The rise of social media influencers
The invention of the World Wide Web has become one of the most important developments in human history. Mankind’s need for information, business, socialization, and entertainment are satisfied at the mere tap of a finger. This development has been transforming our lives in ways that are both visible and invisible, and with consequences that are both good and bad.
The web has democratized so many businesses, enabling any person to buy or sell anything online. It has democratized access to information, by enabling everyone to become sources of information. It has expanded freedom of expression by giving everyone, not only virtual megaphones to broadcast, but also minitelevision franchises to dramatize, his or her own opinion.
The advent of the web has expanded the ranks of our society’s influencers, which refer to those who intentionally engage in shaping or swaying people’s opinion and taste. Before the web, our traditional influencers were confined to entertainers, athletes, politicians, journalists, business tycoons, and religious leaders. With the invention of the web, the ranks of influencers have hugely expanded beyond the traditional personalities; to include just about anyone who has plenty of time is motivated by belief or money, and has access to the web. We see ordinary people transform themselves into hugely popular personalities on the web, joining traditional influencers to form the ranks of social media influencers.
One of the factors for the tremendous rise of social media influencers is the web-enabled availability of cheap and easy-to-produce short videos and photographs, accompanied by bite-size written text. In the past, traditional influencers had to spend or be financed with a fortune to produce films, television commercials, and campaign videos that parlay opinion or sway taste. Journalists had to craft long written articles to influence beliefs.
There are two predominant features of the outputs of many social media influencers. First, they are long on entertainment value but short on substance. They are visually pleasurable and even compelling because they appeal to our emotions. Second, many of these outputs are neutral on principles of right and wrong, and severely inadequate on values and ethics. They are comparable to the rise of mass-produced fast food fare, which are very delightful to the palate but very low on nutritional value.
It is wrong to point a finger at ordinary people turned influencers for this phenomenon. Even before the arrival of the web, many traditional influencers peddled visual entertainments that appealed to feelings instead of the intellect, in the process of selling political beliefs or promoting commercial interests.
The culprits in all these are political and business opportunists who sell and market political interest and commercial products, without regard to morals and principles. The pure objective is the accumulation of either power and money. We see the hands of vested political groups in the outputs of influencers who broadcast warped and perverted political messages. We see the money of amoral business groups in their advertisement sponsorships of social media clips and posts that are popular merely because they generate controversy or propagate vulgarity.
Before the web, these political and business groups had to rely on very expensive entertainers, whose reach and influence were limited. After the web, the availability of both neighborhood (nano) and countrywide (mega) influencers, who are cheaper but more effective in connecting personally to ordinary folks, have ensured the spread of unethical and unprincipled social media posts.
We live at a time when we need to dig through a mountain of false news in order to mine truthful information and principled expressions of opinion. In the process of digging, many of us are waylaid by witchcraft, enthralled with mesmerizing videos and captivating pictures, and beguiled with sound bites. And many of us are discouraged by the tedious and comparatively boring social media offerings of those who stick by principles and ethics.
We live in interesting times. We live in dangerous and very problematic times.
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