"Therapy is reach [sic] by many form [sic] and the ability to release stress is overwhelming sometime [sic].”
“If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads.”
“There is always enough time to do what brings you joy.”
These nuggets of wisdom I harvested from a brief scan of my social media feeds. And there’s more, much more. As inexorable as a rapid incoming tide, inspirational aphorisms tapped out by the nimble fingers of anyone with a smartphone relentlessly tumble forth from cyberspace.
Move over Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Campbell, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Anne Dillard and countless other thinkers and writers who have pondered deeply our relationship with the world. Make way for the Instagram philosopher, better known as the “Influencer,” bravely going on junkets to places many people have gone before.
Take a photo of stunning location (think star trails, or mountains reflected in alpine lake) type out a pseudo-philosophical aphorism, then post to Instagram. Repeat. And if the well of inspiration temporarily runneth dry, don’t worry; simply quote a lyric from Depeche Mode, Warren Zevon or whomever, and then hit post. For some added value, insert babe—male or female—into the frame. Then build a following, many of them bought, and voila you’re an “Influencer.”
I know many wonderful writers and journalists who travel the world, investigating issues, conflicts, revealing the beauty, wonder and tragedy of the human condition and I’ll bet not a single one would call themselves an Influencer. The way I understand the relationship that media has with an audience—it’s the reader or viewer who gets to decide whether a given work influences them and helps shape their view of the world. Not the producer of the content.
That’s why I am rapidly learning to despise the term “Influencer.” In fact one of my great fears is being trapped in a room full of people with the job title “Influencer.” Actually, I have been many times in recent years. The last occasion was at the Adventure Travel Trade Association World Summit in Salta, Argentina. I was in the media room, taking a time out, but ended up sandwiched in a scrum of Influencers who were listening to one of their colleagues as he shared harrowing tales from the front lines of Influencing. He was relating how the lame server at his hotel in downtown Salta was unable to remember his breakfast order even though he had been ordering the same thing every day—for four days! His audience shook their heads in understanding disgust. (How this smug Californian who measures his day in likes and followers had ended up at an adventure travel conference was beyond me, given that his idea of adventure is floating over to a swim-up Tiki bar and ordering a double Mai Tai.)
The rapid ascendance of the Influencer to a position of authority in the media world is a joke; a joke on us. As a friend described it to me recently, Influencers tend to be shamelessly me-centric. Notice how often their posts are focused on self-empowerment, realization, improvement and what you can take away from time spent outdoors to improve the self. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all about fulfillment and the pursuit of happiness but what about asking how one can give of oneself to help address the many challenges facing the world? Never mind the shameless promotion of the brands that sponsor the Influencer’s jetsetting lifestyle—after each exhortation encouraging us to reach for our inner potential, or something like that, there is the inevitable string of brand hashtags. Oh, and observe the well placed Big Agnes tent or pair of KEEN sandals in the photo. Let’s face it, most Influencers breeze through a place and focus on the eye-candy, brochure-worthy aspect of a destination while rarely scraping beneath the surface to reveal the underlying tensions and complexities that make travel and adventure so darn interesting.
I guess this would make me out of touch with current media realities, if it wasn’t for the fact that I know I’m not alone in my skepticism. In fact, most PR professionals in the travel media business, whom I occasionally sit down with for a beer or coffee, feel trapped; trapped because they feel they can’t afford not to participate in the Influencer game, yet they’re increasingly uncomfortable with the self-entitlement that accompanies many of these new media players, not to mention the difficulty in measuring in any tangible way the influence these Influencers actually wield.
Maybe this is the point where I should insert an apology to some of the very capable and thoughtful folks I have met since Instagram became a thing and who have miraculously carved out a living as an Influencer. I have met many. They work hard at it, and to them I say “Bravo!” And if it’s any consolation, I’m my own toughest critic when it comes to assessing my influence as a writer. Some people like reading my stuff, others quickly turn the page when they read my byline, many don’t care what I have to say and others still don’t even know that I exist. That’s life. Whether or not what I write exerts some sort of influence, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide. The point is, until you become, say, a John Steinbeck who captured the American Dust Bowl experience in books like Grapes of Wrath with a prose that is as breathtakingly beautiful today as it was the day it was written, or Douglas Coupland, who defined the zeitgeist of Generation X, I’d venture to say that the term Influencer is much too easily applied these days.
I’m reminded of this every time I read an inspirational hallmark greeting card aphorism accompanying a selfie on a crescent beach in Thailand. Odd as it sounds, to be honest I quite like Instagram, and readily acknowledge that it satisfies the narcissist that dwells in all of us, including me, and the need to have our daily moments, mundane as they may be, validated. My guess is that it will be the idealistic Millennials—the generation that gets blamed for all things technology addiction-related—who will eventually lead the rebellion against social media’s inherent narcissism and forever banish the word Influencer from common usage.
Then again, I might miss it for the cheap form of easily consumable, unintentional comedy that it is. After all, where else would you find gems like: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”