Capitalisn’t: Manufacturing Influence
- February 08, 2024
- CBR - Capitalisnt
In 1988, Noam Chomsky (then at MIT) and the late Edward S. Herman (then at the University of Pennsylvania) investigated how mass media sways audiences to conform to social norms without coercion, or what they called “manufacturing consent.” In her new book, The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media, Emily Hund, a research affiliate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, investigates how social media influencers have manufactured a new media economy to which we’ve unwittingly consented.
In this episode of the Capitalisn’t podcast, Hund joins hosts Bethany McLean and Luigi Zingales to unpack this new digital landscape where influence has become a powerful currency, shaping not only news consumption and consumer behavior but the very fabric of modern capitalism. Together, they discuss whether influencers are empowered entrepreneurs rewriting market rules or victims of a system that commodifies identity. What are the hidden incentives driving influencer messaging and, thus, the news and content we receive?
Emily Hund: If we have to constantly look at ourselves through the lens of what is shareable and framed by the tools that are dominant at the time—Will this make a good video? Or what is shareable through this framework?—it is a potentially very damaging way to have to look at yourself and to know yourself.
Bethany: I’m Bethany McLean.
Phil Donahue: Did you ever have a moment of doubt about capitalism and whether greed’s a good idea?
Luigi: And I’m Luigi Zingales.
Bernie Sanders: We have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.
Bethany: And this is Capitalisn’t, a podcast about what is working in capital-ism.
Milton Friedman: First of all, tell me, is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed?
Luigi: And, most importantly, what isn’t.
Warren Buffett: We ought to do better by the people that get left behind. I don’t think we should kill the capitalist system in the process.
Bethany: Luigi, what did you have for breakfast this morning?
Luigi: Just a cup of coffee.
Bethany: Didn’t your mother teach you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that you must eat some protein in the morning?
Luigi: No. Remember, I grew up in Italy, where the only protein we have for breakfast is the occasional milk we put in the cappuccino.
Bethany: Aha. I’m just teasing you. I actually hate breakfast. Rather, I like breakfast food, but I like breakfast at the middle of the day. And, oddly enough, the myth that breakfast is the most important meal of the day—and it is a myth—it’s just propaganda. It’s just an invention of a guy named Edward Bernays, who was the nephew of Freud and the inventor of prop-aganda, and it was an invention aimed at selling more bacon.
Luigi: In today’s episode of Capitalisn’t, we want to discuss the role of influ-encers, and we want to do it in the broader context of the propaganda industry.
Bethany: The propaganda industry—do you mean the publicity industry?
Luigi: Since you got me started with Edward Bernays, I want to stick with him. As you know, in 1928, he wrote a book called Propaganda. What he meant was mostly advertising, but the term became radioactive because the Nazis used it, so he relabeled it public relations in the political context and promotion in the commercial one. But I prefer to use the original term because it makes it clear what it is.
Bethany: Mm-hmm. Language is so interesting, isn’t it? And I think we should discuss private propaganda to differentiate it from the government one, because whether you call it propaganda or whether you call it publicity or whether you call it promotion, it’s become an es-sential component of the capitalist system.
Luigi: It’s a relatively recent phenomenon that, first of all, you have to have the media to have promotion, but most importantly, private advertising really started after the so-called Second Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th, when companies discovered economies of scale.
One example I always give my students is that when James Duke, who later gave his name to Duke University, introduced the first automatic cigarette-making machine, his production increased 40 times. When all of a sudden you have such an enormous increase in production, you need to sell your stuff. How do you sell a lot of stuff? You need to promote it. That’s the reason why Duke started mass advertising.
Bethany: Duke & Co. used the social media of the time, which were literary magazines like Collier’s, McClure’s, and Cosmopolitan. An inter-esting contradiction is that these magazines had become popular by exposing the economic and social problems at the time, arguably, not contributing to them. The Jungle, the famous exposé on the Chicago meatpacking industry, first came out as a series in one of these magazines.
I guess not surprisingly, the advertising money severely tempered the muckraking tendency of these magazines. It’s a story, in some ways, that seems to repeat again today, where bloggers and Instagram posters get their fame by telling their stories, and then they cash in by using their repu-tation to advertise. And if there was truth that they were speaking originally, that truth starts to become tempered, shall we say, by the money. Do you think that’s fair?
Luigi: Absolutely. To explore this phenomenon, today we’re going to talk to Emily Hund, a researcher at the Center for Digital Culture and Society at UPenn, but most im-portantly, the author of the recent book The Influencer Industry.
Bethany: Before we introduce Emily, let’s define for our listeners what we mean by influence and influencers. Influence is “the capacity to have an effect on the behavior of somebody,” while influencers are “people who have built a reputation for their knowledge and expertise on a certain topic and use it to make money.”
Luigi: With this knowledge in mind, let’s welcome Emily to the show.
Emily, in your book, you do a very nice job of inserting the influencer industry into the histori-cal context. Can you tell us what is new?
Emily Hund: Some things that are new about the influencer space: one is the way that the influencer industry has helped rewrite the way we think about work, what it means to be a creative producer. It has also rewritten the way we think about ourselves and our relationship to marketplaces. It has really broken down barriers between the individual and commercial activi-ty. The influencer space really requires people who are working within it to sell themselves in a very direct way and to partner with brands in a much more intimate way.
Bethany: Does intimate mean more authentic? Why do consumers trust in-fluencers so much? It can be more authentic, but there can also be a sort of sleight of hand going on, in which the authenticity is a front for the brand and just a different way of selling. So, why does it engender more intimacy when there can be a sleight of hand to it?
Emily Hund: It’s partially how they were introduced to us. If we think back to the 2000s, the early 2010s, when the influencer industry really first started gaining traction, social media was new. We didn’t really have the sort of cynicism and suspicion about social media that is more widespread now.
As early influencers were introduced to us, it was under this sort of understanding that these were really just regular-seeming people who really were more relatable to the average person than a celebrity was, or a person who’s working at a major media company or things like that.
I think that really set the tone for the industry. Even as it has grown enormously, this idea that influencers are people who are just following their passion and just genuinely creating content be-cause they love to do it remained incredibly pervasive.
Marketers and brands recognized early on that that idea was what made this space monetiza-ble. They realized we need to maintain this aura of authenticity even as the space becomes hyper-commercialized, even as the creators have to become more and more strategic in their content creation and the way that they communicate with their audience. We have to maintain this sense of authenticity because that’s what this is all about.
At the same time, if we look to these other sources of information that we have, if we look to the major media companies, people have been losing faith in these institutions for a long time. There hasn’t really been as much competition as there might be in an alternate world where may-be you can imagine that people have a lot of trust in journalism, for example.
Bethany: You come out of a traditional media background. How do you think traditional media left itself open to the rise of influencers and its own loss of influence?
Emily Hund: Traditional media never adjusted to the fact that the internet existed at all. In wanting to preserve the power that they had, that had been entrenched for so long, they spent too much energy trying to hold onto that or trying to absorb influencers into this old format.
It’s heartbreaking, in a way. I come out of magazines; I trained as a journalist. I was seeing how the places where I worked were trying to figure out: “OK, what are we going to do with these bloggers? What are we going to do with social media? Look, this person has tons of followers. What if we had her write something? Or what if we hired this person to shoot something for us?"
On one hand, I thought: “Yeah, this is great. This is exciting that you’re working with people who aren’t coming up through the traditional pipeline.” But on the other hand, this is concerning because if you’re hiring someone to write who doesn’t have any training in journalism, what is that going to mean for what we’re publishing? Especially, again, at scale. If you hire one person to write one column, not a big deal. But if all of these media institutions are hiring people who don’t have journalistic backgrounds to write for them, then what does that mean for our media and infor-mation landscape?
One of my really persistent concerns—and it’s kind of interesting that I have arrived at this place of thinking—is that the influencer space needs more professionalization like journalism had. I am not arguing for the value of the gatekeeping and the hurdles that kept out people who didn’t go through great schools or didn’t have family money or didn’t have any of this sort of preexisting capital to get through. I don’t want that, but I do want a shared understanding of the role of the influencer in society and some governing ethics like the journalism industry has or once had.
Luigi: One of the things I like about your book is that you talk about personal branding or personal brands. One passage I read from your book says, “Individuals on social media work to simplify and distill their personalities into easily understandable personal brands.” I feel that this is also happening in academia with some potentially very dangerous effects.
Let’s pick on the epidemiologists, but I could pick on the economists as well. If I become an influencer and I push pro-vaccine ideas very hard, do I want to do a study where I can identify some side effects of vaccines?
Even if I’m fully vaccinated and I believe in vaccines, some vaccines do have side effects, and it’s important to study the side effects of vaccines. But if I construct my public persona into this unqualified supporter of vaccines, I may find it difficult to do research and promote research in a different direction. My fear is that the influencer industry or the world of social media is actually changing the world of academia and changing it for the worse.
Emily Hund: This is part of how the industry is changing all of our relation-ships to our work, I think. And it’s not just in academia, but I think the earliest signs of how the in-fluencer space is requiring that more and more people brand themselves . . . and I write in the book a bit about Walmart’s program where they’re encouraging their employees to act as influenc-ers as well. This incitement to brand yourself is becoming more pervasive in society than I think I even knew was possible when I first started this research project, and that comes with tremendous consequences.
If the people who are sort of pushed ahead in their professions, whether it is in academia or it is in your professional track at Walmart, the people who are being brought to the front and re-warded are people who are able to do the influencer thing well, able to brand themselves and dis-till their personalities and their work online for an audience, you’re leaving a lot of people behind who are probably very good at the job of researcher or the job of merchandiser or what have you, and you’re just incentivizing all the wrong things. I think there’s huge potential to damage a wide range of professions.
Bethany: Yeah, and potentially a wide range of people, too. I was thinking about this as the ultimate triumph in some ways of personality over character, having to have a personality and a persona versus anything that’s more internal, subterranean, private, and that it shapes humanity in a way, too.
Emily Hund: Yeah, I mean, if we have to constantly look at ourselves through the lens of what is shareable and framed by the tools that are dominant at the time—Will this make a good video? Or what is shareable through this framework?—it is a potentially very damaging way to have to look at yourself and to know yourself.
Luigi: Let me push back a bit because you come from a different discipline than I do, so you see everything in terms of power. Maybe I see everything in terms of information.
Let me try this alternative narrative. Information is diffuse. In the past, for example, marketing departments were spending a lot of money trying to collect this information, do focus groups, but it was very much top-down. Now, we have found a way to do it more bottom-up. It’s true that some of these people are paid to promote this stuff, but it’s also true that they literally put their face on it.
Also, some stuff doesn’t work. You mention in your book the very interesting Michael Bloom-berg campaign where they paid influencers. It was a complete flop. There wasn’t grassroots de-mand. Maybe in the media of the ’60s or ’70s, somebody like Mike Bloomberg would have won the election because he could push that from the top. But even with all the money he had—and he had plenty—he couldn’t change the result of the primary.
So, maybe it is a way to aggregate information from the bottom up. The reason why I might buy a product, or you might buy a product, is because you see somebody like you using the product and putting their face behind it, and that’s very useful information.
Emily Hund: Yeah, it’s not like the influencer industry has been all bad. There are some ways that it has democratized culture, you could say, and it has sort of forced people at the top to listen to what consumers really want.
We live in a world of information overload, and people are busy, and if you find an influencer who resonates with you for some reason, and you identify with them, and you see they buy X, Y, Z products, it makes your life easier to say, “OK, I need to buy new dishes,” or, “I need new sheets or whatever, and I’m just going to get what this person had.” That is absolutely a part of an influenc-er’s value that they make buying decisions easier for their followers.
Also, to your other point, they need to listen to the consumer. I started this research way back when I was coming from the fashion-media industry, and I think if you look at fashion as an exam-ple, you can see just how much fashion influencers have forced this old-guard, very much top-down, elite-driven industry to change in representation, like in fashion advertising and brands ex-panding their offerings to cater to more body types and interests and things like that. It absolutely has shifted things and facilitated a sort of bottom-up approach to a lot of industries.
That being said, the reality is not this wonderful, culturally democratic space that I think was promised and continues to be promised by some people in power in this industry. The reality is not that. When we think about the spread of misinformation, when we think about the spread of these toxic body-image ideals, the mental-health toll on people who identify as creators and their really significant rates of depression and burnout, then we are kind of benchmarking—again, it’s recent history—and thinking, “Maybe this isn’t so great.”
My research of the space over the last 10 years has indicated that the people who have been working in the industry often don’t have the time, honestly, or the resources, I suppose, to take that time to sit back and think about the long-term impacts of what they were doing.
We are at a point where we have seen where that approach to this work has gotten us. And, yeah, there’s been some really wonderful things that have happened. There’s also been some real-ly awful things that have happened. And it’s important to think about, what kind of future do we want? We can’t just keep scrambling around and just keeping our heads above water today. We need a vision that we’re working toward.
Somewhat paradoxically, I suppose, I think part of the solution is more professionalization of the influencer space. Not saying that we need to now gatekeep, as these older industries did when they were really difficult to break into, but we do need the influencer industry to recognize its own power and to coalesce a little bit as an industry around some ideas about, what is our role? And what are our ethical guidelines, and what does it mean to work in this space? There isn’t a lot of shared understanding of that.
Some influencers are very transparent with their branding deals, and some brands pay really fairly, and everything is above board and very professional and benefiting everyone involved, and then there is a lot of other junk and unfairness that happens. I think if we can get to a place where there’s a better shared understanding of what it means to be an influencer and then some better public understanding of what influencers do, I think that would go a long way toward evolving the industry toward a more positive place.
Bethany: Part of that vision is influenced by technology, of course. And the job of influencer appears to be very independent, but it’s actually hugely dependent on the plat-form algorithms. How do you think about that role of technology and what influence the influencer industry needs to have over the platform algorithms in order to be truly independent?
Emily Hund: That’s a good question. The industry has always been very much shaped by the tools that are available to them, and that, in turn, has also shaped the construction of authenticity that we were talking about before. As technology has evolved and new tools have come about to make monetizing the content easier, that has really enabled the industry to grow quite a bit.
We think about the introduction of affiliate links, which is when influencers post a product and then they’re able to earn a commission when people click through or buy the product, the intro-duction of evermore sophisticated tools that enable both influencers and brands to measure the performance of their content. Also, of course, as you mentioned, the way that the platforms tweak their algorithms over time privileges particular types of content. That is very much why we now find ourselves in this era of video. It’s because of the popularity of TikTok, and then Instagram and Meta want to compete with TikTok, and so they are prioritizing Reels. Everyone has to make videos in order to be seen.
Influencers are at the mercy of the tools that are available, but they also help push the evolu-tion of new tools. It is this push-pull, give-and-take relationship when you look at it over time. I don’t think that Instagram would be in the place that it is now, providing all of these measurement tools and tools to really enable influencer marketing. They are doing that in response to what in-fluencers have done and the way that users have behaved on the space.
At the same time, ultimately, the platforms are in control of the algorithms and, therefore, they are in control of what type of content is being surfaced. Many interviews over the years have indicated that influencers feel very much at the mercy of platforms, and they’re in this precarious position of never knowing what the future holds. The platform companies owe influencers a lot, but they don’t have a relationship where they are really accountable to influencers. There’s no re-quirement of transparency.
And so, influencers are sort of in this space where they’re like, “I don’t know if I’m going to have to completely learn a new skill,” like they had to learn video and video editing and stuff like that. “I don’t know if I’m going to have to learn a new skill. I don’t know if my content is going to start tanking because they’re going to make some change that makes me much less visible.”
Luigi: Building on this, I think that it appears as this democratization, infor-mation coming from the bottom, but in reality, the filters the platforms create are incredibly im-portant. Let me give an example in another area. In the area of wine, I don’t know if you know who Robert Parker is or was. He was a very famous wine taster, and he became so influential that many vineyards started to produce wine to feed the tastes of Robert Parker, because Robert Parker would promote their wine, and that was very valuable. But this is a small niche, one guy who was influential, but not . . .
In the case of platforms, they have enormous power. It’s the power of Robert Parker multiplied by a billion, probably, and they have an enormous responsibility. For example, if I want to be an influencer, by definition, I want my stuff to circulate. So, I’m trying to second guess what makes my stuff retweeted, reshared, et cetera, et cetera.
The algorithm that Facebook or Meta has created is that if you appeal to the worst instincts of human beings, that stuff goes viral. And so, all the explosion of violence and hate speech that we see is not just an issue of people posting it, it is that it’s rewarded by the algorithm. My fear is that while this may appear as just the perfect democratic institution, it is, in reality, a very subtle way to manufacture consent—and I use the Chomsky title on purpose—in a very specific direction.
Emily Hund: That is the problem, that the platforms get to decide what gets rewarded, and a lot of times it is the things that end up harming the individual, whether it is the more extreme cases of hate speech and violence and things like that, or even this necessity to share personal information. In the influencer space, influencers are very much incentivized to share pictures of their children, talk about what’s going on in their relationship, show what their house looks like, talk about their religious beliefs, their political beliefs. That content gets promot-ed.
And influencers have told me this over and over again, “I don’t feel comfortable sharing pic-tures of my children,” for example, or during times of 2020, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about when I got my vaccine or whether I got my vaccine and what brand it was and what my side effects were, who I’m voting for, and what do I think about every political controversy that happens.” But they feel that they have to in order to be seen, and then, they are making themselves vulnerable for attacks or for bad-faith interactions that really harm their well-being. And then, at scale, when we think about the millions of people for whom this is a job, that is a lot of harm to a work-force.
Luigi: Thank you very much for your time.
Emily Hund: Thank you.
Bethany: This was really fun, thank you.
Emily Hund: Thank you.
Bethany: Luigi, I actually couldn’t tell, based on your questions, if you are optimistic about the rise of influencers as compared to the past or pessimistic, because one of your questions seemed to posit—and I think you were being provocative in your questions, obviously—that this was good, that in general, we should be optimistic about the rise of influencers, and sev-eral of your other questions seem to posit exactly the opposite. So, what do you think?
Luigi: I think that many of the criticisms seem to me backward-looking and complaining that it’s different from the past when the past wasn’t that great. However, I’m really, really concerned about the power that platforms have in shaping this whole world, and I’m con-cerned at the commercial level, but I’m also concerned at the academic level and at the political level.
As you know, I’m not a fan of cryptocurrencies, but what I thought was strange was that at some point, both Facebook and Google, I think, decided not to allow ads for cryptos. It was interesting because it was at the same time as Facebook was preparing the launch of Libra, which is its own stablecoin, which is crypto.
We are in a world in which platforms—especially if they coordinate, maybe tacitly—can block entry of what they want, even in the market arena, with enormous market power. Now, if you translate that to the world of ideas, which is academia, or to the world of politics, this is really, re-ally problematic.
Bethany: It’s a different form of gatekeeper. I think as Emily was getting at in our conversation, it’s a less-transparent form of gatekeeper than what existed in the past. I mean, the whole promise of the rise of social media was that people could have an unmediated way of getting their views to other people. And it turns out it’s very, very mediated, and increasingly so.
I suppose, in some ways, that was the way the media industry worked in the past, in the sense that you needed to have access to a journalist to get your ideas in front of people. But it was trans-parent that there were gatekeepers, and it was transparent the way the gatekeepers operated. Now, it’s far less transparent. Would you agree with that analogy or that description?
Luigi: In part. I don’t know if you ever read this book by Herman and Chom-sky, Manufacturing Consent?
Luigi: Yeah, it is written at a very particular moment, because it’s ’88 or ’89—I don’t remember the exact year—but it’s basically before the fall of the Soviet Union and before the rise of social media.
They interpret the entire media ecosystem as, in my language, an incentive scheme to deliver a particular result, which is a probusiness result. I always thought that the analysis was interesting but a bit too extreme, because I thought that while those incentives existed, they were not as strong and as powerful as they described.
But I feel that now you need to be blind not to see it. The entire system of what is rewarded, what makes you advance, is shaped by one or two platforms. Whoever controls the platforms con-trols the narrative, controls the way that you independently succeed. This notion that you are in-dependent is very fake because at the end of the day, you are massively dependent on what the platform wants to reward in terms of shares and distribution.
Bethany: Let me try something out that I was thinking about, which is that it’s different depending on what sphere of life you are in. I think how political news gets dissemi-nated, both in the past and today, and shaped, how business news gets disseminated and shaped, and how things get sold are really different.
I remember being really shocked, way back in the day, when I was a business journalist at Fortune, which was owned by Time Inc., talking to someone who was working on a sto-ry about, basically, how corrupt much of fashion journalism was because there was kind of a pay-for-placement idea that things pretended to be editorial when, in reality, they were driven by adver-tisers.
There was this manufacturing of consent around a product. It wasn’t transparent that something was being sold to you. It came in the guise of this product being great, but in reality, the product was being pushed by an advertiser.
That felt shocking to me because in business journalism, at least in the old Time Inc. days, there wasn’t anything explicitly being sold. And yet, when I look back on it, I also feel that there was a worldview being sold that free markets were the right and American and ethical way to shape the world. We were all so indoctrinated in that that I don’t even think we knew what we were selling.
And yet, at the same time, the realities of the business world, like the blowup of Enron, would come along and expose problems in that that made it more difficult to sell a particular worldview. Even today, I think that there is a difference in how products are being sold, how politics are being sold, and how business is being sold.
Luigi: Yes and no. I don’t think that there is so much difference between product and business. If you are saying that there are some underlying religions that you cannot touch, I think that that’s absolutely true.
Now, these religions have changed, but that’s, to some extent, one of the points of Herman and Chomsky. At the time they were writing, anticommunism was the big religion, especially in the political view. If you were accused of even flirting with communist ideas, you were basically ex-cluded from all the newspapers altogether.
Today, it might be a different idea. It might be that if you challenge the vaccine, you are out in the cold. Your retweet will not be considered. You run for president, and you have, what, 20 per-cent of the support? Nobody talks about you.
We are old enough to remember Ross Perot. Everybody was talking about Ross Perot, and Ross Perot got less than 20 percent of the votes or roughly that amount. And even at a debate—remember, there was a debate with three candidates—we saw that. Do you think that Bob Kenne-dy will receive the same attention? No, because he’s violating one of the rules and he’s out.
Bethany: I think business still remains a little bit more pure. I think it always was, and I think it remains a little bit more pure even today, because even though some of us who, in the past, were business journalists were inculcated in this worldview of these things, reality would intercede on whatever we were selling in the form of a giant blowup that would be like, “Oh wait, oh wait, that is telling us something.”
I still think that’s true today, but maybe we need to put that over to the side and get back to the discussion of how ideas are sold and how politics are sold, because I think the cynicism is abso-lutely right in those areas.
I guess what I was trying to say is that some cynicism was probably warranted in the business world, but when things come along like the collapse of Enron or the financial crisis of 2008 or the blowup of FTX, all of a sudden, there’s this way in which reality intercedes on the narrative, or real-ity challenges the narrative that might be being sold. I still find, in some ways, even social media a little healthier in the business world than it might be in other areas, in that it allows contrary opin-ions to be out there in a way that I think is somewhat healthy. Am I explaining myself a little bit better now?
Luigi: I think you are, but that allows me to disagree more openly. I don’t think that the business world is better at all. You know who invented the advertorials, editorials that are paid for? Yeah, sure, the New York Times will tell you that they’re paid for, but for most people, you don’t see the difference. I think a lot of surveys suggest that most people don’t perceive the difference and make the New York Times—and I’m not picking on the New York Times, because the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post were all the same—very dependent on that money and influenced by that money.
All this was invented by Herbert Schmertz, who was the vice president for communication for Mobil—and by the way, since we’re talking about Kennedy, he was the guy who organized the po-litical campaigns for John Kennedy, Bob Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy.
He’s dead now, but he would be there to go for Bob Kennedy, Jr. This is somebody who is very political, but he used the same ideas to sell business. You know that he wanted to sell Mobil as the upper-class gasoline in the States and Porsche gasoline and sponsor fancy programs, TV programs, in the States in order to associate its name with that. I don’t see it as very different from the political arena.
Bethany: I still think that reality in the business world comes along and chal-lenges whatever preconceptions you might have or whatever you’re trying to sell in ways that are really uncomfortable and that don’t happen as organically in the political world.
In the political world, you can get away with selling a message that isn’t true for a really long time. In the business world, if you try to tell the story that Enron is great or that the financial in-dustry has everything under control, something comes along and challenges that view and blows it to smithereens every so often. So, I still stand by it, but I think it’s a small corner of what we’re talking about, so I don’t want to get hung up on it because overall, I think that your point is right.
Was there anything that Emily said in the interview that surprised you or that made you think differently about the influencer industry than you had thought before?
Luigi: Honestly, the part that interests me—and I understand that this is very parochial—is the impact it has on academia directly. The fashion industry, I’m sorry to say, was not a particularly clean industry to begin with, and it’s hard to make it worse, so I’m not losing my sleep over that. But I have seen over the course of my career a dramatic change.
Just to give you a sense, when I joined the University of Chicago, occasionally in the hall, they posted some articles from The Economist that were featuring some articles by econo-mists. And The Economist is not exactly popular media, but many of my colleagues were raising eyebrows, saying, “Oh, this is a bad thing, because it pushes people to actually seek publici-ty by trying to write articles that The Economist will endorse.”
Fast-forward 30 years, everybody is on Twitter. I discovered that a former colleague has a cap-sule. Do you know what a capsule is?
Bethany: No. What’s a capsule?
Luigi: It’s a mix and match of clothing products that you sell as a brand that you can use.
Bethany: Ah, I do know what that is.
Luigi: I’m glad because I just learned that for the occasion. Not only is she very popular writing books and et cetera, but she’s also entered the fashion business.
Bethany: Do you see this as a bad thing because it’s capitalizing on the rise of a personal brand, or do you see this as a good thing in that it allows something different within the fashion industry than what would have been possible before?
Luigi: Again, because I care more about the damage to economics than the benefits to the fashion industry, I am concerned about this, and I’m not concerned because you appear in a printed magazine promoting clothes. I am concerned for what I raised in the interview with Emily, the fact that if you want to have a brand, rule No. 1 of a brand is consistency. Con-sistency requires that you send the same message over and over and over again, and this is really antithetical to what good research is about.
Research is about proving others, but also yourself, wrong. That’s the way research makes pro-gress. And so, if you want to have a consistent message, you’re going to have, for sure, a consistent-ly wrong message. There is no way, as a researcher, you can have a consistently right message.
Bethany: That’s obviously happened in journalism, either concurrently, or perhaps slightly before it happened in academia, where the idea of having a personal brand be-came more and more important. I have always found it somewhat horrifying. I can’t tell if that’s just because I’m old-fashioned or if it’s because I’ve been incapable of thinking that way.
But it is dismaying on some level. I mentioned this when we were talking to Emily, but I think I stole it from a book called Quiet, which is about the value of introverts in an extrovert-ed world. She traced the rise of having a personality over having character to, I think, Dale Carne-gie and his emphasis in the 1920s and 1930s on developing a personality so that you could sell yourself. There’s something about that—and I’m struggling to put my finger on exactly what it is—that I have never liked. Maybe it’s just the introvert in me. I don’t know.
Luigi: I think you’re absolutely right. I think we should title this episode, “The Triumph of Personality Over Character.” But I want to be clear, I see a lot of benefits of social media because I do think that, for example, research can travel much faster. There is an exchange of ideas that is valuable. I just wish we had a different kind of social media, especially for research, because the one we have today, I don’t think that helps. At least, the benefits should be more than the costs they impose.
Bethany: Yeah, and I liked Emily’s idea about professionalism and standards, and I know a lot of listeners and a lot of people, given the distrust in the media today, are going to laugh at my assertion that there were standards, but there were, at least when I grew up at Time Inc. I started as a fact-checker, and there were these very specific things you had to do to make sure that every fact in the story was true, and that you, as the fact-checker, stood behind the over-all gist of the piece.
So, it wasn’t just that the individual facts were true. You had to stand behind the entire gist of the piece, and there was a system, one that involved different colored pens, and you put different little checks over where things came from. But nonetheless, there was a system, and more im-portantly, there was this sense of accountability that nothing could be published if it hadn’t been checked and if calls hadn’t been made to the people who might have a different point of view, or if you said something nasty about somebody, you would call them first.
And those were miserable calls to make, having to be the little junior fact-checker and having to call some executive and be like, “This is what we’re saying about you, would you like to re-spond?” But it forced a discipline on the process and an accountability and a transparency that I think is lacking today.
Luigi: I certainly wish there was more fact-checking, but I don’t think the so-lution is to enforce some norms or standards in the influencer world, in part because it is a way in which the incumbents are going to shape some rules to make it more difficult for others to enter the industry.
I think that the solution is to have an impact on the platforms themselves. One of the problems is that there is no space for an editorial service to prosper on any social media. I think I would buy an editorial service that filters news based on fact-checking, and I would pay a sufficient fee for that.
Unfortunately, it is precisely social media that don’t allow anyone to have this service in place, because they don’t allow interoperability; they don’t allow somebody to get between me and the platform. I think that regulation should take place in that direction to create this space, because we desperately need stuff that is fact-checked.
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