Economy of likes

Miss Communication

“Can I include you in a piece I’m writing about influencers?”

“But I’m not an influencer.”

John says this a lot. I think what he means is that he isn’t a typical influencer. He doesn’t take the same canned photo in the same strained pose in the same basic outfit from J. Crew, like most male influencers. He doesn’t hawk vitamin gummies or flat-tummy tea to preteens preoccupied with their bodies. He doesn’t make a living online. True. But John has about 30 times the number of followers that I do. John goes to brand events, gets free things: colognes, VIP tickets to Bonnaroo. John has famous friends. John counts.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. …” I interrupt. “So, how do I become an influencer?”

“Be attractive. Be rich,” he said. He didn’t even have to stop and think about it.

“Oh,” I said in a resigned monotone. But what did I really expect him to say? Be talented? I suppose influencers also need a certain social-media savvy that I don’t possess. It’s my own pipe dream. But there is still an allure to influencing.

“I just want to be paid a lot to do very little,” I said into the phone, then quickly checked my surroundings to make sure no one overheard me. I followed up: “What’s it like to be an influencer?”

“I can’t answer that because I’m not a real influen—”

“Sure, whatever,” I cut him off. He was probably right, though. I mean, what is an influencer, and can you be a “real” one? The whole thing seems like an artificial distinction, a term that can only mean anything in a modern context. In short, influencers are paid to do just that, influence, but specifically, people’s purchasing decisions.

And they’re everywhere, on every possible platform, filling every possible niche, promoting every possible thing. Kim Kardashian sells her own makeup brand. Influencer. A male model is paid to promote some sort of LED teeth-whitening kit. Influencer. A vegan posts something about magic sex powder. Also an influencer. I post a polaroid of myself in my underwear. Not an influencer.

Brands kowtow to influencers in the way they used to court magazine editors and broadcast networks. Influencers are sometimes paid thousands of dollars, often tens of thousands of dollars, for a single post. Why? Because they’re actually incredibly efficient marketing machines. Machines who turn followings into branding gold. To hell with college — I want a slice of that golden pie. The problem is that I rarely post on social media, which is an obvious requirement for people who make social media their job. They’re a strange crop of characters, but whittled down to their most fundamental, influencers are just talented self-promoters. Truly, I’m jealous.

Influencers make it seem like their fairy-tale lives are attainable — that’s the point, particularly for those who still believe Instagram is a democratic platform. But in reality, the gap between the influencers and the influenced is wide and growing, especially considering most of them were rich and well-connected to begin with. It’s shockingly emblematic. Kylie Jenner. Gigi Hadid. Need I say more?

Influencers thrive, no, exist on envy and insecurity, probably to the detriment of the entire internet community. I would love to be one of them. This idea isn’t new, though — advertising was built to exploit those two principles. The problem is in the proximity, in the blurring. What is an ad and what isn’t? Who’s a friend and who’s a billboard? But what do we expect in an age in which likes and follows and retweets and reblogs are valuable capital? And not just social capital — real capital.

In a way, we’re all influencers now. We copy their poses, mimic their ethos, curate our lives as if brands were waiting to cut deals, as if Nike were about to sponsor your gym selfies. We’re all told that employers may check our social media accounts if for no other reason than to make sure they’re not hiring a loser. I’ve encountered a lot of job applications now that have space to put your Instagram handle. In creative fields, successful online self-promotion is becoming the single biggest predictor of success. This is literally making social media everyone’s job, forcing us to have a marketable yet unobjectionable online presence, and it’s kind of ruining the fun.

This is the point where I could argue for more authenticity online, for fewer ads. I could say that disguising advertisements as social media posts is damaging and manipulative to an audience of mostly children. I could tell you the pursuit of internet fame is fleeting and empty. But I’m not going to do that. I’m trying to be an influencer. Well, in a half-assed sort of way. More like I am hoping it happens to me but won’t do anything to help it along, like a lot of things in my life. I hope followers one day just drop from the sky.

Welcome to the age of influence — it’s kind of hell, but that’s just how it goes. Like, subscribe and follow me on Instagram.

Josh Perkins writes the Friday column on the absurd realities of modern communication. Contact him at [email protected] .