Who Are the Real Influencers?

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I have been hearing a lot about “influencers,” people who have managed to build a gargantuan social media following and thereby exert power in real life: as politicians, pundits, CEOs, “unboxing” video creators, and so on. Some claim that influencers are the way of the future. That must be partly true. But deliberate influence has its limits; some of the greatest influence is unintended, or at least not an end in itself. It comes from a quality of a person or thing.

Who has influenced me the most over my lifetime? Do I even know? Surely my family, friends, teachers, classmates, colleagues, students, and various mentors, but also the books I read (some modern, some hundreds or thousands of years old), the music I listen to, the places I have lived and visited, the languages I learn, the faith I practice or not, the things that happen in a day. But there’s still more: memories long forgotten, strangers who have crossed my path, mistakes I have made, angles of the light. When we speak of our influences, we usually refer to things and people we admire, but influence goes far beyond that, far beyond what we can name. Also, influence has a complex chemistry. It doesn’t always take effect right away, and even when it does, it may or may not be visible. Sometimes it inspires its opposite, or something at a skew from it.

So it is important to distinguish the “influencers” from the full range of influences in our lives. Yes, the influencer economy is part of reality. Not all of it is terrible; it offers a certain democracy, as people can gain an audience through their own efforts, with minimal equipment and funds. Also, if they’re influencing others for the sake of something worthwhile, they deserve some respect. But one can influence others profoundly without being an influencer, and vice versa.

Should influencing be a primary goal? It certainly has a place among other goals. Everyone wants to reach and affect others, and affecting them can mean influencing them. But as a primary goal it lacks something; who am I, that I should want to influence you? Even in teaching, influence happens as a result of other things: interesting lessons and subject matter, a quality of conversation, and so on. There would be something vain, for instance, about hoping all my students will go into my field or adopt my perspective. Influence, if it happens, will take its own form.

As for popularity and outward success, they have some meaning but do not deserve complete trust. Large outward success can ruin private and internal life and can quickly disappear; some brilliant work is done in obscurity. A lot takes place in between the extremes. The influencers will do what they do, but over the long run, the ones who do good work, learn from others, speak bravely, and treat others kindly will leave traces without even trying.

P.S. See the sharp and enlightening Lex maniac entry on the term “influencer.”

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