The age of the influencer
One African feminist's view on how social media clout chasing has stalled progressive politics.
Let’s face it. Social media is built for show offs. People who feel no way about rebranding themselves as the avant garde of a movement they spend almost no time giving unscripted or unselfied labor to. People who are happy to be their own PR machine and remind us endlessly about how enviable they are, how many influential people they are able to squeeze into the frame of their smartphone cameras, how well their book/product/blog/hair is doing and that they are #grateful for the follows, reminding you that they are, like all people with followers… the leader.
They may not have been show offs at birth, but the social engineers of contemporary online culture have succeeded in tapping into that deep narcissistic place in the soul and here we are—hashtagging random expensive pleasures as feminist #selfcare, Instagramming the inane minutiae of our daily routines, and self-promoting the hell out of life.
We are not really sure how they came to represent us, but there they are speaking about us (or is it for us?) on Africa policy platforms, mingling at events with dubious heads of state and other representatives of the ruling patriarchy and requesting us to “like” it because, well, proximity to mainstream power. Their citational practice is slick though. The dead and the far older make their appearances, but so do smart swerves to avoid citing anyone of their generation lest they get noticed and win out in the Top ten leading Africans under… lists they have sought permanent residency on. It helps if you are good looking. People do after all have to stare at your face all day, in selfie after selfie talking, apparently, about the inner workings of capitalist patriarchy or Africa’s continued epistemic colonization. The deluge of online information also helps, because while some claim that the internet never forgets we know that it really does forget. Exhibit A: that impassioned Twitter thread that absolutely contradicts the position you just took in a show down with another influencer you think is stealing your shine.
Well so what, I suppose. I mean, we only live once. So might as well insist that the world knows you are the best thing since instant fufu. (In fact the resemblance is striking. Someone else has done a lot of the labor—the “grind”—but you probably won’t credit them, and we won’t ask either).
So what. Except that this push, in our activist and literary spaces in particular, is gradually squeezing all those who prefer the considered, the less “spectacular,” the inquisitive, the community-led, to the corners of the room.
Worse still, several recent conversations that I have had with African activists and creatives suggests that the over-occupation of space by “influencers” is starting to undermine people’s sense that their deep, engaged and un-self(ie)oriented work is “worth it.” As one person reflected “I used to think that if you just did the important work, it would be noticed.” Another commented how the community of women who taught them everything they know about brave activism don’t matter to the world anymore. Their working class realities are un-marketable in this new opulent culture of influence. Just last week, an older feminist shared with shock about how unsisterly she found the new wave of activist influencers—impatient, confident yet also self-absorbed, and it seems unable to handle the generosity required to build flesh and blood community. The once hallowed space of #afrifem online activism has become in some recent moments its own space of salty remarks and ungracious exchanges. The residues of those battles leave many feeling like a precious collective space for African feminists is slowly being undone.
In all this hullabaloo, what are the quiet ones, the introverts, the communitarians, the beyond-the- surface observers to do? Where and how do we find the space for the deep-thinking and collective thinking that our activism and our imaginations so desperately need? How do we re-constitute our sense of who is valid to listen to? When do we start to flip the camera back around? Or even, put it down?
Some say online culture will inevitably transition. Narcissism, forever seeking but never really finding its own proverbial echo, will fall into the mythical water, and drown. I say that may be so, but in the meantime it is time to devote ourselves again to re-embrace the offline—that leveling reality when we meet face to face with no stage in between, and realize that we can’t let our egos cast their shadows so far. We need to cite again, to read at depth again, and to critique again—not as territorial defense but as a commitment to the rigor that our visions and practices of freedom absolutely require. While privilege is, apparently, under scrutiny in our new “intersectional” everything, we could do better at questioning our own and that of the hierarchies of value we have begun to accept in terms of whose voice matters.
In fact, let’s do this people. Let’s get the collective, self-reflexive, community-serving back #ontrend.