This week, Katy Perry tweeted that “social media is trash” and “the decline of human civilization.” Unsurprisingly, she caused a massive furore.
However, if she quit social media tomorrow, her career wouldn’t suffer one bit. Her ultimate product is her music, which is promoted through music platforms, traditional airplay and digital marketing that pinpoints a specific demographic of those who spend their time hanging out online, unknowingly providing free targeting information to companies seeking to sell to them.
No one listens to Katy Perry’s music because of what she tweets or posts on social media. And while some celebrities constantly generate buzz on social media with controversial posts – Kanye West being one that comes to mind – the idea that this attention translates to an interest in their artistic product is a myth.
Conversely, there are several celebrities who have little or no social media presence – Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Jennifer Lawrence, for example – and don’t suffer one whit at the box office from a lack of online exposure. These individuals all have something in common: their focus on deep work over ephemeral quick hits that capture mass attention then swiftly fade from memory.
Take any example of a so-called social media ‘star’ and ask whether they’re truly dependent on these platforms for their fame and fortune. Even the world’s most famous ‘influencer’, newly-minted billionaire (that is, if you believe Forbes) Kim Kardashian, owes her wealth to her very conventional TV show and selling products like shapewear through the stuffy old-school department store, Nordstrom. Her sister, Kylie Jenner, made her own billion-dollar fortune by selling a 51% share of her own cosmetics company to your great-grandma’s favorite cosmetics brand, Coty.
The idea that the Kardashians airbrushed, puckered and Botoxed their way to a fortune online is ridiculous. Yet their offline success has led to many of their fans conflating it with their online presence, leading to an entire army of clones who believe that the path to fame and fortune is that of an ‘influencer’ who focuses on spending their days curating and posting every aspect of their life online.
While it’s possible that some people may be able to initially create enough low-quality online content to capture an audience and attract the attention of some brands willing to pay them for exposure, how long is that gravy train really going to last? Are you going to be puckering up for your selfies in front of your ring light when you’re 30 years old? How about 40?
Or will it even last that long when the brands that have hopped on this trendy marketing bandwagon realize that a so-called influencer’s follower volume (which may or may not be composed of fake accounts that can be purchased to inflate subscriber numbers) doesn’t translate into the expected monetary return on investment?
The problem with online ‘fans’ is the same as with online ‘friends’: unreliable superficiality. How many of us know people who conflate online friends with real ones – the kind of people who brag about their thousands of ‘friends’ and who have hundreds of ‘likes’ for each of their posts. But if they ever made a post asking whether anyone wanted to go to the movies with them, the only positive responses they’d get likely would be from the creepiest or most dedicatedly self-serving of their subscribers, who live in a distorted online world in which they actually figure that commenting on and ‘liking’ a stranger’s content makes them an actual real-world contact.
The online world is indeed a distorted one. One sees what they want to, first and foremost. The great irony is that diversity of content and access to it has arguably never been greater in all of human history. But this phenomenon has failed to translate to an expansion of horizons or a broadening of minds.
Instead, it has catalyzed a bunker mentality, leading to increased polarization and radicalization of views and the elimination of critical thinking in favor of the kind of bandwagoning usually exhibited by die-hard team sports fans. It’s as though there is so much opportunity for increased cognitive dissonance as a result of such a wide spectrum of views that people have reacted by hunkering down with like-minded warriors inside content bubbles that serve as ‘safe spaces’ from which they launch attacks on opposing groups (which live inside their own online ideological silos).
Katy Perry is spot-on in that social media has exacerbated some of the very worst aspects of human nature – narcissism, divisiveness, mindlessness and self-delusion – because so many have failed to treat it as simply a tool like any other. Instead, they’ve allowed themselves to become the tools.