Essays

Essay #1 – Influencer Culture in our Online Democracy

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Social media has drastically transformed the way we see the world today. As content creators and audience members on social media, we manage our platforms for multiple reasons through applications such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tik-Tok, Snapchat, Tinder, and more. Regardless of these unique platforms, our online activity serves as a canvas to share our lives and an outlet to connect. I proclaim that social media is democratic because it helps us share our opinions freely and facilitates dialogue within a click of a button. Additionally, I consider the democratic nature of influencer culture impacting the portrayal of particular narratives. However, I understand that this online democracy is not ideal because some of these narratives are not based on research, or are only seen depending on the online echo chamber of an individual. This essay will explore how influencer culture can change how we post and view news content, and other nuances of online democracy.


As a content creator, some would say that I am an influencer. I was not too fond of the word influencer because it portrays someone as an exhibitionist. However, I realize that everyone is an influencer because we all leave a part of ourselves wherever we go. According to InfluencerMarketingHub.com, an influencer is “someone who has the power to affect the purchasing decisions of others because of [their] authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with [their] audience” (Geyser, 2022). This definition of the word influencer has a more business-oriented meaning, but what stands out is the emphasis on “decisions of others” (Geyser, 2022). Influencers impact the decisions of others by exercising their right to free speech and by the way they choose to portray themselves online.


An example of one influencer group impacting the decisions of others is YesTheory. YesTheory is a group of three people named Ammar, Thomas, and Matt who promote the narrative to seek discomfort say yes to any unique opportunity (Dajer, 2020). These individuals post videos of trying new things they have never done before on their YouTube channel. This philosophy has drawn YesTheory’s online audience to seek discomfort and do things such as travel to unfamiliar countries, bungee jump off the world’s highest bungee, etc. YesTheory may be portraying themselves through one of John Suler’s disinhibition principles called disassociate imagination (Suler, 2004). Dissociative imagination is when posting online seems like a game or a “dream world” (Suler, 2004). However, YesTheory is living out their dreams, intending to impact their audience with their ‘seek discomfort’ narrative. They are creating a social movement. 


I do not have the immense power to initiate drastic social movements on my social media platforms. However, the content I post directly affects my audience, especially if the content is relevant to them. For instance, on my Instagram page, @Nimras.Canvas, I may post a poem about my experience as a child of immigrant parents, and then people who relate to me may share their experiences. Our ideas online create a ripple effect as many social media users are inspired by influencer culture. Influencers primarily post intending to leave a mark in society. This human desire to leave a legacy wherever we go is democratic. However, some people may not share this desire. Some individuals online do not consider themselves influencers. Instead, some may post with the intention to post, not to start something (Keely, n.d., as cited in Anderson & Rainie, 2020). It’s essential to understand the agency behind one’s online content and their intention for it. 


There is always an authoritative individual or programming that facilitates what is shown to users on social media despite agency. The most common example is through our online algorithms. The more of a genre we interact with online, the more we will see that genre on our social media feeds. Additionally, what people can see impacts what they reproduce. Regarding influencer culture, this reproduction of posts is relevant because people are inspired to make posts based on what their favorite influencers promote. It is almost like our online persons are all copied and pasted, and these algorithms impede us from seeing a more diverse outlook of the world.


Another critique of our free speech in our online democracy is the truth behind the screens. Social media influencers online can be multifaceted (Suler, 2004). They can choose to stay anonymous or invisible online (Suler, 2004). This unknown nature of online personas leaves room for the spread of misinformation. A child could be writing a blog about how keyboard typing damages your bones, and some may believe it. People online may act irrationally from their gut instincts rather than empirical research (Kreiger, n.d., as cited in Anderson & Rainie, 2021). According to Amy Webb, there are not enough “guardrails” to promote a transparent online community where we can collaborate and work together to spread the correct information (Webb, n.d., as cited in Anderson & Rainie, 2020). Additionally, our lives are so engulfed by social media that there is questions about whether we are even connected to the reality we are posting about (Rushkoff, n.d., as cited in Anderson & Rainie, 2020). We are already multifaceted people in our real lives; the virtual components make our personas even messier.


On the flip side, our online personas can help build online communities. Suler notes that by posting on equal and shared online spaces, content creators are ‘minimizing authority’ of big institutions (Suler, 2004). While we may be minimizing authority, our posts online also build a new democratic authority. Through social media, people build off each other and create powerful online public spaces (Warner, 2002). In my example with YesTheory, they created a community that shares the same values of seeking discomfort. Now YesTheory has Facebook groups and meetups through Zoom where the community can incite their unique conversations (Warner, 2002).


While there are various online communities through social media, some may argue that there are too many communities (Dyson, n.d., as cited in Anderson & Rainie, 2020). Esther Dyson states how “…democracy depends on a shared sense of community and right now we are creating too many warring communities when we should be enlarging them” (Dyson, n.d., as cited in Anderson & Rainie, 2020). So, while we may be creating a new democratic authority, we are losing our harmony by constantly creating multiple publics or counter-publics. Nancy Fraser uses an analogy about how our publics online are like complicated Venn diagrams (Fraser, n.d., as cited in Fattal, 2018). There are many similarities and differences in each online community, but all in all, they are all unique mini-publics. With so many online publics, web users are confused about their sense of community (Dyson, n.d., as cited in Anderson & Rainie, 2020). This diversity and limitations of different online communities show how impactful social media platforms can be and how divided social media can make us.


Overall, our online democracy is not perfect, but it is disguised as such. Influencer culture is an ideal. Influencers promote certain narratives to create a ripple effect in society. All social media users have the right to share what they wish, promote dialogue, and build community. However, our agency is distorted by authoritarian figures, algorithm shifts, and a rise in counter-publics. While this dreamed online democracy may not be a pure one, social media is still used every day to connect with the world, and we should use it as such.


Word count: 1230

References:

Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2020, May 31). Broader thoughts from key experts on the future of democracy at a time of Digital Disruption. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/02/21/broader-thoughts-from-key-experts-on-the-future-of-democracy-at-a-time-of-digital-disruption/

Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2021, November 22). Public Digital Spaces will be improved: Tech can be fixed, governments and corporations can reorient incentives and people can band together to work for reform. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/11/22/public-digital-spaces-will-be-improved-tech-can-be-fixed-governments-and-corporations-can-reorient-incentives-and-people-can-band-together-to-work-for-reform/

Dajer, M. (2020, September 7). About. Yes Theory. Retrieved from https://yestheory.com/about/

Fattal, A. (2018). Counterpublic. UC San Diego. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/73t260cm

Geyser, W. (2022, January 27). What is an influencer? – social media influencers defined [updated 2021]. Influencer Marketing Hub. Retrieved from https://influencermarketinghub.com/what-is-an-influencer/#toc-0

Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. Psychology of cyberspace – the online disinhibition effect. Retrieved from https://truecenterpublishing.com/psycyber/disinhibit.html

Warner, M (2002). Publics and Counterpublics. Quarterly Journal of Speech. Retrieved from http://knowledgepublic.pbworks.com/f/warnerPubCounterP.pdf

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