Last week, I did the unthinkable. I broke my cardinal rule of being a columnist and became an old curmudgeon.
When I was a kid, I used to read newspapers and bristle at their columnists. Why? Because I'd invariably run into some old fuddy-duddy trying and failing to understand youth culture. Every week, I'd read how I was somehow taking life for granted, or that I didn't know how to communicate, or that my driving sucked.
For the past 25 years, I've been lucky enough to have had a front-row seat to the newspaper industry, and I know how important it is to get younger generations to read, enjoy, and engage with our products. And a good way to NOT do that is to fill pages with some crusty Andy Rooney-type telling them they don't know anything.
I swear, half the reason I wanted to be a columnist was out of spite over the clueless columnists of yore. I vowed to be the voice of the younger generation.
There's just one problem with that — no matter how much I may try to deny it, none of us stay part of the younger generation forever. I'm now the voice of a boring middle-aged generation, and more often than I care to admit, sometimes we don't understand youth culture.
Last week, I spent a whole column trying and failing to appreciate TikTok, a phone app that seems endlessly entertaining to anyone under 30 and endlessly stupid to the rest of us.
Even though I might not fully understand today's kids, I hope I'm still a few years away from full-on Andy Rooneying. But while I'm on a roll, I may as well dip my toes in the curmudgeonly sea one last time and tell you about another thing I simply don't understand.
My overall plan for world domination is clearly going slower than anticipated, but should I ever find myself sitting on the Iron Throne in judgment of the entire world, I'm pretty sure I know who would be first to go when my revolution comes: anyone who states without shame or embarrassment that their occupation is social media influencer. Second to go would be anyone who's actually influenced by these people.
I'm still not quite sure what it means to be a "social media influencer," but I think it works like this: You join Instagram and YouTube and TikTok and amass a ton of likes and online followers. If you get a big enough audience, eventually companies will pay you to shill their products. Just like that, geeking out on Facebook is now your CAREER.
Some social media stars become full-on celebrities despite not having done anything worth celebrating. And now that big business has realized it can make a buck off these amateur celebrities, the internet's become full of phony pitchmen posting infomercials disguised as entertainment.
For a while, I regularly followed an Ohio family that boasts over a million subscribers to their YouTube channel. Almost every day, they'd post a fairly amusing video of their daily adventures. It was fun and endearing to watch this average family achieve internet fame by basically just being themselves, and all the while the overall message was positive and uplifting. You couldn't be in a bad mood while watching their videos.
But over the past year, things changed a bit. They'd never admit it publicly, but it's fairly clear they've grown sick of the schtick. Honestly, who could blame them? Filming original content and doing something entertaining every single day has to wear on you with time. Their once-daily videos became weekly, and now sometimes they go weeks without posting.
But no one in their family holds actual jobs. Their income depends entirely on their online sponsorships and merchandising. So now, whenever they do post a new video, you can almost guarantee a sponsor has mandated it. How can you tell? Because the product placement in the videos has become obvious and awkward.
They still film themselves goofing around, but now it always includes some cringe-worthy scene like, "Hey, guys, before we head out today, we should replenish with a glass of Vitafuel! Mmm, that Vitafuel sure is tasty and healthy!"
When you know the only reason they're uploading videos is to earn a buck, it takes the fun out of the whole thing. I'm half expecting them to introduce their new neighbors, Flo from Progressive and Vince the Sham-Wow Guy.
Yet somehow these social media influencers remain popular, presumably because they're actually influencing people, and that's scary. If you've ever bought something because some YouTuber told you to, seek help immediately.
The list of "influencers" in my life is short: Mom and Dad Brown (although don't ever tell them I admitted to it). The author Douglas Adams. Monty Python's Flying Circus. Chris Lagrow, who taught me how to DJ. The Columbia House tape club, which showed me a world of music beyond what I was hearing on the radio. A few friends. A couple of teachers. A co-worker or two. Nary one Kardashian in the mix.
I'm not slighting advertising one bit. Advertising pays my bills. Consumers need to know about new products, and new businesses need a way to get their message out. But when you're living in a mansion and demanding VIP treatment because you wore a watch in an Instagram photo, I'm pretty sure I hate you.
Maybe social media influencers aren't awful corporate shills. Maybe I'm just jealous. After all, I've had this corner of newspaper real estate for over a decade, and I've never used it to plug a product for personal gain. Maybe the younger generation is smarter than I thought.
I'll be sure to contemplate that, right after I enjoy this ice-cold Coca-Cola. Yes, nothing satisfies you at the end of a column like a crisp refreshing Coca-Cola. Mmm, Coke is it! (Make check payable to me.)