My Problem with Influencers

In his long essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, author David Foster Wallace talked about the problem of ads pretending not to be ads.

An ad that pretends to be art is-at absolute best-like somebody who smiles at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s insidious is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real substance, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. it causes despair.

This passage still feels relevant even though Wallace wrote it in the nineties, long before the rise of social media. Perhaps that’s because the trend of ads-pretending-to-be-other-things has only sped up over the years. As a result, we’re living our lives alongside a bizarre set of social norms that I’ve come to think of as influencer culture. Influencer culture is most visible in the world of advertising, but it trickles into our politics, communities, and nearly all internet-mediated communication.

Influencer culture says:

  • Deceiving others is fine if it gets you more attention.
  • To succeed, pretend to be offering personal and unbiased recommendations, when in fact you’re getting paid for them.
  • It’s best to hide ads within thickets of “content” to obscure them, making them appear not to be ads.
  • Cultivate the illusion of friendship and camaraderie with your customers, for the purpose of earning a sale later.

Like Wallace said, these kinds of behaviors contribute to the lowering of trust and a kind of creeping despair about the world. Does that perky world traveler really like your photo on Instagram or is it their intern trying to create the illusion of admiration? When a self-help author calls you sweetie in a comment, are they expressing familial affection to a total stranger, or are they speaking in language aligned with their carefully branded persona? Oh, and last week when you read that darkly sardonic article on the web, did the author truly mean what she said, and did she believe her words were fair, or did she slant the message to be more controversial because controversial gains 20% more clicks?

We’re surrounded by soft lies, and every time we notice someone’s duped us, we can only become less willing to trust. This is, I suspect, how we’ve arrived at this current moment, in which the overarching headline might be: Everything is Garbage, but No One Cares, so Nothing Will Be Fixed, Ever.

But even if you hate influencer culture it’s difficult to escape it, especially if your livelihood requires selling. A friend of mine recently hired a social media strategist for her business, and they told her to hire an intern to go online and like people for her so people will like her back. Come on! Is this the world we want? My genuine, talented, friend is being told to farm out fake likes so she can have a career. And the worst part? For all I know, the consultant might be right!

Professor Farnsworth says: I don't want to live on this planet any more.

I guess my problem with influencers isn’t that they’re trying to sell me something.  I’m a fan of capitalism, not to mention living in a world where valuable products and services improve my life. My problem with influencers is that they seem emblematic of a shift in our culture, one that says we can only thrive by exploiting and deceiving one another. This mindset encourages lies at scale, something that’s corrosive to our society and our emotional well-being as individuals. If I’ve gotta walk through the world with my skepticism turned on high, all the freaking time, sure, that’s gonna hurt.

Wallace saw the rise of cynicism and detached irony in American culture and suggested that we needed a new sincerity combat it. I like that idea! At a basic level, sincerity might be as simple as: Say what you mean, and mean what you say. I’d argue that a sincere marketer wouldn’t be ashamed to share an advertisement, but they wouldn’t deceive their audience either. A sincere publisher wouldn’t put a fake-controversial title on an article to get clicks, right? And a sincere customer would respond to any obvious deception with a frown and a remark that “This isn’t cool, and I’ll do my business elsewhere if that’s how you’re going to treat me.” That all seems pretty reasonable to me.

At the risk of sounding corny, I suggest we combat the evils of influencer culture by choosing to be sincere in our dealings with one another, and by (sincerely) sharing our disappointment when others try to deceive or manipulate us.

Sincerity likely won’t fix all of society’s problems, but it seems as good a place as any to begin. You be straight with me, and I’ll be straight with you. Let’s start there, and see where it takes us.

Note: This blog post was influenced by the following sources:

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
E. Unibus Pluram: Television & US Fiction by David Foster Wallace
The Massively Popular Construction Guy Influencer Account Was Actually Created by an Ad Agency to Sell Coffee by Buzzfeed News
Fake News is an Oracle by Corey Doctorow
The Problem with Irony (video) by Will Shoder