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Digital wraiths: “personal brand” and “the creator economy” are sucking the soul out of society
What makes modern advertisement and self-promotion particularly concerning
Picture from: https://gamelore.fandom.com/wiki/Wraith
In recent months the “creator economy” has been getting considerable scrutiny…. But the articles online do not seem to capture the full extent of the matter.
Ford remarks that “If You’re Not Paying For It, You Become The Product,” where horrifically “users are subject to advertisements that divert attention from authentic content and toward brand purchases.” From my experience, this is the understanding most of my friends have of the harms of advertising and social media. (Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/marketshare/2012/03/05/if-youre-not-paying-for-it-you-become-the-product/?sh=78325b95d6ee).
But, when watching a free TV channel, I am also the product. I am also having my attention diverted away from authentic content toward watching the ad. Furthermore, celebrities have been doing brand endorsements for decades. (Think Michal Jordan and Nikes, Madonna and Pepsi, Bill Cosby and Jello — yes, that happened). Here, there is also a recommendation from a celebrity; aspirational and unattainable beauty, athleticism, and fame-seeking to sell you a product.
Yet, there does seem to be a significant difference. It seems the true issues with the creator economy do not so much arise from “you being the product” but rather the nuances of this new online relationship.
I believe that there is one axis that can be used to help us explain this phenomenon: information/content-based creators vs. relationship-based creators.
When people ask themselves, “why do I watch this viewer?” there are two extremes to their answers. Either, “I like this person — I feel connected to them,” or “they provide me with useful/valuable content.”
Some creators rely solely on their content and informational appeal: think of a robotic voice telling you how to set up your new computer. While others rely entirely on the relational appeal: think Emma Chamberlain or Casey Neistat vlogging themselves getting coffee. One does not learn anything from Emma Chamberlain’s morning coffee run; people watch her because of her personality — because they like her.
Of course, most creators fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. For example, YouTube’s “video essays” are informative and personality-based: people watch these for both the information and personality of the creator (think VlogBrothers or ContraPoints).
Some creators are hard to place. For example, Mr. Beast giving away money, Shane Dawson doing an “investigative” interview, or PewDiePie playing a game. On the one hand, people watch these videos because something “cool” is happening — because of the content of the video. In that sense, these would fall under the “informational/content” category. On the other hand, the creator’s personality is incredibly prominent in the video.
My test for whether a video is “informational” or “personality” based is: if someone else made the exact same video (and I knew it was the same video), would I click on that? Emma Chamberlain fans are much likelier to watch her coffee run than Jane Doe’s. While, if I knew the videos were of equal quality, I would be similarly likely to watch a Kahn Academy video teaching me about derivatives as a video by Doe Academy.
While most older media consumption leaned towards the “content/informational” side of the spectrum, most modern media consumption leans towards being relationship-based. Most people watched TV shows or news channels because of the content and information provided. (If there were two equally well-produced Star Treks, Spiderman’s, or weather reports, you would have difficulty choosing between them.) Although the audience’s relationship with actors was a factor in some TV shows’ success, it was usually not the driving factor: people mostly watched for the plot, the world-building, and fictional characters (which, although relationships in some sense of the world, notably only exist in the fictional realm and can not sell you stuff). (Actors were made famous because they were in good movies, not vice versa.)
Today, while overall media consumption is rising, TV watching is declining, and radio is basically dead (Source: https://variety.com/vip-special-reports/fading-ratings-a-special-report-on-tvs-shrinking-audiences-1235142986/). The extra hours go to social media (Instagram, YouTube, TickTock). These platforms place relationship-based content front and center. The most popular YouTubers, TickTockers, and Instagram influencers put their relationship with their audience and personality above their content.
What does this have to do with advertising?
We have long been accustomed to branding in the world of content-based media. But, when we look at relationship-dependent influencers, things start to get…. iffy.
When KahnAcademy or a tech-help channel is branding itself, it uses traits that we all recognize: entertaining, helpful, reliable, well done, engaging, and well produced. These are the words that these informative channels seek to associate tight their brands. And they are classic business additives. I am sure these words have been in wall street’s mission statements thousands of times.
While on the other side of this spectrum, things get a little bit more…. confusing. What adjectives do we associate with relationship-based creators? Many adjectives are similar to the other brand of creators, but some are distinctly different: relatable, kind, personable, non-judgmental, friendly, and aspirational. These are seemingly less words that we associate with normal “brands” and more with friends — people. We are watching, and thus paying, these people because of their personhood.
At one end of the spectrum, we are trading our time watching ads for knowledge and quality content, and on the other end, for personhood and friendship.
But what does this have to do with money and branding?
These relationship-based influencers are an advertiser’s gold mine. CEO Bob Liodice said, “We’ve found that a growing number of marketers are turning to influencers to help them combat ad blocking, leverage creative content in an authentic way, drive engagement, and reach millennial and Gen-Z audiences who avidly follow and genuinely trust social media celebrities.” (Source: https://www.ana.net/content/show/id/48437#:~:text=%E2%80%9CWe’ve%20found%20that%20a,genuinely%20trust%20social%20media%20celebrities.%E2%80%9D).
This trust and friendship is fundamentally different than a TV ad or even an ad in the middle of a Kahn Academy video. While content-based creators give advertisers a way to show their product to a large and specific audience, relationship-based creators’ advertisements function more as friends recommending something to you. And it works: “98% of consumers plan to make a purchase on social media in 2022… and more than two-thirds (68%) of consumers have already purchased directly from social media.” (Source: https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2022/02/15/2385456/0/en/98-of-consumers-plan-to-make-a-purchase-on-social-media-in-2022.html#:~:text=According%20to%20new%20data%20from,or%20influencer%20commerce%20this%20year. ).
In a world where 70% of Americans have para-social relationships (higher amounts of young people), this is a big deal. (Source: https://madelaineweiss.com/70-of-americans-doing-parasocial-relationships/)
Inevitably, your best friends attempting to monetize your relationship leads to some issues. Gen Z trusts corporations the least out of any other generation. Additionally, social media consumption is associated with a slew of other problems: depression, feelings of insufficiently, and issues forming normal relationships. Although this is due to a slew of other issues with social media, I believe monetization contributes to this harm. (Source:https://morningconsult.com/form/gen-z-millennials-trust/ ).
Other issues with “personal brands” are more complicated to pinpoint.
According to Granovetter’s model for the strength of social bonds, creators fit the criteria we need for a strong friendship (Intimacy/sharing secrets, emotional intensity, time commitment, and reciprocal services). (Source: http://leonidzhukov.net/hse/2011/seminar/papers/chi09-tie-gilbert.pdf). Yet, they do not provide the critical aspects of friendship that contribute to a fulfilling life.
Influencers just do what the numbers say. They become an optimally desirable person.
From friends, we need something different. We need friends to contradict us — to tell us when they don’t believe something — to check our understanding of the world. In a world where your influencer friends’ job is to be your friend, this critical disagreement will not happen.
This, I believe, contributes to that icky feeling we get when we see our favorite influencers talk about salary, reference data about what types of videos do well, or act slightly differently in person than online. As humans, we desire a certain truth. Other people and other perspectives help us reach this truth. And influencers are paid to do the exact opposite: to be and think precisely how we want them to — to create the perfect “personal brand.”
I believe this mentality has not only taken over social media but also bled into other areas of our life. So many newly popular 21st century phenomena seem to be related to this idea that personhood and friendship are merely goods that can be monetized.
MLM brands (pyramid schemes), like LuLaRoe or Herbalife, operate by having regular people buy products they don’t particularly care about and then sell them to friends. The people who actually make money in these companies are often pretty white women with tons of friends (the perfect “personal brand” and an excess of social capital). In other words, the people who are thoroughly and unabashedly monetizing friendship and their personality.
Even the modern obsession with networking, I feel, can be traced back to this concept of using/monetizing personality and ability. The term “networking” was coined in the 70s/80s and has exploded to business events, get-togethers, linked-in, and parties (Source: https://www.inc.com/encyclopedia/networking.html#:~:text=Around%20about%20the%20late%201970s,of%20gaining%20benefits%20in%20business. ). Now nearly every college or Silicon Valley party is filled with opportunists seeking professional or monetary favors in exchange for their friendship and personality. While “opportunists” used to have a negative connotation, now they are merely aspirationally building their personal brand.
I used to get existential crises walking around malls. There was a shallowness to everything being perfectly designed to get you to spend money. The artificial customer service peoples’ smiles, mixed with the florescent lights that leave you detached from the natural world and reality.
And, now… watching “lifestyle bloggers,” “millennial YUPPIES,” pyramid schemes, and large events solely for networking makes me feel a hundred times worse. It is almost as if modern society has taken this concept of “personal brand” to the extreme: the idea that your personality, friends, trust, and connections are goods that should be monetized — that doing this and “developing your personal brand” is the responsible thing to do for creators and young professionals alike.
The effect? A world in which everything around us (including friends, smiles, and personalities) is monetized. Relationship-based influencers are feeding upon the trust and friendship of others. These modern wraiths leave behind a world selfish, mistrusting, and seemingly void of authentic connection.
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