It’s 2012, and I’m trying to stay awake in a business development seminar. They’re talking about Twitter, and I’m attempting to redirect my attention from the table buffet cheesecake I plan to lay waste to in 15 minutes.
“Within a decade, many of us will be employed on the strength of our Twitter following alone, so take it seriously,” advises the speaker, the head of a small media marketing start-up, with whom I drink so regularly that it is difficult to take him seriously at work. It’s not that I don’t trust his expertise, but the reality being proposed appeals to me about as much as sitting through his seminar again.
Surely, if someone’s professional worth is going to be judged on their ability to amass followers, we’d be better off starting a cult than going to university?
Over the last decade, many of us have been told that our value to society can be calculated simply by tallying up our likes and interactions. Social and professional standing has become a number, and whether we choose to play the game or not, the internet keeps score.
We’re made to dress up nice for an ever increasing number of shop windows, should we wish to be taken seriously at all. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Talent Manager, StarNow, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch. I’ve recently been assured that if I don’t start effectively engaging people on TikTok, I might as well kiss my career goodbye in my thirties.
This is no great surprise. Over the years, I found myself signed to TV talent agencies, who would accumulate “social reach” for prospective clients and broadcast partners, ahead of any real experience I had. While my CV continued to chalk up work – CBBC, Sky Sports, the Premier League, ITV2, Nickelodeon, C5 et al – my meagre social media following served to remind me of what little impact I’d actually made on the world, in the place that mattered. It was seen as an inability to engage and gather like-minded individuals into one space – to be influenced, and more importantly, to be sold to.
It’s no longer about how good a presenter – or designer, baker, plumber or make-up artist – you are; it’s about what else you bring to the table, in kudos or collateral.
If you’re ordering pizza, and the restaurant has 100K followers on Instagram and a ton of great reviews, you will often have neither the time nor the will to verify: you’ll assume you’re in safe hands. And should a brand or channel consider associating themselves with you in my industry, a few million extra viewers from your socials won’t hurt.
This isn’t entirely new – marketing has always been key – but these platforms of acute comparison have spawned a generation obsessed with perception and validation. We desperately need people to see that we’re doing something, and doing it well, whether that be working or just living.
Holidays, exercise, taking care of our mental health, dropping those extra pounds, learning to love our bodies, delivering the best results for our clients, fulfilling our dreams and growing our businesses... it all becomes achievement porn that we must tie up in a bow and share with the world, or no one will believe it happened.
And what’s most worrying is that the stakes are real. If we don’t engage, educate, advertise or entertain, we don’t exist and we don’t work.
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What’s all the more draining is the war we wage with ourselves over our own messaging and objectives. We want the real, but we crave the fake. We applaud the relatable, but reward the aspirational.
We peddle meaningless soundbites about the dangers of burnout, fake news and over-editing. We take part in reductive trends such as “Instagram v reality”, where the latter is as carefully curated as the former. We encourage each other to #BeKind and to love the skin we’re in, but we still watch Love Island for a chance to see heavily augmented young people destroy each other’s mental health for our entertainment. Their reward? Ad campaigns, book deals, endless reality TV appearances, more plastic surgery, and wealth, for as long as they can keep up the charade and suffer the abusive messages in their DMs.
We idolise those who can manipulate us the best, and the suffocating pressure to appear bigger, better and funnier, more glamorous, thoughtful and well connected, gets more and more overwhelming every year. We’re encouraged to comment and converse, to air our every waking thought and opinion, to play a public part in every conversation – even when that conversation is, so often, “Isn’t this all a bit much now?”
I guess we’re all afraid of being forgotten. First by social media, then by our employers, friends and the wider world. No one likes to feel invisible. No one wants to feel worthless.