Who will influence influencers?
We need to ask ourselves why more and more young Indians want to get rich by leveraging likes on social media platforms
Everyone I know has a social media horror story. This isn't about how they steal private data and sell it to companies (which they do) or how they enable vested interests to manipulate elections (which they also do), or how they turn a blind eye towards an ever-increasing number of threats directed towards people who question the status quo. These horror stories are smaller in scope and cover everyday acts that revolve around how influencers are changing the way young people see the world.
This isn't a rant about how we live in a world where leaking a sex tape can now lead to a multimillion-dollar career. It is more a rant about how we aren't paying enough attention to cultural shifts with repercussions we haven't even begun to fathom.
It is a troubling term, 'influencer', because of the semantic change from what it once implied. The connotations are now about commerce, and how marketing agencies can leverage these men and women towards changing consumer behaviour. It is a far cry from how a generation of pre-digital natives would refer to men or women who had the power to change the way we think in positive ways, rather than ways that referred simply to our shopping habits.
I have, over the past six months alone, met a number of young people who take the act of becoming 'Internet influencers' seriously, to an extent that they plan their days around what can be posted to their social media profile pages. These are intelligent people, qualified to do what they choose to, hard-working enough to accomplish things, aware of what their options are, all consciously working towards Internet notoriety that can then be leveraged for real money. It is something they think of as just beyond their grasp, an elusive prize worth striving for, for reasons that make sense to them alone.
This isn't something restricted to our borders alone either. The Internet is awash with stories of people the world over doing everything they can (including risking their lives and sometimes losing their lives) to get more people to follow them, like them, or comment on what they do.
In 2016, a documentary titled Audrie & Daisy introduced me to a more sinister kind of Internet influencer — not a popular person with millions of followers, but a more innocuous kind of person with a platform large enough to cause genuine harm. It chronicled the true stories of two high school students named Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman in the aftermath of a sexual assault at a party. I don't want to paraphrase how the story unfolds, except to say that it does not end well.
We tend to focus more on influencers who convince people to buy beauty products or go on exotic holidays, forgetting the danger posed by people who simply have access to a pliable audience, irrespective of how large it may be. They ought to be referred to as influencers too, and their potential for damage is as powerful.
The world is slowly beginning to re-evaluate the infatuation it once had for Internet influencers. A year ago, for instance, a survey by a PR agency in America revealed that nearly three-quarters of the public incorrectly believed there were no rules or regulations surrounding influencer marketing. Almost half thought it was damaging for society.
There already exist innumerable case studies documenting how companies have caused more harm than good by working with influencers, while psychologists have long warned influencers themselves about the risks they face by engaging with social media platforms and allowing those platforms to take control of their day-to-day lives.
Earlier this year, a professor of psychology at Federation University Australia published research in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture that revealed some frightening co-relations between Instagram and mental health. Apparently, it appeared to be more taxing on our brains than other platforms like Twitter or Facebook, because it compelled us to compare ourselves to everyone else. Research showed an increase in anxiety and depression tied to an increased usage of the platform, which also confused our 'social comparison radar,' making us constantly question our worth in comparison with everyone else.
We are still too close to the era of social media to effectively understand how it has changed us. Some of it is subtle; much of it obvious. It may make sense to try and take back what an 'influencer' means though if only to safeguard the mental health of those who come after us.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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