Under the (social) influence

Social media is becoming a liability? Discuss.

Most observers agree that the influence of social media and the “power” of influencers have gotten way out of control. In just a decade, social-influence has permeated every corner of our lives. Some of that influence has been positive; including climate awareness, and empowered communities. But a lot – maybe the majority – is negative.

Most opinions, whether shared on social media or not, are divisive and polarizing by nature. What we have now is information battle lines drawn between left and right, black and white, male and female, young and old, rich and poor. These are big issues, they should be openly discussed, hooray for raising social consciousness. Not all would agree that big-tech controlled platforms are the place for that discussion but in absence of trust in government or an alternative forum, it is, on balance, a good thing.

However, the bulk of social influence is not at this macro scale, most social influence is not trying to change your view of capital punishments, or human rights abuses in China. Depressingly, most social influence is trivial; where should I eat, what should I wear, how should I improve myself, where should I take the perfect selfie. It might seem trivial, so minor as to not warrant attention and certainly not as life-changing as climate concern or the rise of the far-right.

Micro-influence may then seem harmless, but I’d argue it’s more pervasive and a reason for greater concern. If the world’s population continues to follow unelected and unaccountable cult social figures then we are walking down a potentially dangerous street. These social cult leaders are not us, nor can we be like them no matter what we think. The social-influencer class try to resonate with people, the girl/guy next door, they are part of the mass democratisation of content on the web.

it all started off pretty harmless, but today the Cult of Social is driven by money: Influence, allegiances and viewpoints are routinely auctioned to the highest bidder by uncaring and commercially-minded vampires with limited moral understanding beyond “YT views = money”.

In all fairness, this is not new. Prior to Facebook and Instagram monetising our insecurities and aspirations, we had peer-groups at school, work and home doing the same bullying and idol-setting but with an important difference. The school bully picked on you because they thought you were weak and it satisfied their own insecurities. The school bully did not make you feel bad, or inferior, for money.

The social influencer is a modern remake of this time-honoured peer pressure game. They tell stories of perfect lives, incredible meals, wondrous trips, stunning looks, all crafted through the filter of aspiration and mild gloating. Except no-one lives these lives, they are fake. The social influencers are nothing more than paid actors on a stage, a stage provided by big-tech in its quest to acquire advertising revenue. Big tech doesn’t give a stuff about the actors, as long as the ad revenue keeps on rolling in.

What the audience does not see are problems behind the scenes for the actors; alcohol and drugs, anxiety and depression, violence and self-harm, even suicide. For most social influencers, their time in the limelight is short, unsatisfactory, and unrewarding. Most turn their backs forever when the real reality sinks in.

Fortunes are made, of course, they are, but the lions share of this goes to big-tech and the advertisers that ride the gravy train of engaged eyeballs. Some influencers do make money, in exactly the same way <1% of footballers and actors build careers, and it's those that grab the headlines with hedonistic lives, big houses, fast cars etc ... but most do not. There is no qualification to become a social influencer, mostly you just need to be lucky. Lucky to hit on a new idea, or lucky enough that big-tech picks your content over someone else. Would you want your child to become a social influencer? Would you? Really? No, of course not.