the influencerization of everything


From this LARB essay by Sarah Brouillette about Caroline Calloway:

We see in her case a set of conditions that are likely to intensify as the publishing industry continues to struggle: toward convergence with social media culture, the self-branding industry, gig work in the form of self-publishing, with a growing army of hungry creatives vying for attention. They are serving a new kind of consumer, too — a topic for another piece — who is drawn less to physical paperbound books and more to free content with options added, like that $100 personal phone call, and to the kinds of subscription-based services that reduce the risk of disappointment if you don’t get what you paid for.

For a long time now, I’ve argued that social media incentivize (and then ultimately compel) the production of the self as a commodity — they reconstitute self-expression as perpetual advertisements for the self, demonstrations of one’s human capital, as well as one’s capacity to leverage attention and, as Brouillette emphasizes, the promotional labor of others. The rise of influencers is indicative of the normalization of these practices, and a harbinger — it seems like most forms of work will eventually be influencerized, and workers will have to leverage their personality, their “personal brand,” to get work or to perform it up to managerial expectations. Taylor Lorenz points out in this piece how this has happened in journalism.

But the other side of the coin that Brouillette gestures toward above seems just as important: how influencerization has changed consumption, how it reflects and drives a destabilization of the object of consumption. In other words, once static objects (books, etc.) become “content” — fluid, upgradable, networked, subject to spontaneous (or spurious) customization, directly social in that one can immediately recirculate it, comment on it, argue about it, “react” to it with a button, and so on.

It may become increasingly strange to consume objects we cannot immediately imprint with some avatar of ourselves, that we can’t immediately augment (by paying extra or performing some kind of labor). It’s not “interactivity” per se, because it is not reciprocal and it is mostly systematized and delimited by the interfaces through which media is consumed. But it is a matter of manifesting “influence.” No kind of consumption can occur outside the awareness of the asymmetries of attention that directly govern it. 

When one thinks of, say, free-to-play games, it’s easy to construe their constant attempts to milk money from you as annoying. But it may be more accurate to think of that as part of the entertainment, part of the means for subjectivizing the player, for making them feel as though they are being paid attention to, being recognized. 

This is how I understand the “new kind of consumer” Brouillette mentions. The vicarious fantasy inherent in consumption can be supplemented by more direct forms of engagement; consumers no longer need to be trained how to enjoy vicarious, imaginative experiences in the same way they used to. The emulative, mimetic aspects of consumption are more straightforward now, given the channels consumers have to immediately produce their responses and see what reactions they attract. 

Every commodified experience concretizes some aspect of the “influence” that has produced and circulated it, and the process of consuming it is now a matter of tapping into that and trying to realize it somehow for oneself.