One of the stranger phenomena to emerge in contemporary culture is the role of the “influencer.” According to Wikipedia, an influencer is “someone (or something) with the power to affect the buying habits or quantifiable actions of others by uploading some form of original—often sponsored—content to social media platforms.” In other words, people who use social media to convince other people to buy or do things they otherwise wouldn’t buy or do. 

It’s really no surprise that social media culture would give rise to this form of advertising. Marketing has always found ways to adjust to new realities. From the outdoor markets of the ancient world to the suburban mall to online shopping, it’s just a smart business calculation on how to reach as many people as possible with your product or service and to convince consumers that their lives are incomplete without it. As my father used to say about selling suits in his business, “it’s the sizzle, not the steak.”

What is perplexing to me, however, are the so-called “lifestyle” influencers. It’s not that there are people whose job it is to convince us that we need to live a certain lifestyle as much as there are people who actually pay attention to them and buy into this post-modern hucksterism, often with gusto and enthusiasm. Granted, I’ve never been trendy and probably never will be at my age, but my natural skepticism and general resistance to social conformity don’t exactly put me on Madison Avenue’s good list.

For example, I didn’t own a smartphone until 2017. I was very content with my $50 flip phone (a “burner” as some called it). It was easy to use because it was just a phone. I could call people on it and they could call me. That was it. Pure simplicity. I just had to make sure it was charged and turned on. Then my daughter moved to Israel, and my so-called burner phone was a liability. Not that it didn’t work, but the international phone charges were pretty steep. So I was convinced to get a smartphone so I could use WhatsApp with my daughter and avoid international phone charges altogether. 

After doing research, I decided to get an iPhone. Not the most recent one, but an older model which cost a lot less. It seemed easier to use and I could access my music on it as well. So I went to the Apple Store, where I consulted an Apple Genius (his actual job title) wearing a Batman t-shirt, wool watch cap, nose ring, and tribal ear gauges which made him look more like a hipster shaman than a genius. Despite my doubts about the Genius job title, he did help me select a phone and transfer my cellular account over to this new device. I thought I was done and ready to head home, but I was wrong. Instead, the Genius sent me to a table where I and several others were going to get a crash course on how to use our new devices before being set free. 

I am usually a self-learner and expected that I would do the same with my new iPhone, but I welcomed the opportunity to get some brief instruction. The table soon filled up with others also buying new devices, albeit more updated versions than mine. One young fashionable couple sat next to me with their new iPhones and introduced themselves. When they learned that I had not purchased the latest model, they looked at me and then each other with a mix of shock and pity. I explained why I was buying the iPhone and it seemed to ease their discomfort. Smiling, the woman then welcomed me to the “Apple lifestyle.” I smiled in return, learned the basics of my new iPhone from another trendy Apple Store employee covered in ink, and fled.

Which brings me back to the whole “influencer” thing. I often use YouTube to find videos on a variety of topics, and it is there that I usually encounter influencer culture. Sometimes their videos sneak their way into my search results, claiming to have knowledge or expertise in the topic I’m looking up. Unfortunately they usually don’t. For example, I recently tried to find a recipe that involved a more sophisticated cooking technique than usual. To find what I wanted, however, I had to wade through videos by clunky, unskilled home cooks whose food looked like Alpo. 

And then there are the influencers who all look like Kardashians. Famous for being famous, the Kardashians are the royal family of vapid celebrities, whose fortune is built on their narcissism and our voyeurism. I’m not always sure what these Kardashian minions are peddling, but there they are posting videos about their personal likes and dislikes on all sorts of vapid topics while looking like over-painted Barbie dolls. Although many people eat these clips up like Dorritos, they usually leave me feeling very confused and cringey. 

To me, then, it seems that who we choose to be influenced by says more about us than it says about the so-called influencers. When I think of who has influenced me in my life, they have tended to be people whose personal lives I knew the least about. And I think that is also true of society in general. The greatest cultural and intellectual revolutionaries in history were those whose impact far overshadowed the details of their own lives. And that’s because their contributions were not appeals to vanity and egoism, but to selflessly enrich and instill meaning in the lives of others. That’s influence.

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