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The Anxiety of Influencers

How to gain followers and influence people: TikTok superstars and the perils of our algorithm-driven society

According to Hollywood legend, director Mervyn LeRoy “discovered” Lana Turner when she was sixteen, at the soda counter of Schwab’s Pharmacy in Los Angeles. While the tale is apocryphal, the notion that anyone could be a star motivated untold hordes of youths to go west for decades afterward. (Let’s be honest: most of them turned out like the “grotesques” of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.) So is it so surprising that, according to a 2019 poll, 54 percent of Americans between the ages of thirteen and thirty-eight say they would become social-media influencers if given the chance? For the June issue of Harper’s Magazine, Barrett Swanson spent five days at a TikTok collab house: a plush Los Angeles mansion, funded by two Silicon Valley investors, where a group of conventionally beautiful, college-aged influencers lived rent-free, tasked only with posting videos of themselves for their millions of followers. Yet, as sultry as this sounds, Swanson found that these young men struggled with anxiety, depression, and an inability to think critically about the forces driving them to generate content. The pressure to please, gain followers, and get good ratings is creeping into all of our lives, regardless of industry. (Even doctors get star ratings now.) In this episode, Swanson joins Harper’s web editor Violet Lucca to discuss the alternately surreal and sad reality of life inside of the collab house; the pressures of the “passion economy”; algorithms; and the critical thinking and digital literacy that everyone—not just the young—are sorely lacking.

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