The internet offers a platform that for previous generation’s was the preserve of a privileged elite. The cult of celebrity has evolved, and unlike our quietly iconic Kate Moss of the 90s. The face’s of this generation are expected to have both voice and opinion. Social media offers this voice to everyone, a complete departure from the traditional, or conventional media of old. With increased accessibility of smartphones and laptops came the birth of the citizen journalist, heralding the slow decline of print.
At the core of this evolved form of press is an egalitarian ideal of free information exchange, however the reality is more complicated. Commissioned content is often reliant on SEO, the searchable buzz words that generate views and revenue. Imagery and copy are often heavily curated and edited, in order to further the reach of a brand or individual and ultimately with the view to sell a product or service. Monetised social feeds have become the domain of the innovative ad-man. When a single post on Instagram can command thousands of pounds can information ever be considered free? The rise of peer marketing has inadvertently uncovered a darker side of democratised press. The recent publication of advertising standards guidelines for influencers and its subsequent, unpleasant backlash are evidence of this.
Influencer is an umbrella term that is adopted by out of work actors and washed up reality stars. The fact it also encompasses talented writers, comedians, photographers, stylists, chefs, restauranteurs and activists is a little confusing. A new breed of celebrity that has emerged from the depths of our screens are both exciting and identifiable unlike those of old. Can you imagine Katie Holmes at the peak of her Dawson’s creek fame talking direct to camera about her experience of toxic masculinity? Or Cindy Crawford monologuing about her anxiety, whilst absentmindedly examining blackheads in the front facing camera.
Vlogs, blogs, selfies and statuses can be a calculated and effective marketing tool. They are undoubtedly cathartic and often off the cuff, an instantaneous outpouring of emotion. Those of us with an online presence could be considered diarists for a digital age. We can broadcast online, something we feel in the heat of the moment to an infinite number of people with little thought for its reach or possible aftermath. The voyeur in us devours this deeply personal content. For the lonely and confused amongst us it offers something that feels like real connection. We have come to see our favourite influencers as friends. We wake up to them, eat breakfast with them, talk to them via direct message. We ask their advice and question their decisions. We elevate them to role models, buy their merch, emulate their shopping habits and hang on their every word. That is until, a throwaway statement or thought is deemed unacceptable, and for whatever reason someone cries cancelled and we all reach for the digital equivalent of a burning pitchfork.
Activism thrives in the grids and squares of our digital lives. Opinions are formed and argued and changed on the tiny screens that nestle in the palms of our hands. We imbue our favourite internet personalities with an almost sublime authority. A careless comment from one such deity quickly becomes a meme, which in turn can breed a movement. A modern crusade comes complete with its own hashtag, these can be empowering but equally disquieting. The idea that feminism means men should shower us with gifts for instance comes fresh from the bowels of the internet. We often forget the person behind the digital persona. An influencer is empowered by their community, and however wise and eloquent they appear they often lack the experience and education to be considered a true authority.
In an age where all the information you will ever need is contained within the pages of Wikipedia have we become too lazy to challenge and form our own opinions? Does the internet negate rationale and common sense? Have we lost the ability to critically evaluate source material for ourselves? Do we need a disclaimer to warn us every time we might be influenced? When we are demonstrably adverse to paying for content, need I mention the horrible mess that was once “the pool”, why does supposedly covert advertising make us so cross? Perhaps we invest a little heavily in this world because we are dissatisfied with our own?
People are spending increasing amounts of time engaging on their devices rather than in person. We live our lives, at least partially online, that is indisputable. The lines between fantasy and reality have become blurred in places and in my humble opinion that’s ok. The internet didn’t create escapism. As content consumers we must take some responsibility for distinguishing what is real from cleverly constructed fantasy. As an audience we must determine the information worthy of deeper consideration, that which is relevant and can be applied to “our real life”. The things we read online are after all composed by humans with myriad perspective and diversity of experience. The cacophony of voices can be deafening. This is undoubtedly a brave new world, but is it possible the same rules apply?