on intellectual influence
some thoughts on the commodification of wokeness
Click here to read this essay on Substack.
Around what I like to call Phase Three of quarantine, long past the initial Tiger King days and maybe two weeks into the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I started noticing a weird trend on Instagram––even weirder than people hanging out without masks. While the first two months of shelter in place had seen relative silence on social media save people reminiscing the past, suddenly my timeline was filled with selfies with quippy, political captions like “redistribute your wealth” or “abolish the police.” It was like a formula: an unexpectedly sexy pose, carefully chosen makeup and outfit despite the stay at home order, and a brief caption that was up to date enough with the news to regurgitate the major action items we’re supposed to be taking. Sometimes the user would include a link for donations or helpful information, but usually not. At first I was pleased by this surprising new Instagram wave: it helped Black Lives Matter stay trending and it normalized white people caring openly about race. But after a while, the photos began to leave a sour taste in my mouth; there was something off to me about how many of my peers felt comfortable being so flippant about police brutality, casually posting the phrase “justice for breonna” the way one might otherwise caption their photo with song lyrics. Ultimately, it seemed these users just wanted to post a photo of themself, and found that, given the confusing energy on social media, attaching a political message allowed them to do so while still seeming respectful.
This latest trend is part of a larger persona that many young people have embodied on social media in recent years, the loud & proud Activist Girl: she’s read Karl Marx, but only enough to quote him in a pinch. She’s hot, but she doesn’t brag about it. Her captions are witty, anti establishment, and have just the right self deprecating edge: skipped class to go to a protest today, or my hometown is so white and i hate it here. Gone is the beautiful, apolitical Instagram-non personality of the early 2010s; today we call her basic, a VSCO girl. In 2020, gaining popularity on social media requires not only beauty, but brains: an ability to keep up with current events and advocate for important causes, but do so in a way that also brands you as a reliable source for others.
I don’t mean for my characterization of the Activist Girl, who certainly does not have to be a girl, to take away from the very real good that young people have done with their social media platforms as of late. In 2018, for example, a study from Tufts University found that youth social media activism translated to a 10% increase in young voter turnout at the midterm elections compared to previous years and further reported that young people who engage in political activity online are also more likely to engage in person. Clearly, online activism is not the problem––but I do take issue with the specific ways the activism is performed. Watching people tack on Breonna Taylor’s name to their selfie to seem more politically relevant feels demeaning, and it’s uncomfortable to see people who never critically engaged with abolition before this year toss the word into their caption because they know it will garner them clout. As social media etiquette becomes more politically charged, it seems it’s users' goals are also changing: while we once used Instagram to gain validation on our looks, we now use it for endorsements on our political ideals. As such, it’s more difficult to discern whether people are talking about Black Lives Matter because they want to help the movement or because they want to get more likes.
I’ve never been one for the political selfie, but I won’t pretend I haven’t tried to use social media to prove my politics. As journalists, we’re told, that’s essentially part of the job description. I remember when, during my junior year of college, a more experienced writer friend explained to me why reporters need to be on Twitter. “You should post your recent articles, or post other people’s work with your hot take,” she told me over late night drinks in a Manhattan bar. “It’s like our Linkedin.” After about a year on the platform, though, I would say it’s more like Tinder: a messy online space for writers to humble-brag and seduce each other. Overall on Twitter I try to stay in my lane, occasionally posting my own stories and mainly signal boosting other important news. But there are certainly moments, when I retweet an article without reading or post a hot take and get momentary clout, where I have to ask myself: Am I doing this because I want to give people information, or because I need them to think that I’m smart?
The desire to be smart and politically aware––or, perhaps more accurately, the need to be viewed as such on the internet––has manifested in not only a new social media language, but an entirely new crop of internet personalities. While most people are not online to become famous, “social media influencer” is certainly an alluring concept to many, and a desired career path for a growing number of young people. According to recent data from CNBC, 86% of Gen Z and millennials would post sponsored content for money, and 54% would become an influencer if given the opportunity. As social media continues to lean into more political territory, this has caused two important shifts: regular people looking for internet clout now lean heavily on aestheticized politics, and the biggest personalities on social media today are not only beautiful and relatable, but also smart and politically engaged. They’ve formed a new mold: the Intellectual Influencer.
According to the Digital Marketing Institute, a social media influencer is, simply put, “a user who has established credibility in a specific industry, has access to a huge audience, and can persuade others to act based on their recommendations.” Even in the short span that platforms like Instagram and Twitter have been around, we can see a clear shift in the imagery, language, and aesthetics that have brought people to “influencer” status. In the 2010s, personalities like the Kardashians set the tone for acceptable internet behavior: users were to strive for nothing more than gorgeous portraits, sassy captions, and a perfectly color coordinated feed. In more recent years, the standards have changed––often, in order to gain social media fame today, your profile can’t just be beautiful, it has to stand for something. Gabrielle is a model who also champions Black joy; Fariha Róisín is a beautiful, ethereal poet; Jenny Welbourne wears slow fashion and wants to save the environment. The issues these people champion––antiracism, sustainability, sex education, trans rights––may vary, but the M.O is the same: their cause is their persona, and their Instagram is their activism.
I have no problem with political influencing––I follow many of the people who I listed above. But I do see a disconnect between what these people purport to do with their platform and how they actually utilize their following. Often, either openly or subconsciously, intellectual influencers tend to differentiate themselves from other social media personalities, viewing their work as more important or morally superior because they are using their platform to champion a cause. In many respects, this is true; I certainly value Gabrielle’s thoughtful content over that of Kylie Jenner. But, when we take a closer look, the two model’s feeds are honestly pretty similar––one just uses more political captions. What differentiates an intellectual influencer from a regular influencer is not an “or” but an “and”: we care about their politics and their style, their book recommendations and their favorite drink, their hot takes and their skincare routine. What these accounts provide followers is not only relevant political information, but a blueprint on how to be a well-liked, relatable, politically engaged person. If you want to be a sustainable shopper, here’s what thrifted skirt to wear; if you want to be a thoughtful poet, here’s what notebook you should use. The “and” is key to understanding these influencers: They want people to have the facts, and they want to be the mouthpiece.
At this point you may be wondering, but is there anything really wrong with intellectual influencers? Sure, the whole thing may be a bit more self indulgent than we like to let on, but isn’t their work overall a good thing? And on the whole, I agree. I appreciate how intellectual influencers have normalized being openly political at least online, and I have learned a good deal from many of them. But I also definitely hesitate to blindly trust any internet personality that Instagram or Twitter recommends to me, especially as these platforms have their own shallowly hidden agendas for doing so.
In 2018, Salty, a newsletter for women, transgender, and non-binary people, conducted an investigation into algorithmic bias in content policing on Instagram. The study found that queer people and women of color are policed at a higher rate than the general population and that plus-sized and body-positive profiles were often flagged for “sexual solicitation” or “excessive nudity,” even when advertisements that also used semi-nudity, such as Victoria’s Secret ads, were never flagged. The study further reported that by far the most common reason for the platform deleting an account was due to “violation of community guidelines”––which, given the alleged offenses above, suggests that Instagram finds being queer or fat a community violation. Given this, it’s understandably difficult for me to trust the platform to provide me with an influencer who will share my politics.
It’s not just Instagram––Facebook, Twitter, and Tik Tok have also come under hot water for racist or sexist algorithmic bias in recent years. On YouTube, perhaps the biggest platform for creating social media influencers today, creators have spoken openly on this issue. Many have pointed out that Left Tube, the platform’s section reserved for leftist creators to share their political views, is historically extremely white, with creators like Natalie Wynn garnering national notoriety while political commentators of color have significantly smaller followings. Kat Blaque, a Black trans Left Tube creator, addressed this racial divide in one of her videos, “Why Is Left Tube So White?” In the video, Blaque speaks on how other white Left Tube creators often misconstrue her arguments when speaking to their larger audiences, poignantly noting, “I find that all too often, what I say doesn’t matter as much as what a white man has said that I said.” I feel that this same logic can be used to define the issue with how intellectual influencing is carried out on these platforms: sites like Instagram and YouTube use an algorithm that disproportionately recommends straight, white, thin, able bodied accounts to its users. These accounts gain massive followings, which give them clout and credibility. The influencers provide political information to thousands of people, but from a very limited personal perspective. These platforms don’t elect accounts to intellectual influencer status due to merit––the algorithms allow accounts to gain popularity if they are deemed non-threatening enough to be able to push a certain political agenda without upsetting their site metrics. Effectively, Instagram and YouTube have helped whitewash the movement, and we were all complicit.
As a journalist, I think often of how I myself have fallen prey to the trappings of intellectual influence––after all, reporters are purportedly meant to serve as a bridge between the information and the people. However, a cursory glance on Twitter can reveal how most writers are using their internet clout to do much more than amplify current events. Writers are notoriously loud on Twitter––oversharing personal anecdotes, musing about process, waxing poetic about the failings of the industry. To me, these journalists can certainly be classified as intellectual influencers, as they utilize the “and” perfectly: they are online to boost their work and show off their witty personality. In recent years, many have been more open about the continually blurry writer-influencer line. In her viral 2019 essay, “The journalist as influencer: how we sell ourselves on social media,” Allegra Hobbs captures the conflict perfectly, writing, “To be a writer today is to make yourself a product for public consumption on the internet, to project an appealing image that contextualizes the actual writing. The women who are most heralded in the media industry today are extremely online, starring in photoshoots and documenting their skincare routines and eating habits as much as discussing their process.”
Hobb’s characterization of the contemporary writer-influencer perfectly summarizes the adoration I feel for many of my favorite modern journalists. For years I’ve idolized the likes of Jia Tolentino and Jenna Wortham, because they are beautiful, charismatic women who are open about loving weed and astrology and herbalism as well as gifted writers for notorious New York publications. Certainly, much of my appreciation for both writers comes from my joy at seeing two women of color thrive in a notoriously white industry, as well as simply reading their work. But maybe deep down, their success feels exciting to me because it represents a possible future for myself: one where my readers care about my skincare routine, too.
I’ve recently found myself meditating on the difference between influence and celebrity. As our pandemic progresses, I’ve encountered a growing public resentment for the idea of celebrity, the practice of blindly worshipping a person, regardless of their personal history or politics, just because they have wealth and a household name. Interestingly, I have yet to see this same energy given towards influencers, who seem to get a free pass despite the desire for fame being written in their job description. Our collective disillusionment with celebrity status makes sense in this moment, especially given how useless celebrity response has been to covid-19. But I believe the issue is more nuanced than celebrity, bad, influencer, okay; in March, The New York Times ran an op-ed on the death of celebrity. The story was shared over 30,000 times on social media and the author, a critic named Amanda Hess who herself has a considerable Twitter following, was invited on an Apple podcast to further discuss her thoughts on the matter. Even when celebrity culture is supposedly burning, intellectual influencers get clout for pointing it out––celebrity is harder to do away with than we think.
Back in the day, I certainly aspired towards an element of fame from my writing––nothing crazy, but I liked the idea of eventually becoming a household name. Like intellectual influencers, I reprieved myself of any meaningful self critique in my desire for celebrity status: if I wanted fame for a “good” reason, like contributing meaningful writing that helped people, then my celebrity aspirations must be excusable. Today I no longer want to be famous, but I still struggle with valuing my work or ideas off the internet and away from the public eye: receiving praise for my writing on Twitter often feels more exciting to me than having the story itself published, and I never would have written this essay if I didn’t think at least one person would read it. There’s a reason Intellectual Influencer is such a sexy calling; the thought of being renowned for your intelligence is compelling, and the idea of being the mouthpiece of a movement provides a sense of purpose. In the moments I find myself itching for fame, more preoccupied with how my thoughts will be received online than what it is I actually have to say, I try to remind myself of my true aspirations, the reasons I started writing in the first place. I picture myself on a sunny front porch, surrounded by green, sipping coffee and journaling by hand. Perhaps I call a friend to talk through a half-baked idea and we muse together for a bit before I pick up the pen once more. This, I know, would be much more meaningful to me than anything Instagram could ever offer.
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*Photo from @jennydeluxe.