Which of your favorite things are the result of other people’s influence?
Last time, we explored the role of envy in shaping our personal preferences. It’s a factor most of us selectively acknowledge, sheepishly, to very few people.
But influence is something else entirely. We envy things people have and are certain of their characteristics. They may, or may not, be aware of our envy.
Sometimes it’s like that with influence, too. A classmate wears a pair of shoes that catch your eye and you find yourself shopping for the style the next day. Both of you were going about your day and your classmate’s choice of footwear affected yours.
Other times, influence is intentional. We live in a time of mass expressiveness. The last two decades have seen the explosive growth of technologies designed to encourage us to show and tell other people what we think and how we live. Social platforms were designed to enable us to tell those people what we think of what they say, do, and choose.
The more clicks, likes, and shares an individual’s expressions get… the more popular that individual becomes… the higher the likelihood that they will be viewed as “an influencer.”
Becoming an influencer involves a dual transformation. We can view the visual and verbal record of a high school acquaintance’s latest vacation on a social media site with the same casual interest that we might have in paging through a magazine. “Oh, that looks nice…”
But it’s very different if the vacation record belongs to “an influencer.” Now, our attention is heightened…details that probably would have been invisible in our high school friend’s photos now become clues to new ways of being “significant.” Significance being a deeply contextual evaluation, we gravitate toward influencers who help us decode (and signal) achievement in some area or other that we care about…even if we are not fully aware of that caring. (“Oh, so she uses that kind of vegetable oil spray instead of Pam! Cool!”) We (often unconsciously) pore over the influencer’s posts like archaeologists unearthing secrets of ancient civilizations.
That’s one part of the dual transformation…how influencers change our perception and consciousness.
The second part is how being an influencer transforms theirs.
Once a person takes on the role of “influencer,” every public statement becomes an extension of the role. No choice, no matter how minute, is ever immaterial. Financial arrangements aside (!), influencers become “accountable” for their preferences. “Social capital” is an influencer’s currency; it must be “invested” carefully. “Missteps” have consequences. Audiences (if they’re “influencers,” why don’t we call ourselves, “influencees”?) are quick to chide their guides when they seem to stray from their reliable trustworthiness. Comment sections are often full of disappointment: “how could you possibly have liked that ridiculous movie?”
Influencers are keenly aware of these expectations. They now have “followers.” What are followers? A group that expects to be led. What may have started as the influencer posting a breezy bunch of Tumblrs about everyday stuff for friends, turns into an “influential generational taste barometer.” Now, every potential post is viewed through the lens of a new identity: “I am an influencer… what I think, say, or recommend is noticed by a lot of people. What they think about what I express is very important to me.” Again, this transformation does not have to be conscious to have an effect on the choices influencers make. Think about how impossible it must be for a famous person not to be aware of their appearance when going on a quick trip to the grocery store.
This means that the very “spontaneity” and “authenticity” that attracted us to many of the influencers we follow gradually gets replaced by considered choices that have been influenced by the effects of the influencer becoming an influencer. Can any of us trust that we’re getting the whole picture of an influencer’s favorites as the financial/social capital “stakes” rise? Probably not. The influencer carefully curates recommendations to conform to the expectations they/we have created about their lives.
And, so, we (again, mostly unconsciously) adjust our own critical faculties to take these new realities into account. The “bigger” the influencer, the less likely we are to see their recommended favorites as unencumbered by the dynamics of influence. We know they have selected this recommendation with their influence in mind. We assess their suggestions with the cautions that always accompany motivated recommendations (think: celebrity endorsements). Sometimes, influencers even inform us that thisrecommendation was unencumbered, not connected with personal gain through a sponsor relationship. This time, they’re telling us, this is just my opinion, not from “me the influencer.” That kind of statement is an acknowledgement of the influencer’s conflicting interests.
In today’s culture, we all need to more carefully consider the influence of influence.
Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.