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Relevance: What does it mean today?

November 19, 2018

 I've been thinking a lot about relevance lately. What does it mean to be "relevant" and how is one's relevance determined? We hear often how artists, entertainers try new things and push boundaries in order to "stay relevant." But for the rest of us, how does it play into our own lives? Is someone who has a Big Title at a Big Company more relevant to and in society than a parent who has chosen to stay home and raise their kids? Who decides their relevance? The parameters defining it seem to keep shifting. When I was growing up, the word relevance never seem to come up in relation to who I was as a human being, as a contributing member of society. As I entered the professional world, my guiding force wasn't a sense of whether I was "relevant" but more about working hard towards my goal, continuously growing and perfecting my craft as a journalist, and fully believing that my work should speak for itself. My "relevance" was based purely on the fact that I was earning credibility and trust by continuing to do meaningful work, and that perseverance and dedication were what I needed to justify my position and subsequent promotions. That doesn't seem to be the case today. Today, relevance is determined by factors beyond our control, algorithms, and subjective opinions from an unknown entity known as "followers".

 

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines relevance as "the degreeto which something is relatedor usefulto what is happeningor being talkedabout." In my early days as a young professional, relevance mainly consisted of the first two, where something isrelatedor usefulto what is happening. Today, the primary definition seems to be more focused on what is being talked about, or perhaps more accurately, who.  And more often, I am finding, who or what we are talking about isn't of any real importance to our lives but more about those things that appeal to our baser instincts, the parts of ourselves that aren't there to help us grow or become better people, rather the things that unleash in us our fears, our insecurities both which take in the form of ridicule, jealousy, envy, and shame. Perhaps what exacerbates those instincts is some elements of social media.

 

It seems there is a war going on in the cyber world, one fighting for our attention, support, and loyalty. If we were to look at what seems to be relevant or deemed relevant in our lives today based on what/who is "being talked about", our life would be defined by Donald Trump, endless dissection of tweets, "reality" television (I use quotations because I really can't see how what is being shown on television in those shows as reality, dramatised reality perhaps), and a lot of women feeling the need to show their shapes in order to gain attention and admiration. Perhaps the maven of this era is Kim Kardashian. Last month she told her sisters, “It could be time for a fashion overhaul, so that you stay young and relevant.” And therein lies this strange vortex of voyeurism and consumerism that many seem to be following, one that is chasing that need to be "talked about". Tentacles of thisvortex reach the areas of life that have the ability to impact our lives socially and politically.

 Through her position of social media relevance, she has been able to gain the attention of the highest post in the U.S. government, that of the President. By having access to him she managed to convince President Trump to overturn a sentencefor a woman, Alice Marie Johnson, who had been serving life in prison for a non-violent drug conviction. An honourable use of her acquired relevance but it does beg the question: why was her voice deemed more important and worthy of attention instead of others, such as lawyers, human rights organisations, civil liberties groups? Granted, celebrities often use their fame to raise awareness for those who don't have an opportunity to use their own voice, but why is one's relevance today determined by notoriety and not nobility? Why is our worthiness of attention and opportunity determined by PR and not proof of our abilities?

 

A while ago, one of my dearest friends, an actress in Los Angeles, told me about how an agent had asked her how many Twitter/Instagram followers she had. My friend tells me that she hears industry people talk about it all the time, that the number of followers an actor or a television host has is a factor in considering them for parts or jobs, instead of their actual ability to deliver in a role or a show. It's as if that number is the calling card to get someone a job or a position. Perhaps that is the modern day way of hustling. It's this generation's way of getting themselves noticed in an ever-increasingly competitive world. Admittedly, It's not easy to build a following online, organically. It takes time, consistency, and commitment to your brand and we are all "brands" today. You are trying to appeal to an audience that can change its mind in a millisecond, a click away. There is an underlying belief within social media of "if you build it, they will come." Yet building a following without a strong foundation is like building a house on quicksand. A strong foundation is one that is built through learning, experience, and awareness, all of which contribute to longevity. No one is denying the ingenuity it takes to build a career based on followers. It takes a deep understanding of who we are as consumers, whether we are teenagers or old age pensioners. But unfortunately, for some, it's about selling themselves as cheaply as possible in order to gain notoriety quickly and that magic number where you can be seen as an "influencer". Question is, if that's how you're building your audience what exactly are you using your influence towards? And even a hefty following doesn't mean trust or credibility. After all, if you can buy a following(which, surprisingly, is actively done even by some of the biggest brands in the world), how legitimate are you?

 

 Instagram has become the breeding ground for those who are looking to build a career and association with name brands. The higher the following and engagement (engagement is determined by how many times users like or comment on your post), the greater the chance of getting noticed, and the more you can charge per post. The value of influencer marketing has more than doubled in 2018 from where it was last year. According to PR Weekwho quoted Statista.com, "the size of the global Instagram influencer market is set to grow to $2.38bn next year" compared to $1.07bn in 2017. Unfortunately, that growth is tarnished with increasing reports of how people, who are deemed influencers, are defrauding brands who hire them by manipulating and falsely advertising their genuine following, not to mention their engagement rate. The social media marketing company The Social Chain Groupfound that of the 10,000 influencers they audited, "influencers who are frequently called upon by brands and agencies in social media campaigns...more than one in four of influencers have engaged in this type of manipulation or fraud." Again, it begs the question, does notoriety through having a following, being an "influencer", have more credibility than someone who has built a following by becoming an expert at their chosen field, through learning their craft, getting the experience beyond their four walls, and then really being able to influence an opinion because they truly understand what it takes to have a trusted voice?

 

Richard Williams, known as Prince Ea, is a filmmaker and spoken word artist, whose Youtube channel has over 2.7 million subscribers. He describes his channel as being a place where "people laugh, cry, think, and love with the ultimate goal to evolve." The wide-ranging topics from confidence to the search for perfection, intermixed with comedic videos garnered him Black Enterprise's Social Influencer of the Year Award at their inaugural Black Tech Awards. Upon accepting the award he said, “That word ‘influencer’ is interesting to me because it’s like we’re influencing people to do what, right? A lot of people call themselves ‘social media influencers’ but you’re influencing people to do what? Is it to reach a level of beauty that is not attainable naturally? Is it to have people lust after cars or material objects that will never bring somebody true happiness?” He went on to say, “When you get pulled over and you’re drunk they say ‘you’re under the influence.’ A lot of people are intoxicated by what these influencers put out there. When you get sick what do they say? ‘You’ve come down with influenza.’ A lot of people are ill because of what what these influencers put out there. So I just have one question for every influencer, because we’re allinfluencers, and that question is: when people come to your page, do they walk away better or worse?”

 

 Sharing that sentiment is Jameela Jamil who told the BBCearlier this year, "We have to unfollow people who make us feel bad about ourselves and who promote unrealistic lifestyles and body standards on the internet." In an interviewwith Channel 4 in the UK, The Good Place actress called the Kardashians out by saying they're acting like a "double agent for the patriarchy" because they were selling appetite-suppressing lollipops.  Jamil would go on to say, "You're selling us an ideal, a body shape, a problem with our wrinkles, a problem with ageing, a problem with gravity, a problem with any kind of body fat. You're selling us self-consciousness. The same poison that made you clearly develop some sort of body dysmorphia or facial dysmorphia, you are now pouring back into the world. You're recycling hatred."

 

 

At the end of the day we are all complicit. Large companies with a long history feel the need to stay current and in order for them to do so, they will tap into the resources found in social media. That in of itself isn't the issue. The issue lies in influencer marketing where the influencer who is paid thousands of dollars to be associated with this massive brand, isn't credible, trusted, or even has a story of their own to share, one that people can relate to and with whom they feel a connection. When Nike hired the American football player Colin Kaepernick to front its latest ad campaignafter Kaepernick took a stand (by kneeling) against police brutality, they hired someone who had a story, someone who believed in something strongly enough to risk his entire athletic career. Kaepernick is an influencer because he used his stage, the football field, to make a statement against what was happening to African Americans in his country. Regardless of his social media following, he defined influence.  And it paid off. Nike made $6billionfor making that smart decision to go with credibility.

 

When Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about," he was talking through a man, Lord Henry, who was a hedonist, someone who believed in giving in to temptation regardless of the cost to one's soul. Is that what it takes to be relevant today? See in my mind, relevance is for someone who is using their voice, their talent, their experience, their work, for the betterment of life. Their's is an influence worthy of following.[/expand]

 

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