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.”

On Staying Intact

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I was partly kidding when I suggested that if we all pitched in now and then with gardening and philosophizing, we would get things done, it wouldn’t be so terrible, and no one would have to be roped in for the long haul. But a more serious question has been on my mind: Is it possible to do something one doesn’t normally do and doesn’t like to do, or something about which one has mixed thoughts and emotions, and still stay intact? I realize that “yes and no” is too simple an answer, but if explained properly, it seems correct.

What does it mean to stay intact? It means that you retain roughly the same thoughts and preferences as before, as well as the strength to honor them. If I generally don’t like commercial action thrillers but go with a friend to see War for the Planet of the Apes (which I have no plans to see), find myself enjoying it a little, but still know that I would not choose it on my own, I have stayed intact. I have neither betrayed myself nor become a different person; I just tried something out of the usual for me.

Or take a trickier example: Let’s say I have a friend who does not like some of my other friends. I can spend time with this person, in private or public, without fearing that I have betrayed others. Sometimes this can be challenging, but it’s possible.

Or suppose I attend a religious service of a faith other than my own. Up to a point, I can participate without worrying that I have gone against who I am. There is a breaking point, though, generally understood by all. For instance, if you are not Catholic, you can sing the hymns and join in the responses (according to your comfort) but should not take communion. In holding back here, you show respect for yourself and others.

Another tricky example: Suppose I attend a demonstration that generally reflects my views but differs in some particulars. If I participate without assuming (or letting others assume) that I have given up my differences, then I have stayed intact. (In this case, the demonstration becomes a statement in itself, so a participant may have difficulty differentiating himself from it.)

Why does it matter to stay intact? It affects your participation in the world. If you believe that an experience will turn you into that thing, whatever it may be, then you might avoid it, for fear of becoming someone you don’t want to be. If you believe that you will stay intact, you can walk confidently through the world and try all kinds of interesting things.

So, now for the “yes” and “no” of the matter. It is possible to do something without becoming it, yet each of our experiences and actions influences us and our directions. Moreover, some experiences affect us profoundly and surprisingly. We can’t always control what comes of them. Also, some distinctions and markers of identity lose importance over time, while others gain importance. Someone who formerly took pride in not being a “poetry person” may come to question whether such a type exists. But a poet who initially admired both Yeats and Auden might come to favor one over the other.

It’s possible to stay intact, but not completely.  We’re continually reshaping around the edges. Sometimes the center whirls. Still, even with that, it’s possible not to cave in to each suggestion or sensation. The wisdom of when and when not to resist, how far to venture outward, and when and how to go home can be found in books, but only partly. Each judgment is lonely.  But there’s something grounding in seeing it as judgment, and not just as fate or folly. In many senses of the phrase, we get to make up our minds.

 

I took this photo of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge while biking along the Hudson last Friday. See Nick Carr’s photos as well.

As usual, I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.