Becoming an influencer

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
February 4th, 2023

What’s the world coming to when our children dream of becoming YouTube influencers when they grow up? Not so long ago, I came across a study conducted by the Lego corporation in which 3,000 children between the ages of 8 and 12 from the U.S., the UK and China were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. The study also included 326 parents with children between five and 12.

In response to the survey, almost a third of the children said they wanted to be a YouTube influencer, and a mere 11 percent said they would most like to be an astronaut. The preferences were reversed in China where more than half the kids chose astronaut in stark contrast to kids in the U.S. and UK who made video blogging their top choice, with astronaut garnering just over 10 percent of the vote.

Clearly something has been happening here that has escaped my attention for what I was soon to learn was at least the past decade. I know this now because I googled the definition of “influencer,” and my first hit was a very comprehensive article by New York Times best-selling author Neil Patel, who began his post with these words: “If you don’t know what an influencer is, where have you been living for the past decade?” Why, right here, of course, in a suburb of Boston in the same house for the past 44 years.

Okay, some of us are levelers, and we take a little longer to notice changes in the environment, unlike the sharpeners, who pick up on the first subtle hints of change. When it comes to social media marketing, at least, I am clearly a leveler. This is not to say I don’t appreciate YouTube and those helpful videos that have taught me so many important life skills, like how to change a recessed light bulb and how to open my granddaughter’s stroller.

The influencers that the kids in the Lego study want to emulate are the people who use their position on social media platforms to influence their followers to buy products made by companies that pay the influencers for their services.

Mr. Patel’s article described four kinds of influencers based on the size of their social media audiences, listed here from smaller to larger numbers: nano-, micro-, macro- and mega-influencers.

I learned that smaller Instagram influencers make between $100 to $300 per post, while major celebrities can make thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hmm, I’m beginning to see the attraction for those kids who would rather pilot a laptop than a space capsule.

My googling has led me to the conclusion that I have been operating with an outdated understanding of what it means to be an influencer. For me and, I dare say, many people of my generation, an influencer is someone who changes the thinking or behavior of others through the power of persuasion or good example. We grew up calling them role models, and they included our parents, teachers, older and wiser adults, and our peers. We were being influenced by peer pressure long before we had ever heard the term. Why else would I dare to follow my more athletic friend, Bobby, and jump off the back of one of the stone lions guarding the second floor entrance to our town’s borough hall? He landed on his feet. I landed in the hospital.

I am not suggesting that the influencers of bygone days were free of commercial motivation. Popeye with his overdeveloped biceps sold us spinach, baseball players hawked bubblegum, and Olympic athletes urged us to eat our Wheaties. Television with its commercial sponsorship gave us the picture of perfect families where no one raised their voices, a fashionably dressed Mom kissed everyone goodbye at the door each morning, and Dad taught Billy to kick field goals when he didn’t make the team as a quarterback.

The commercials were there, but the message took precedence. And those of us on the receiving end of those messages grew up wanting to be strong, skilled, kind and wise in whatever we wound up doing in life. I don’t know anyone who set their sights on becoming an influencer, but that’s who we are. We can’t help it. Even without intending to, we influence one another by the example of our lives, and when we use our influence purposefully, we realize the full power of our ability to promote change.

Psychologists, teachers, health care providers and other like professionals know that our capacity to influence others is our most important skill, but that capacity is not limited to the so-called helping professions.

Here I cannot help but think of Ebenezer Scrooge, so recently in the limelight during the Christmas holidays, being influenced by the ghost of his late partner Jacob Marley and the three spirits whose life-changing visit he foretold. Condemned to drag the heavy chain he forged in a life of greed, Marley comes to warn his former business partner to change his ways, and Scrooge compliments him by pointing to his record and his example as a “good man of business.” In reply, Marley rattles his ponderous chain and bellows, “ Business! Mankind was my business.” A terrified Scrooge can only cower in fear and wait for the intervention the spirits have in store.

As we all know, Scrooge does amend his life and goes on to influence the lives of countless others though his new-found kindness and generosity. He does not become a professional influencer like his creator, Charles Dickens, who set out to expose the evils of mid-nineteenth century industrial England and earn enough money to pay his debts. He doesn’t have to. He remains a successful “man of business” who enriches the lives of others by his own example.

It would be nice to think that those kids in the Lego survey who said they would rather be YouTube influencers than astronauts will grow up to realize that the real power of influence has nothing to do with YouTube. Let them be astronauts, YouTubers, psychologists or men of business – anything they choose – and know that influencing is part of being human, even when you don’t realize you’re doing it.

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