Language is a flowing river, and our individual words are carried along in the current. Some meanings float along the surface, slowly morphing with time, while others remain lodged in the riverbed, unchanging for generations. Sometimes, though, a word that had been static for centuries suddenly breaks free and rushes to the top, changing more in a month than it did in the previous millennium. So it is with the word “influencer”.
Five years ago, this now prestigious celebrity of a word was just another dusty note in the dictionary. Back then, people were still bending over backwards (sometimes literally) to be described as an “idol”. But idols are old news. Now we want to be influencers with blue tick marks beside our names and a hundred thousand followers – or more, if we can get them. For some, the motivation to build a big platform is primarily about gaining personal fame and the money that follows it. Others genuinely want to impact the world for good, and don’t care about the rest. Either way, bigger is better: why not try to impact as many people as possible? The bigger the platform, the bigger the reach for the message we’re offering. The logic is as irrefutable as it is incomplete.
It’s true that bigger platforms reach more people. Of course they do. But this truth is so glaringly obvious that it hides a shift in what we mean by “reach”. Yes, the long arms of the internet have the potential to reach into homes and phones across the globe with whatever we’ve said in front of a video camera or typed into a keyboard. Imagine that! It’s so incredible that it’s easy to miss the fact that as the arms stretch out, they get thinner. A celebrity’s digital arms may reach a thousand times further, but the words of a good friend with their real arm around our shoulder will sink deeper into our hearts than the words of a thousand celebrities. A mother who spends years in the constant company of a few small people may barely register on a comparative scale of global influence, and yet the depth of her influence with those few little ones is beyond measuring. Long after the celebrities have been traded in for newer models, she will still be deeply impacting her grandchildren.
The point is this: we don’t have to be “influencers” to influence. In fact, we can reach the people close to us in ways even the biggest influencers will never be able to reach them, no matter how many times they show up on the other side of a screen. It’s not bad to have wide influence. Many have used such platforms for good. But if our quest for longer, thinner arms makes us forget to use our shorter, real arms for the sake of the people close to us, it will be a terrible trade-off.