Desperation, Inc: how “influence” means nothing if you don’t have any


Last night I went to two parties, and at one point I had a lot of mayonnaise in my beard from a sandwich—it resembled semen. Now, I don’t make a point to get stuff in my beard, but it happens, and I wipe it away and let it go. Then I glide through the party, wearing my finest frock, sing-talking to colleagues while animated birds flutter around me. Except, I don’t do this, obviously. (The mayonnaise part was real, and hello.)

Standing and wiping is when I make my best observations because I can listen and think during chews. Eating is the best time for thinking, especially when there is a room full of people you don’t understand. If a thought bubble is large, chew longer.

The types of people who get dressed up for corporate-sponsored parties are varied, and range from monied consumers to wallflower writers to social climbers. Mostly people are attending for free drinks and canapé, and if they’re lucky, a gift bag. As someone who attends these things semi-irregularly, I can say that gift bags are always a great bonus (I mean, adoy, everyone likes free stuff), so I was pretty pleased to receive a tissue box with a baby chick on it  last night. Because, duh, there’s a baby chick on it.

The social class is an interesting species—anyone with a blog, Twitter account, napkin and a Sharpie or pulse can feel entitled to be at any event. Some people even bandy about descriptors like “journalist” and “editor,” without any real-life experience doing either (you know the type). I spoke with several event planners last night, armed with the question, “what makes someone an “influencer.”” I asked because it is something I am truly interested in. “Influencer” programs have become a quick and easy way to ensure numbers at an event, so I can see why it is an approach that marketing companies employ, but I was curious to know what makes someone influential, and is this influence even substantial? And does it matter?

The consensus from marketers was this: there isn’t a way to really know.

And my observation was this: anyone can be an influencer, even me.

It became increasingly clear to me that being influential is something that can be, and is, willed. Since event planners plot their guest list strategies through word of mouth, or acknowledging their own insights as to who makes the perfect guest, being a persona—and a very public one—has become very important.

Which is why desperation has become the calling card du jour of the aspiring upper-middle class. Last night, I watched as people strained to double kiss with every Tom, Dick and Harry who would open up their cheeks for lips. If I waited long enough, they likely would have blown each other. Now, networking isn’t a new thing by any means, but I’d argue the fake laughter has gone up a couple of octaves, and the answers to “what are you doing?” have become infinitely less interesting. People seem more concerned about documenting their many events with their many close friends contacts, over saying things worth hearing. In Toronto, where I live, we’re short an Edith Wharton and Sinclair Lewis. Even idle gossip has become mundane. I say this, because media industries are insular, and everyone really does know everyone in media. The stories are all the same, until there’s a tidbit—a morsel of gossip that was never really a secret. As Kate Carraway once pointed out, we aren’t a Gawker-style town, which is a shame. As much as I’d like to be the Gretchen Weiners of Toronto media, I have the exact same information about the people in the industry that everyone else does. This isn’t because every person is dying to confide in me—it is because, in some ways, people want you to know what they are doing when they are doing it. It keeps them public, which keeps them “influential,” even if they are actually the most boring fucking people on Earth.

But this idle chit chat, as boring as it might be to me, also keeps gossip/society columnists in business—this symbiotic relationship between desperate social climber and reporter is, after all, how social columnists like Derek Blasberg and Shinan Govani even have jobs. Their friends feed them tidbits, so mainstream papers can feed the readers pablum. It is the pablum that creates a “society” of “movers and shakers.”  Unfortunately, this desperation has lead to the skewing of lines, because the perception has become that everyone is moving and shaking, as long as they are moving.

And because popularity is now the byproduct of bought followers, impressions and clicks, having a boldface name isn’t the only way to be a thing. If you tweet enough, glean enough, boost enough, do drugs enough, have sex enough, quip enough or eat enough, you can receive the coveted title of influential V.V.V.V.V.V.V.I.P. I remember when V.I.P. was the title of a show and actually meant something to me. Personally, I’ll always be “influenced” or “engaged” by people who have something thoughtful or funny to say about an event, a product, or an idea. I may not even agree with the person talking, but I’ll at least take something away from what I’ve read. I am not inspired by someone’s reach. I don’t have a system where I believe people with 3000 followers or more. And I don’t agree with everything my friends say, just because we have common interests. So, if everyone can be influential, and it is something that can’t truly be measured, I fail to see it as viable currency.

In a way, I see this culture of hunger being a good thing, because it means that people are hoping to achieve something, somehow. But when endless transactional handshakes and air kisses translate to re-purposed press releases and guarded reporting, I wonder who the real influencer is—the writer-personality or the marketer.

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