoming environment for his customers and hiring employees who understood that were both key ingredients for this business, which celebrated 15 years in business in May 2019.

With such a wide selection to choose from, there are many reasons why fans like Kyle Jackson keep reading comic books.

“I like reading a lot of different titles that show characters who are something to aspire to,” he said. “Not that I think I can learn to have superpowers, but the people underneath the masks are what is great to me.”

Taylor Hoffman used to shop at a different comic book store. But, after feeling like her reading choices were being judged by some of the employees, she started shopping at Black Cat Comics. She said she found the sense of community she was looking for.

“I immediately felt so much better, like I had a place to go,” she said. “After I graduated college, I kept coming by until Greg hired me and started paying me to stick around and talk about comics.”

As an employee at Black Cat Comics for more than five years, Hoffman tries to make sure that even younger readers feel like equal members of the community.

“I just love picking out things for little kids,” she said. “Especially younger girls because I wish I had that when I was a kid.”

Over the years, Hoffman has seen some of the store’s regular customers come in with their newborn babies and as those babies grow up she starts to recommend comics for them as well as their parents.

The all-ages section of Black Cat Comics is home to books featuring characters from Saturday morning cartoons as well as child-friendly versions of heroes who might otherwise be considered too violent.

“This is my baby,” she said, motioning to the all-ages section of the store. “I try to read all of these so I know how to talk to the kids who come in.”

It isn’t hard to see why a child would enjoy a weekly trip to the comic book store and Hoffman thinks comics can be an educational tool for them as well.

“Comics are such a great medium for younger kids to get into the habit of reading because there’s the picture books without as many words and then they graduate into [books with] more speech bubbles,” she said.

However, comic books are not just a children’s medium any more. A wide variety of heroes means there is a character for everyone, especially with the bigger publishers like Marvel Comics, who are pushing for more diversity in their mainstream lineup of characters.

Whether it is a young woman of color taking over the mantel of Ironman, now Ironheart, or a revelation that the X-Men team member known as Iceman has come out of the closet as a gay man, diversity plays an increasingly important role in today’s comic book landscape.

Sina Grace, who wrote the now concluded Iceman series for Marvel said on a public Instagram story post about writing inclusive stories, “To my knowledge, no publisher puts something out simply cuz it’s LGBTQ friendly,” he wrote. “Even Iceman, the reasoning was: there’s a story to be told about a man dealing with a secret he’s kept for 10+ years, not THAT he’s gay.”

When Gage first opened his store, he wanted to create a place where everyone can feel welcomed, regardless of their identity or background.

“Inclusivity makes more people feel more welcome in this space,” Gage said, “and that’s what I want, both from a business standpoint and a community standpoint.”

Instagram taking the advertising world by storm

Story and gallery by RILEY SPEAR

Instagram is the largest social media and advertising platform in the world and it continues to grow its users daily by the thousands. Organizations and businesses have taken advantage of the Instagram platform to advertise their products, target their audiences and create awareness for their cause, all for free.

Salt Lake City is a hub for startup companies that don’t have the funds in their marketing departments to pay for advertisements.

Individuals from three local companies, The Hut Group, Beauty Industry, and STEM, have worked closely with Instagram, and have accepted the large role it plays in their marketing techniques.

Beauty Industry specializes in hair, lashes and fashion. Paige Johnson is a member of the social media team who works with Instagram to promote a product.

She uses Instagram analytics to track following, and gauge when good times are to post in order receive the most engagement.

“Marketing is always changing, and shifting. With present digital age, social media is most of what marketing entails,” Johnson said.

Beauty Industry mainly targets young women because they are the majority of the company’s customers, which is ideal for Instagram because according to OMNICORE 59 percent of its users are individuals in the age groups of 19-29.

Johnson said Beauty Industry’s main objective through the Instagram account is to make customers feel as if they are a part of their community. Beauty Industry sticks to its content and theme to best emphasize its products in the market.

“Working in this industry I have become aware of others’ marketing techniques, whether it be competitors or my own time on Instagram. I often find myself taking bits of other techniques, and forming it to ours,” Johnson said.

Beauty Industry has tried to focus on what the big marketing brands are doing, and then tailor it to the company’s own theme. The social media world is extremely competitive, and it’s crucial to notice the likes, comments and following ratio in order to receive the most positive feedback and response.

Beauty Industry is a company that is familiar with the positive impacts Instagram can make. There are very few restrictions, no wrong outlook and is more about finding a strategy that works well with your company.

“Customer service is a big thing specifically on Instagram, because a lot of people currently if they have a complaint or question, it is a lot easier to do this through messages. We try to really be interactive with our following, and our customers who reach out to us on these platforms,” Johnson said.

Instagram is Beauty Industry’s main tool to advertise because it has the highest success rate in selling their products.

Instagram has the ability to capture so many eyes, and create global awareness. STEM, a program that targets schools in the Salt Lake City district, does just this.

Molly Vroom helps run, and plan their social media campaigns in order to educate, and promote STEM research.

“There isn’t much competition in this field of work. It’s more about receiving attention that could possibly lead to funding,” Vroom said.

In order to achieve this STEM uses demonstration videos giving a more hands on approach to the followers. “Instagram gives the ability to educate, and give knowledge, and that is another one of our main goals,” Vroom said.

STEM uses several social media platforms, but targets millennials through Instagram because they are the individuals who use it the most.

The world is constantly changing and growing, adapting to new trends of life. In order to be impactful on Instagram it’s crucial to put out content that ignites your target audience.

The Hut Group, a global company centered around health, beauty and fitness, sometimes can spend up to a month planning a post. This organization opened a small office in Salt Lake City and will grow in the years come.

Jasmyne Reynolds, a manager for their acquisition companies’ social accounts, works daily with Instagram.

Her days are spent brainstorming concepts, working with photographers and videographers in their creative studio, and collaborating with the content director and Search Engine Optimization managers.

Every one of The Hut Group’s Instagram posts is extremely evaluated, and calculated before posting. “Working with Instagram helps us achieve our goal of reaching consumers and getting them to click over to our online platform and ultimately drive purchases,” Reynolds said.

As the social media account manager, Reynolds also spends hours working with other brands doing Q and A’s, giveaways and questionnaires in order to bring in more followers, and gain positive feedback.

Reynolds believes Instagram is a platform that has allowed businesses to create a personal connection with consumers.

“It’s important now more than ever to showcase products as a part of a consumer’s life,” Reynolds said.

Instagram marketing is used in an assortment of aspects, whether it is to bring awareness of a cause, or to advertise and sell products. It has drastically changed the game from billboards and TV commercials to a free platform being used by billions. Instagram is the new outlet for inspiration.