By Zacharias Strohecker, Mar. 8, 2022
Everyone likes to think they are in control of their lives, but the amount of daily manipulation every person wades through is usually more impactful than their own decisions. Algorithms designed to make you happily surrender a dollar have more sway on your mood than any good intentions you hold. We can barely regulate our lives while chained to a suggestions tab. An adult with a fully formed frontal lobe, let alone a child, barely stands a chance to cut through programming that is worth billions. We soak up algorithm-based media like a sponge in the ocean and allow influencers to toxify the waters like acidic car batteries.
A 2018 survey by Drawing the Future found that the influencer career was the fourth most aspired path for children ages 7 to 11. It is likely that sentiment is stronger now than four years ago. When I was growing up, there was a limit to the amount of programmed content available to consume. Now, with children getting phones at younger ages, they can open Pandora’s box and go nuts. “Influencer” being a top aspiration for children should worry you. Children are being set up into the same clout chasing pyramid scheme many of us still live in today.
Integrity used to be a quality we admired. An influencer is a professional shill, a huge flag saying, “I stand for whatever you pay me to stand for.” They bring what algorithms lack but need: authenticity.
Now I just said influencers are anything but authentic and I stand by that, but online generations don’t believe this. Authenticity was listed as the number one reason why young people follow influencers, based on a report from Morning Consult. It also stated 86% of Generation Z and millennials, ages 13-36, would post sponsored content for money and 20% would do it even if they didn’t like the product. The No. 1 reason for wanting to be an influencer is, “the opportunity to make a difference in the world.” Being the internet equivalent of a door-to-door salesman isn’t what I have in mind when I think about changing the world.
The immense popularity of influencers in general is a worrying trend. What does it say about the content we value? It’s mostly second-order observation. The influencer content train isn’t about creating anything original or worthwhile, but commenting and reacting. That’s its contribution. When did we become okay with being relegated to the sidelines? We are even weirder than that; we enjoy watching people who watch. Now, children idolize the spectatorship, not the athletes, creators and pioneers.
Influencers give onlookers the allure of being close to the action but not playing the game. People feel sidelined, but I think it’s a mistake to feel this way, it’s all just scale. Our digital world makes us feel small, but every experience with friends and family is no less rich than that of the most influential people in the world.
The key to breaking out of algorithm click cycles is to reengage with primary experiences. Watching a movie doesn’t make you the character on screen. The reason it is easier to fall into this unrewarding loop is because it feels safer. It offers an already regulated experience that has no chance of being odious.
Creating your own lived experience always carries the risks of failure and disappointment, but these ends are more satisfying than just clicking, barely keeping a pulse.
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