The world as we know it changes with each technological advancement that humans make. The digital world is nothing new and yet, since the Covid-19 pandemic hit us, the way generations young and old alike have come to use it changed drastically as some panelists of the 14th edition of the Beaconhouse School of Tomorrow virtual conference explored. From Twitter KOLs to YouTubers, web show celebrities to TikTok and Instagram stars, our smartphones and internet connection have come to play a major role in how we consume the media and how we identify ourselves with these ‘influencers’.
Who is an influencer?
Should an individual have a certain amount of followers to become an influencer? Frankly speaking, no. Literally anyone who has their own tribe and exert any amount of influence could be an influencer. With respect to social media, you could be a content creator – vlogging, food blogging, running your own comedy channel, etc. – and some people may consider you an influencer while others may not feel so; some may look up to you as a good influence whereas others find you a bad one. For the purpose of capitalism, if you’ve got a significant following on social media which can be monetised, you would definitely be referred to as an influencer.
The intent – to create or to influence?
An influencer’s voice carries a lot of weight – what they say and how they say it has a huge impact on our society. It’s the very reason why brands particularly collaborate with them in the first place. They want the influencers to tell their dedicated audience about the particular organisation. Therefore, it’s crucial that they act responsibly with what they post because people do listen. But do they?
One has to be careful with the words so as not to hurt sentiments of anybody. Also, one should understand that a curated feed of Instagram where they’ve cherry-picked the best moments of their life gives a very wrong picture to the youth who feel inadequate and dissatisfied with their lives, not realising that it’s not genuine and that everyone experiences a bunch of highs and lows.
Then again so many brands are putting in money into the influencer market, even random people are now understanding that they just need to post a feed video or a story for it. There’s a constant fear of not doing something right if a PR agency or brand does not pick them, a whirlwind of questions – is the other person getting a better reach? How is our income going to increase if the number of our followers remains stagnant?
With so many insecurities popping up, everything is being done to make people buy more products. The same influence that could be channeled to discuss topics like climate change or financial independence, something that actually matters!
This influence has worked for the brands but not for the public or future generation; it is shifting people to the wrong direction because, unfortunately, they’re starting it for their selfish gain – their profile is full of sponsored posts claiming “this is a good product”, “this is a bad product”, “buy this”, “this is not on sale” and so on.
Even mainstream celebrities have jumped the bandwagon. However, the brands see that it’s better to work with a content creator even if they have 100,000 followers (as compared to four million followers of the celebrity) since they are in a better position to make a connection with their audience. They respond to comments, they respond to DMs, they have live sessions; in short, there is a touch of exclusivity that the influencer offers. The celebrity is usually not ready for the scrutiny that comes with showcasing their life. One needs to have to grow a thick skin listening to haters especially. Even if they do that, it’s hard to make a human connection with four million followers so all they’ll probably do is to post about the product and the next day they’ll have no issue posting or giving a video shout out about its competitor.
The democratisation of content
So we’ve got the gadgets, the internet and the platform; insignificant on their own. It’s only in the hands of a user that they unleash their power. In other words, everything depends on how one uses it. In the past, it was necessary for a writer, a filmmaker to have certain qualifications and even then what they wrote or created was looked at by an editor or a censor board before it was published or released in cinemas. There was a lot of learning and training involved. The biggest change is today anyone in the world can create any kind of content and there is no one to evaluate it before it’s made available online.
This freedom comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, it allows young ones to share with the world the kind of wonderful work they are doing in their capacities and, on the other, there are people (those operating the dark web in particular) who also get the opportunity to negatively influence the public.
Furthermore, the fact that it’s democratic means one doesn’t need some connection or good looks in order to create content for social media. Talent is what counts. At the same time, one has to remember that human beings, especially the younger generation, needs to be moderated. With our different levels of intellect, all of us make sense of things so differently. As soon as the youngsters get a mobile phone and access to digital media, they are bound to be attracted to content they cannot watch otherwise. Since they’re moving towards that stuff through influencers, the onus is on the influencer to ensure they create the right kind of content, which has a purpose or a constructive aspect to it, so that their audience is not overexposed.
Digital dependency and addiction
The digital media has been quite a blessing during the pandemic, enabling us to study from home and to work from home. But the same ‘comfort’ has also affected our behavior to the extent that it’s become almost a sin to disconnect from our smartphones or to be unavailable for a period of time. The 24/7 access has made us dependent, especially the netizens who have been born and raised in a world in which social media has always existed.
The biggest drawback, perhaps, is how we’ve stopped living in the moment. Meeting a friend, attending a conference, watching a movie; all we care about is what we will post on social media. It begins with “let’s take a picture” and goes on to “let’s post a story”, “let’s make a post” and “what hashtags should I use?” We’re continually seeking validity through social media.
People have started living their entire life digitally and they have trouble interacting in a physical setting. It’s so different to say “I love you” on social media than to hug somebody in real. People sitting in the same room would have no issues connecting with others who are continents away from them but would feel awkward when it comes to connecting with the individuals sitting next to them.
If we look closely, a digital media addict would display all the usual signs – trying to multitask while constantly using their device; becoming irritated and agitated when asked to put the device away; being absent-minded when not using the device because they’re anxious of missing anything (either entertainment and/or work-related).
The thing is our whole focus is on preparing children to pass school examinations, get admission into a university, and get a stable job. There’s nothing about preparing them to live a better life, to understand what’s right and what’s wrong for them, where to draw the line. When something as complex as the internet is given to them, they just don’t know how it’ll affect them. All they feel is it’s keeping them busy and it’s making them happy.
There needs to be an awareness of what an addict looks like and that people can be addicted to various things including social media. The user should be educated on how they can prevent addiction and how to get help if they or someone they know is addicted.
Moreover, we have to normalise not using the digital media for a while. We can’t set boundaries for the companies and influencers forcing us to remain glued to our screens; what’s in our control is our immediate environment – the family unit and the school unit. Regulating screen time, for instance, with no screen time in bed and dining table is a healthy practice to begin with. Also, it’s important that schools become a place of creating experiences rather than just boring students to death feeding them more information. All the information is easily available out there at the click of a button but what the internet lacks is the ability to provide human experiences. If a teacher is using media in classroom, then make it age appropriate keeping in mind that everyone doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to deal with the amount of information they’re consuming. Teach students the dos and don’ts of digital media like any other subject. They should know some of the content they’re exposed to is not the right kind and that there are ways they can use it productively to create good quality content, to inspire, and to bring about a change; otherwise, they’ll continue misusing it.