Why Worry About Social Media?
A beauty and lifestyle influencer with over 500K followers on YouTube, Jordan Cheyenne, abruptly deleted her channel in 2021 after mistakenly uploading a clip of her coaching her son to cry for the camera after their dog died.
The video was meant to be edited, instead her viewers watched as she coached her son:
“C’mere, come closer for the video, come closer! Put your head right here. Act like you’re crying.”
“I am crying!” her son’s response, “No mama, I’m actually seriously crying.”
Cheyenne responded: “No, I know, but go like this. For the video. Put your hand like this. But let them see your mouth. Let them see your mouth!” (Toofab)
Understandably, the clip went ‘viral’ and viewers responded with distaste. Many expressed concerns about the child’s mental and emotional wellbeing, and this backlash led to Cheyenne temporarily stepping away from her channel. Several months later she began uploading videos again with promises to keep her child off camera.
While we rightly express disgust at this kind of behavior, when we embark to create any kind of online presence or utilize and consume social media we take part in the same system that creates accounts like Jordan Cheyenne’s. Online platforms like social media lend themselves to an extreme commodification of self where creators view their lives and personhood through a lens of marketability.
Self Commodification and Its Pitfalls
Commodification refers to viewing something as a product – an item that can be bought or sold. When we talk of ‘self-commodification’ we’re talking about how personality can be used to sell ideas and products. Instead of marketing an item, we’re selling a personal brand or personality. Tom Peters, business author and speaker says, “We are CEOs of our own companies: Me, Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is head marketer for the brand called You” (Davis). The familiar idea of a ‘personal brand’ permeates much of the influencer culture that we observe online.
This type of ‘personal branding’ gets presented as a way to ‘escape the 9-5’ and the perpetual ‘rat race’ of capitalist America. It sounds empowering. Many of us have daydreamed about becoming influencers, podcasting, or creating a YouTube channel like the people we see online. Many of these influencers exist with a sort of ‘mini fame’ that appears glamorous and exciting. It sounds thrilling to have people tuning in to listen to your thoughts, or to have different brands willing to pay you to endorse them.
Unfortunately far less spoken of, personal branding also comes with the temptation to view the self as a product or commodity. It also creates a temptation for those consuming content to view creators in this manner. Any attempt to reduce human beings to commodities in this way inevitably creates harm in the lives of both creators and consumers.
We see this most clearly in cases like Jordan Cheyenne’s, where the line between person and ‘brand’ blurred so closely they became indistinguishable. Cheyenne’s livelihood became her life, and what her viewers witnessed resulted from an extreme commodification of her existence. When your personality becomes your livelihood, as it did for Cheyenne, you end up making each moment of your day ‘marketable’. Everything is content. In her case, the personal nature of the moment was caught up in the whirlwind of marketable, ‘relatable’ content creation. There is no doubt that the family experienced previous vulnerable moments that turned into opportunities to increase engagement with an audience.
While touted as a convenient path to empowerment and freedom from the traditional workweek, creating a personal brand can end up consuming more time and attention or replacing personality altogether. “To be successful at Me. Inc, my traits, values, beliefs, and so on—the qualities by which I locate myself and where I stand—must be self-consciously adopted or discarded, emphasized or de-emphasized, according to the abstract and competitive standards of the market” (Davis). In other words, personal branding requires us to accentuate or downplay certain aspects of our personality for the sake of market appeal. This naturally impacts our sense of self, and our ‘best self’. Perhaps, we even begin to define ourselves by our personal ‘marketability’. More time spent on personal marketing equals more effort exerted in commodifying the personality.
Instead of creating the desired sense of stability by ‘escaping the 9-5’, investing in “Me Inc” creates an environment where livelihood wraps itself up with identity, belief, personality, and beauty and becomes dependent on them. Rather than promoting the virtues of a product we must promote the virtues of a person. The person must retain their usefulness to others in order to stay relevant. “Since the market is never static, staying ‘relevant’ like the great brands means that these qualities [personality, and sense of self] must be constantly monitored and adjusted to retain the desired image” (Davis). Fears of becoming ‘irrelevant’, ‘too old’ or of having controversial ‘unmarketable’ beliefs (adherence to a political party, religious views, or parenting philosophy, for example) occupy the mind and can influence the suppression of not just ideas, but of a person’s unique personality as a whole. The more time one spends creating content, and the more moments of a person’s life become content, the more extreme the self-commodification.
Generation Z and the Draw to Social Media
The sheer amount of young people who desire careers in social media should signal to us just how alluring the world of self-branding appears on the surface. Some estimates from surveys indicate that as many as 25% of Gen Z wish to become influencers of some kind (Langdon). This indicates that a quarter of a generation desires to make their livelihoods by turning their lives, thoughts, or expertise into content. This should concern us, as we know from observing Hollywood that those in the position of entertainer often struggle deeply and profoundly. Social media turns us all into entertainers and performers by creating an environment where we competitively seek to capture viewers’ brief attention for personal gratification, gain, or validation.
How does such a generation, enamored with the position of influencer, go about understanding their place in society and the world? In the past we could look at our skills or character, things we develop and nurture, to understand our place in the world and immediate community. In the digital age, we’re tempted to view ourselves through the lens of commodity and marketability. How appealing am I to other people? Not only so, how appealing am I to others within 2-3 seconds of them viewing my face for the first time? How can my personality appeal to others in a compelling way that makes them want to hear more of what I have to say? How can I change in order to be most appealing and marketable? These questions may disproportionately plague Gen Z, but they are also the questions that plague anyone who creates a personal online presence.
The fast-paced nature of social media and internet platforms often distracts us from evaluating their pitfalls. While we’re quick to notice the extreme instances of self-commodification in people like Jordan Cheyenne, we’re far less likely to notice when we personally step into dangerous territory. Self-commodification is both an online marketing necessity and a slow creep. Without appropriate boundaries, and an appropriate sense of the self as defined by God’s image, we risk falling slowly into the same pit as Cheyenne where content becomes life and life becomes commodity.
The Basis of Human Dignity and Worth
Written by STC educator Renee Beamer
A Few Works Cited, Well Studied since 2003. For More Research Visit http://4×8.96d.myftpupload.com/articles
Davis, Joseph E. “The Commodification of Self.” The Hedgehog Review, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, 2003, https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/the-commodification-of-everything/articles/the-commodification-of-self.
Langdon, Scott. “Gen Z and the Rise of Influencer Culture (Research Study).” HigherVisibility, 27 Oct. 2022, https://www.highervisibility.com/ppc/learn/gen-z-and-the-rise-of-influencer-culture/
“YouTuber Deletes Channel after Accidentally Posting Outtake Forcing Son to Cry over Dying Dog.” Toofab, Toofab, 14 Sept. 2021, https://toofab.com/2021/09/14/youtuber-deletes-channel-after-accidentally-posting-outtake-forcing-son-to-cry-over-dying-dog/