If you’re an active Instagram or Twitter user and under the age of forty, there’s a high chance you’ve thought about your personal “brand”. What image of yourself are you putting out there? How accurate, and more importantly, how popular, is that image? You might have even considered how with just a little work and some luck, you could be the next big thing.
In 2018, Instagram introduced the Creator Account. While previously users could choose between personal and business accounts, the launch of creator accounts showed that Instagram recognized influencers as their own category, and an important category at that. These accounts weren’t restricted to established influencers- anyone could switch from a personal to a professional account, no high follower count or blue checkmark necessary. Instagram now has over 900 million users and a large influencer presence. The global influencer market is growing fast, going from 0.8 billion USD in 2017 to 2.3 billion USD in 2020. Naturally, anyone would want to tap into that market, especially since being an influencer seems to consist largely of recording yourself doing various enjoyable things.
According to Instagram, the Creator Account helps you control your online presence, understand your growth and manage your messages. The ‘growth insights’ also show you how often a post is saved or shared, and map the changes in your follower count to your content. Over time you can collect a highly accurate understanding of what your audience likes, and what you should do more of. This makes sense for businesses whose aim is to attract customers and turn a profit, but what does it mean for so-called creators? The fact that likes, shares and follows are the only responses measured by Instagram insights tell us that any piece of content is only as valuable as the volume of audience engagement it produces. For full-time influencers, higher audience engagement leads directly to a higher income from sponsored posts. The internet boom and the level of connectivity in our lives have led to every waking hour being an hour where you could potentially be working, posting, and reaching an audience. Every waking hour can now return a profit. Add to this the fact that your entire career could revolve around your social media accounts, with no coordination or collaboration required, and the line between ‘work’ and ‘life’ starts to get very blurry indeed.
Not everyone is looking to be an influencer, but passive consumers are just as addicted to their phones. In many ways, the addictive nature of social media is a feature, not a design flaw. Tristan Harris, an ex-design ethicist at Google, compared mobile phones to slot machines, since every time you pull the lever (in this case, check your phone) you stand to win exciting rewards- likes, followers or texts. He says this philosophy is embedded in many of the apps we use. The more content you create and the more engagement you receive, the higher the reward. Striving for influencer levels of fame is only a natural progression in the Instagram addiction cycle.
In his book After the Future, media activist Franco Berardi says that the idea that we should all be capitalists and risk-takers is what brought down labour movements of the eighties. He says, “The essential idea is that we should all consider life as an economic venture, as a race where there are winners and losers.” This idea seems just as popular, if not more popular today. Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram abound with inspirational content promising that if you just work hard enough you too could be a self-made billionaire, and those billions might be one post away. Social media now represents a lucrative career choice for children and young adults. A 2019 poll found that vlogger/YouTuber was the most popular career choice for children in the US and UK.
Unlike the film, television and music industries, social media lets you create and post anything, at any time, from anywhere in the world, to a potentially infinite audience. This accessibility is part of what makes social media so tempting. The most popular media sharing platforms, like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and more recently, TikTok, are all free and available worldwide. This democratization of the media space is a good thing when it leads to the amplification of marginalized voices. But more often than not, social media rewards volume and quantity over meaningful exchange. In her book ‘How to do Nothing’, artist Jenny Odell talks about her experience of this phenomena in the aftermath of Trump’s election: “It is this financially incentivized proliferation of chatter, and the utter speed at which waves of hysteria now happen online, that has so deeply horrified me and offended my senses and cognition as a human who dwells in human, bodily time.” When the majority of our time is spent online, it becomes harder to feel connected to, and care about, the spaces we actually inhabit. Being constantly bombarded with news and information might make people aware of important issues that have long been ignored, but can also lead to burnout and exhaustion, which then negates their ability to do anything about those issues.
In the past year as we were forced to stay inside, social media became so ubiquitous in our lives that it was difficult to separate the virtual from the real. However, it also allowed people to connect in a time of deep suffering and loneliness around the world. Social media has also changed the lives of millions of people around the world, be it through a fashion blog or a viral cover of a famous song on YouTube. Hearing these stories makes the idea of quitting social media even less appealing, because if it happened to them, then it could always happen to you. Is that chance worth the price we pay, sacrificing our time and attention? Only time will tell.
Rujuta Singh is a student of political science, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are fashion, music and writing.
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