How the Nature of Popularity Was Changed by Social Media

There aren’t many aspects of the human experience that haven’t been affected by the mass proliferation of social media over the past decade. From our way we interact with our friends to the way we find our booty calls, age-old rituals are squeezed through a digital prism and come out on the other side looking markedly different than before.

Our lives are so changed by its all-consuming omnipresence that writing about all the ways that social media has reconfigured the world has become a steady stream of income for internet commentators such as myself.

In a recent installment of New York Magazine’s “popular” column – a regular series investigating “the pain and joys of fitting in” – the author assessed the ways that social media has changed the nature of popularity and came to the conclusion that it has made it predictable, boring and more of a job than an enviable social privilege.

This makes sense: with so much money to be made from social media, and many of the methods to grow your following mapped out in widely-available books and online guides, nurturing your social media presence has a professional incentive that often fosters a professional approach. But what doesn’t get mentioned as much is how social media has changed the fundamental nature of popularity by presenting it through a nerd’s-eye-view.

Popularity Is Now Quantifiable

Popularity, as NY Mag points out, used to have an intangible, unquantifiable quality to it. On social media, however, it’s the opposite: easily measured in followers, likes, retweets and all those other metrics that marketers use to calculate engagement. They can be tallied up, assessed and ranked.

It’s cold and logical, like mathematics, because it’s pretty much a digital simulation of human interaction by tech geeks. Social media is how socially-awkward Silicon Valley programmers imagine that socializing looks like in the real world. The accumulation of popularity on social media works much like a video game: with the correct input – a pithy tweet, a sexy Instagram photo, a cat video – you’re rewarded with the positive reinforcement of engagement, and the more engagement you get the more “popular” you are.

It’s all as binary as a computer’s code and doesn’t take into account the many intangible X-factors that define IRL, flesh-and-blood popularity: charisma, social intelligence, learned behaviors, peer approval, genetics and countless other variables. Not that this is much of a surprise: after all, I doubt that Mark Zuckerberg got many nominations for prom king, and if The Social Network is anything to go by, he seems to have less friends than I have Snapchat followers (I don’t have Snapchat).

Popularity on social media is as mechanical as seduction in “Pick Up Artistry” circles, because it’s the result of bookish minds analyzing human behaviors and attempting to break them down into hyper-rational formulae.

This is part of the reason why popularity on social media doesn’t usually translate to popularity into the real world. Sure, some people may be popular on social media precisely because they’re popular IRL or have a huge media presence elsewhere, like, say, Selena Gomez or Kylie Jenner, but digital popularity is so unlike its physical counterpart that it rarely carries over.

Not only that, but our social media profiles are usually false personas; projections of the people that we would like to be rather than reflections of who we really are. You might be able create a really sassy avatar of yourself on Twitter, but that’s because you have the mental space and time to invest a half hour into a single snappy tweet. In the real work you have to be quick-witted and confident; you need a mastery of timing and tone to pull of the same feat.

To stick with the current example, Twitter is medium dominated by journalists. In my professional life I’ve had the opportunity to meet numerous writers that have tens of thousands of followers and have locked down that wry tone that works so well in tweets, and I’ve always been astounded how many of them mumble through sentences and struggle to maintain eye contact when they’re forced to interact with an actual human being.

At its worst, social media is a tool for people to compensate for all the personal or physical qualities that they lack, and Instagram is another good example of this. The internet is full of guides on how to make yourself look more attractive than you actually are, because hot people quite obviously get more follows on a platform that focuses purely on aesthetics. As most of us are aware, though, this doesn’t always carry over to real life. What’s that old saying? “Nobody looks like Victoria’s Secret models, not even Victoria’s Secret models”?

Social Media Popularity Is Really About Sales

In this sense, popularity on social media is, in fact, the polar opposite of popularity in reality: while real-world adoration is something to be craved because it opens doors to parties, sex, career advancement, social capital and all sorts of pleasures, on social media it becomes a cage, trapping us online because the things that make us likable in the digital realm sometimes don’t exist beyond it.

But that’s the thing: popularity on social media and popularity in the real world shouldn’t be discussed on the same terms, because social media ultimately wasn’t made to foster popularity or even sociability, but salability.

Every social media platform is, in essence, a marketing tool. Initially it offers fun incentives to reel in users, and slowly it begins to monetize that audience by acting as an advertising space that links brands to masses of potential consumers.

Just look at Twitter’s short, succinct format: tweets are the perfect vessel for ad copy. Instagram allows us to visually distort our image and adopt the qualities of a billboard. This is intentional: it blurs the divide between advertising and content so that the former is more readily accepted by consumers. We might download ad-blockers or go to the toilet during TV commercial breaks, but on social media we willingly and enthusiastically open ourselves to advertising by following Instagram influencers and, ultimately, by marketing ourselves.

To paraphrase former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher: “marketing is the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”  By making the personal and the commercial indistinguishable from one another, social media has succeeded in doing exactly that.

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