“Our worth as individuals isn’t our personal integrity or sense of virtue, but our ability to advertise our relevance on the platforms of multinational tech corporations.” ~Barrett Swanson
I find the impact of social media on our interactions, wellbeing, and personhood endlessly fascinating, because platforms shape everything around me. Barrett Swanson’s “The Anxiety of Influencers,” is a wonderful exploration into all this. To get an idea of the extent that platforms success has penetrated our culture check out this stat:
According to a poll released in 2019, some 54 percent of Americans between the ages of thirteen and thirty-eight would, if given the chance, become a social-media influencer. A whopping 23 percent believed that this term already fit them.
This past September I deleted Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter from my phone. Really it was Instagram I was pretty obsessed with. I don’t have this urge to be an influencer, but I remember some feeling like it when I was on Instagram. There was a feeling of, what if this works out… and then I can do anything. If I get enough visibility on my art, I can sell enough books. I can get a bigger book deal. If I get enough visibility on my ideas, I can find new opportunities and collaborations. What I realize now is that these were all examples in some form of other successes I saw on IG, and being on the platform drove me towards them.
For many, including myself, staying at home as a pandemic precaution also meant more screentime. I found myself…
After I deleted the app, I had some more free time. I started exploring synthesizers. I watched a few videos to learn about them. I was researching. What I found was a whole scene of synth-influencers on YouTube. I watched video after video of them them playing synths, talking about them, and sharing opinions.
Gradually I began to think of getting a camera and a set up and recording synth videos.
It’s weird how this happens. A nudge, moment by moment, towards something that feels good and validating — to make things people care about. Though the compulsion was strong in the moment, as soon as I stopped watching those videos those hopes disappeared.
When there is an audience, what is limited? How do we bend ourselves in the direction of affirmation? What conversations do we avoid because of the discomfort?
It’s easy to go along with Swanson’s cynical perspective, like, what are all these TikTok influencer kids doing? Is everything okay? What are ad-driven platforms and brands doing to the younger generation? If I’m honest, I’m terrified of going on TikTok at the moment. I know I’ll get addicted to the feed. I hear about how good it is. Some years ago I had to stop playing video games because I’d just get obsessed. I learned this about myself, and now I know to be careful around games 😅.
If it’s about criticizing young influencers on their phones, that just feels like a boring cheap shot. There’s some empathy and concern, especially when it feels like investors of the hype houses may be exploiting them. Or considering what they’ll do if this doesn’t work out with their fans. But at the same time I can’t help but think about this line from this recent GQ profile on Justin Bieber:
An aside here, a word, whatever. You do not need to feel sympathy for people like Justin Bieber: people who ask for attention, money, fame, as many people do, and actually receive all three, as most people don’t.
Maybe Bieber is the mega influencer before the IG and TikTok unbundling opening up the influencer floodgates. Attention, money, fame — that’s what the folks in the Hype House get, and what so many others strive for. What’s most compelling to me is what this case study says about our culture more broadly.
This is where Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” comes in. It in part describes a society which provides the means to express without the ability to create substantial change. To get more specific with platforms and brands, from Swanson:
any countercultural voltage these influencers purport to possess gets nullified by the fact that they have clear incentives not to talk about controversial matters, lest they get dropped by their brands.
This makes me think a bit more about the aspect of performance in what we express. When there is an audience, what is limited? How do we bend ourselves in the direction of affirmation? What conversations do we avoid because of the discomfort?
So much of it feels like it comes back to labor and value. I have to make the case why what I do is valuable. I have to be convincing. I have to do this on an ongoing basis, or become irrelevant and unhirable. If for the influencers, it’s brands I can help you sell this thing, then maybe the version across sectors more generally is hey I’m valuable, hire me:
So the truth is that the influencer economy is just a garish accentuation of the economy writ large. As our culture continues to conflate the private and public realms — as the pandemic has transformed our homes into offices and our bedrooms into backdrops, as public institutions increasingly fall prey to the mandates of the market — we’ve become cheerfully indentured to the idea that our worth as individuals isn’t our personal integrity or sense of virtue, but our ability to advertise our relevance on the platforms of multinational tech corporations.
When I think about a way out of this, I come back to the practice of refusal and training my attention from How to Do Nothing. These are powerful tools. But it’s also like some sort of arms race. I keep deepening my meditation practice to train my attention, and these companies keep pushing updates to subvert any progress I make. It feels futile. Benjamin’s ideas in the article makes me wonder, is it even possible to exist on social media platforms outside of their intentions? Resisting in place for social media may just be wishful thinking.