#ProfessorsofTikTok: Influencer Culture Is Everywhere — Even in Academia

Lambert here: “Even”? I wonder which way the causality really runs here.

By Brooke Erin Duffy, an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University. Cross-posted from Alternet.

The number of prefixes one can affix to “-fluencer” knows no bounds. Among the “side hustle” hyphenates making headlines in recent weeks: pharma-influencers, ag-influencers, doctor-TikTokers, and fin-fluencers (a portmanteau of financial advisor and influencer). By some accounts, these professionals-turned-internet personalities are fulfilling a laudable public service mission. More often, they are denigrated as shallow, performative, and — at times — unscrupulous.

Such narratives confirm the wider public’s contempt for social media self-promotion and the career exemplars it has born: YouTubers, TikTokers, Instagrammers, and the like. Influencers are especially vulnerable to “stars-behaving-badly-esque” fame-shaming, replete with barely concealed gender bias. It’s not incidental that pop culture’s caricature of the influencer—the one shilling products at Coachella, demanding comped meals, and preening for her Instagram boyfriend—is unequivocally feminine. But instead of mocking those with the pluck and luck to fashion a career on social media, we might fruitfully turn the critical focus on our own activities.

Several years ago, while writing a book on social media labor, I noticed how the accounts furnished by aspiring YouTubers and Instagrammers resonated deeply with my experiences as a then-junior academic. These social media hopefuls had an acutely perceived need to remain “on brand” and an unabashed pursuit of metrics. As an academic, this felt all too familiar. Their media kit was my tenure dossier, except “likes” and “views” were swapped out for Google Scholar citations and h-indexes–two indices of our “impact.” I felt compelled to be eminently visible — not unlike the pressures on influencers to “game” the algorithms or ratchet up their engagement.

In the persistent wake of the pandemic, the pressure for scholars to self-promote has only intensified. Starved for opportunities to share our latest findings at in-person conferences, we take to Twitter, Instagram, or perhaps our email signature to hype our new books and articles. Some have even joined the ranks of #ProfessorsofTikTok or more discipline specific communities like #twitterstorians.

These social media hopefuls had an acutely perceived need to remain “on brand” and an unabashed pursuit of metrics. As an academic, this felt all too familiar.

Of course, the directive to self-promote extends well beyond academia. Earlier this year, after Steven Perlberg chronicled the ascent of “influencer-journalists,” a fierce debate broke out on Twitter. And it seems that nary a week goes by without a business feature prodding executives to burnish their self-brands-albeit authentically.

The question then, is why so many of us feel compelled to emulate influencer practices—even while wringing our hands about it.

Labor precarity is, for many, a driving impetus. To be sure, the uncertainty we glibly associate with work in the era of COVID was set into motion well before March 2020. But the pandemic exacerbated job insecurity as employers hemorrhaged resources and social safety nets went from fraying to threadbare. Widespread unemployment has been compounded by a continued gig-ification of nearly all professional sectors, including higher education. The side hustle as a strategy of risk containmentnamely staving off unemployment—makes sense in this context.

But crude labor market statistics tell only part of the story. Changes wrought by work-from-home culture — especially the demand to be “always on” and mechanisms of surveillance from the metonymic “algorithmic boss” — have prompted a rising tide of worker dissatisfaction. Given the state of the conventional labor market in my students’ lifetimes, it’s no small wonder that these so-called Gen Zers find the bootstrapping career of a YouTuber or live-streamer much more appealing than a proverbial 9-to-5. The lure is less about unadulterated fame than we give them credit for. More often, they desire the autonomy and flexibility that a self-enterprising career promises—if only superficially.

For those gainfully employed, the quest for social media visibility likely has a different impetus, namely claim-staking in our expert domains. Both misinformation and disinformation are rampant online, and declining trust in public institutions is both a symptom and consequence of this din. Expert-influencers — particularly in the realms of medicine, science, and health — are thus important arbiters within decentralized knowledge networks. While the efforts of digitally enabled thought leaders may be in the lofty spirit of public engagement, they are also in thrall to employer- and funder-demands. Jefferson Pooley has, for instance, described how academia is increasingly configured by a “‘metric tide’ imposed from above,” by which he means that the obsession with metrics that signify engagement has trickled down from employers to employees.

But crucially, academic researchers and scientists who “put themselves out there” are — much like influencers — ready-made targets for criticism, hate, and harassment. As Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, the thin line between visibility and vulnerability is particularly tenuous for women, scholars of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Perhaps not surprisingly given his questionable history, members of marginalized communities are especially daunted by Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter, a platform that, as Jean Burgess recently argued, is an “essential infrastructure for journalists and academics.”

The incessant push to be visible has another catalyst, too — one that far too often fades into the background: the charge from platform companies. These companies, which harness the content and free labor of users under the guise of connectivity, depend on experts, educators, and entertainers in various domains. And so, the more the corporate mouthpieces of Meta and TikTok compel us to orchestrate influencer-level self-promotion campaigns, the more data and attention they have in their arsenals. As Nancy Baym compellingly argues in her book on labor and promotion in the music industry, “the money in social media flows between sites’ owners, investors, and advertisers” much more than between creators and audiences.

It’s easy to blame glib narcissism for a marketing-orientation that has configured nearly every professional domain (yes, even religion). And there are no doubt individuals seduced by the glittering promise of social media fame. Naive exuberance may distract them from the rigged nature of the creator economy, including staggering social inequity. But more often, the charge to social media promotionalism is imposed upon us and appears, to many, to be the best worst option for exposure, opportunity, and meaningful engagement.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. digi_owl

      Well Hollywood has been marketing war almost since the day they got started, so maybe…

      1. Stick'em

        The Dept of Defense/CIA edits the scripts for thousands of Hollywood movies and TV shows. New documentary called Theater of War dropped May 5th discusses this propaganda process:


        “If you’ve seen Top Gun or Transformers, you may have wondered: Does all of that military machinery on screen come with strings attached? Does the military actually get a crack at the script? With the release of a vast new trove of internal government documents, the answers have come into sharp focus: the US military has exercised editorial control over thousands of films and television programs.

        Propelled into a field trip across America, media professor Roger Stahl engages an array of other researchers, bewildered veterans, PR insiders, and industry producers willing to talk. In unsettling detail, he discovers how the military and CIA have pushed official narratives while systematically scrubbing scripts of war crimes, corruption, racism, sexual assault, coups, assassinations, and torture.

        From The Longest Day to Lone Survivor, Iron Man to Iron Chef, and James Bond to Jack Ryan, the deliberate creation of this other “cinematic universe” is one of the great PR coups of our time. As these activities gain new public scrutiny, new questions arise: How have they managed to fly under the radar for so long? And where do we go from here?

  1. Carla

    “a marketing-orientation that has configured nearly every professional domain (yes, even religion)”

    EVEN religion? Televangelists perfected the self-marketing game a long time ago. For that matter, the first moveable type was developed in China and used to print a Buddhist text. Two centuries later, a German named Gutenberg invented the first printing press in the west and used it to create what became known as the Gutenberg Bible.


    1. digi_owl

      In a way the church was not that pleased of his production, as it cheapened them hand copied bibles. Early opinions of the printed bible was that it had to be the devils work, as the copies were too similar. None of the flaws of a hand written copy.

      Kinda reminds me of the thinking surrounding industrial diamonds now that i think about it.

      And religion has their fingers in a lot of things. Accounting for one. Temple ledgers being some of the oldest writings.

      Another is the hyping of gold, because that was the only substance they considered an acceptable offer at the temple. And naturally they could sell you some to bring to the altar…

      1. Robert Gray

        > … the church was not that pleased of [Gutenberg’s] production …. Early opinions of
        > the printed bible was that it had to be the devils work …

        There’s a twentieth century epilogue to that story. When radio first came to Saudi Arabia, the imams were aghast, convinced that it had to be Satan speaking through the air like that. The difficulty was quickly resolved, however, simply by broadcasting readings from the Koran. :-)

        1. digi_owl

          Gets me thinking of some tribe down in Africa or some such that though photographs stole their souls.

          Then again, even the idea of color television broadcasts because a hot political topic on Norway of all places. Some of the more religious leaning was afraid that it would be too much of a temptation, or some such.

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      Yeah, “even religion” is mystifying. One notable conflict in the imperial church was the fight between the Patriarch and the Archbishop in Damascus. Damascus was the number one Christian holy city and pilgrimage site, so it brought out all the charismatic ministers and made the local archbishop powerful. The Patriarch argued as a puppet of the Emperor or the power behind the throne, and the Syrian archbishop argued as the popular minister who brought in the big bucks.

  2. ambrit

    This concept of “public exposure” as an increasingly necessity tool for gainful employment seems perfectly designed to promote narcissistic personalities to the “top” of any field of endeavour.
    Modern Life is becoming one big High School culture. This is not a positive since I feel compelled to observe that Terran humans at the age generally associated with experiencing High School are nowhere near intellectual or emotional maturity.
    To be glib about it; oldsters are parodied as sitting on their porch in the rocking chair, yelling at the local children: “Get off of my lawn!” High School Kidz can also be parodied as lounging on a bench in the school commons yelling: “Get off of my meme!”
    Stay safe, but you already knew that.

    1. digi_owl

      Yeah i have been thinking off and on that us introverts were a bit too clever for our own good. We used to have a nice gig, working them back room jobs cataloging, sorting and filing away stuff. But then we came up with all these machines to help out, and now those jobs are all gone. And the only ones left are the marketing jobs, with the sharp suits and fresh haircuts.

      1. ambrit

        Oh yeah. The front “sales room” of an auto dealership isn’t called “The Shark Tank” for nothing.

    2. griffen

      Slightly off topic, watched a recent golf documentary on the 1996 Masters and it occurs to me that holy heck, that’s a good 26 years in the past. Tiger Woods was but a blip on everyone’s future, albeit his youth career showed great promise. As the oldsters may also say, time flies.

      What I mean to say is what innovation are going to occur in the next 25 to 26 years? Sure, self driving vehicles and a full grid of EV on the highways are in the offing but will Instagram, etc… continue to be a viable subset to promote yourself, your brand or both ?

      I’m hoping the next 25 to 26 years see most here staying above ground and precluding that long, eternal dirt nap as long as possible!!

      1. digi_owl

        Much of it will come down to energy i suspect.

        Much of the more wide eyed tech stuff seem to require something more potent than the venerable lithium ion battery.

        but it may well be that the recent COVID injection is just the tip of the potential ice berg for what that biotech can provide.

    3. Carolinian

      Maybe “influencer culture” has a lot to do with that other proposed phenomenon, “bullshit jobs.”

      Time to promote careers the old fashioned way–by marrying the boss’s daughter?

      To be sure Theodore Dreiser (An American Tragedy) saw this as fraught with peril as well and later it became a movie with Monty Clift.

    4. Mikel

      “This concept of “public exposure” as an increasingly necessity tool for gainful employment seems perfectly designed to promote narcissistic personalities to the “top” of any field of endeavour…”

      The “professionals” youtube will soon realize that their knowledge, skill, service has no intrinsic value to youtube or social media. The amateurs, etc of youtube know or sense this already
      But think of the careers where public exposure used to be PART of the job. Entertainers, artists…

      Everyone’s professional life will have a side gig as corporate spokesman in some form. That is what they will tell you has the actual value…

      First they came for the musicians and songwriters and I said nothing because I was not a musician or songwriter…

  3. David

    Lots of different ideas mixed up here. Let’s try to isolate a couple.
    First, if you make education a commodity which you sell to students, then there will be competition to be the most effective salesman, as with any other commodity. The trouble is that education isn’t a commodity, and “sales” can’t be measured in any way that has significance. So the surrogate in practice is exposure and “reputation” – less among academics, since that’s very old-fashioned- and more in the market of ideas. If you add to that an over-production of would-be academics and a steadily decreasing number of permanent jobs, you get cut-throat competition, not to be the best but to be the best-known. This is infecting academia everywhere, and I know of at least two sites that want me to take out paid membership so I can upload articles and follow how many people are reading them and what they think. On the plus side, there’s also an increasing tendency for independent researchers to opt out of academia altogether, and develop their own subscription-based academic services in the form of podcasts and videos. This is a bit saner, but of course you can’t actually organise a proper programme of education like that.

    The second issue is actually quite different. “Influencers” are a consequence of our cultures aversion to the idea of authority over the past fifty years or so. Authority in the traditional sense of someone who knows more than you do and can give you advice, is out of fashion and has been so for some time. Even at many universities, it’s not considered polite to say that the lecturer knows more than the students, even if that’s precisely why the students are there. But in fact all of us seek authoritative views on everything, whether it’s investing, computer software, Mandarin or idealist philosophy. If we can’t get it from traditional authorities (ie people with knowledge and experience) we’ll get it anywhere we can. Thus influencers.

    1. The Rev Kev

      After reading your comment, I think that your entire first paragraph could be turned into a good post. It seems to be a pretty good capsule description of what I have heard.

    2. Acacia

      I’ll guess one of the two sites is academia.edu.

      While they do provide a way to share research outside of the realm of subscription-based academic journals, you have to sign up to “access” the content, and academia.edu then keeps track of every article you clicked on, uses algos to build a stalker profile on you, and starts spamming your inbox with suggestions for research that you “might” want to check out. It also starts sending spam emails to tell you when others appear to cite your own work. The problem is that first, most of these putative citations are false positives, as they come from wildly different disciplines. Second, if you actually click through to try and find out who cited you and in which article, you are then informed you need to “upgrade to premium” to learn who might have cited you. I.e., they’re tapping into the circuits of reputation anxiety and exploiting them.

      1. David

        You guess correctly. And the point about false positives is a very good one. I can’t remember if it was that site or the other one that assumed someone who reviewed a book of mine was actually the co-author, the software is that dumb. And whilst I have a reasonably uncommon real name, I feel sorry for all the John Smiths working in political science or medicine, who must get bombarded with false positives all the time.

  4. Antiwar Dinosaur

    Influencers are especially vulnerable to “stars-behaving-badly-esque” fame-shaming, replete with barely concealed gender bias. It’s not incidental that pop culture’s caricature of the influencer—the one shilling products at Coachella, demanding comped meals, and preening for her Instagram boyfriend—is unequivocally feminine. But instead of mocking those with the pluck and luck to fashion a career on social media, we might fruitfully turn the critical focus on our own activities. [emphasis added]

    Of course Alternet had to turn it into an identity politics issue. Fame-shaming? GMAFB. And aren’t they effectively shaming the Coachella person for being too feminine?

    Yes civil society, public culture, or whatever you want to call it, has become completely debased and behaving like a narcissistic sociopath for Likes and cash has become normalized. But unlike the Alternet folks I believe it is possible to recognize the glaring inequality and limited opportunities young people face today and at the same time think that it is perfectly okay to discourage them from debasing themselves online for profit. Even if you need a “side hustle” (what a depressing term) to make ends meet, that doesn’t mean you have to act like a complete clown or star in your own version of Jackass.

    1. Greg

      Aside from the diss to coachella influencers, you’re also on point regarding the underlying inequity of influencer culture. What they’re proposing is to replace other attempts at expertise ranking with one explicitly based on appearances (because that is what influencers are).
      The PILF score isn’t a useful metric for science or any other expert subject, any more than the h score with its bias towards “big names” and “big journals” (which are totally different from big influencer names and big influencer sites).
      And run down in the influencer rush are all those who are good at their field but not lucky enough to be attractive and extroverted.

      It’s funny because the post is *this close* to talking about the real issues around artificial scarcity and underfunding of research, but doesn’t quite get there and instead gets bogged down in idpol and victimhood.

  5. .human

    It’s just so artificial. Decades ago I understood that viewing a scene through a camera was an “influencer.” I learned to remove the distraction and experience the moment immediately, organically if you will, and immerse myself in a moment that would never happen again.

    1. AGR

      There seems a lot of existential realism in your comment. I’ve noticed that recently my favorite moments of any given week have been random spontaneous conversations with people I don’t know. In a recent experience, at the checkout line of the local hardware store a lady started sharing her excitement of finally spending time with her seven year old granddaughter. She shared that she and her husband were getting a room ready for their granddaughters summer stay. She continued about talking with her “on the computer” and that “life circumstances” had prevented her meeting in person. It seemed that the more she shared the more excitement in her tone. I can’t say if my just listening influenced her but I can say that her enthusiasm certainly influenced me.

      1. GramSci

        Yes, it’s nice to be in a community like this here at NC where you can talk to people without wearing a mask and sometimes they appreciate it.

        The factory floor was such a place, as I recall it. Sometimes there would be a management-sponsored event to give a small prize to some worker who could win a piecework contest, but there was very little elbowing or hair-pulling.

        And but that was then. Bullshit jobs don’t make anything except bullshit.

        1. AGR

          Thanks for your reply, and yes, NC has been a haven of sanity when things seem irreconcilably nuts(GFC, Climate, Covid, Ukraine etc.)…I too remember different times and difficulties…Some time ago I decided that I would make an effort to increase my capacity to serve and be useful beyond myself…at times even when steeped in bullshit, looking forward to something worthwhile may make the stench less intolerable.

  6. noonespecial

    Re: “The lure is less about unadulterated fame than we give them credit for. More often, they desire the autonomy and flexibility that a self-enterprising career promises—if only superficially.”

    Below a link that speaks to the evolution of the author’s last sentence above in the name of promoting the “on brand” tendency (article’s focus is Duke but does comment beyond this school):

    (originally published at Bloomberg but browser issues led me to msn)

    Quotes from this piece: “Thirty students at Duke University gather for one of their last classes of the school year on a Tuesday afternoon in April. But rather than preparing for final exams, they’re shooting TikTok videos…Assignments involve using a current TikTok trend as inspiration for a related video, and then sharing the final product with classmates. They can film their own videos during class hours, or spend time doing outreach to brands…Students sometimes leverage their online presence to land jobs. Junior Ben Chipman who makes videos about his style and college life, got an internship at LinkedIn in New York City this summer, in part because of his experience in building a personal brand.”

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Stoller has pushed, correctly imho, the idea Team Blue is a group of influences rather than a political party. Obama’s 60th birthday bash stands out, but you have smaller instances such as one of Pelosi’s CIA goon squad.

      The real problem is an economy where so many people feel they need to make it. Though except for access, how many of these people would have hopped on a bus for NYC or LA in previous years is a question.

      As for Duke, garbage in, garbage out.

  7. James E Keenan

    Several years ago, while writing a book on social media labor …

    Where can I read that book?

  8. Wukchumni

    A local kid turned into a 21 year old twitch streamer influencer, and is now down in LA living large. The internet claims he’s worth between $2-8 million. (how does a nobody rake in that kind of money, while talented musicians are living la vida ramen on internet alms?)

    I only know him tangentially vis a vis a friend whose kid went to school with him here, and a couple weeks ago was down in the City of Angles hanging out, which included going to restaurants and racking up $8k bills, while said influencer is in the grips of what i’d have to say is one heck of a gambling addiction, judging from my friend’s 20 year old’s comments.

    Being a wastrel seems to come with the influencer territory, a perfect hero for our times.

    1. Acacia

      There’s a guy on YouTube who has been publishing take-downs of these creatures of the Internet, mostly wannabe influencers including some really bizarro subculture types that could only exist in the age of social media. Mister Metokur. He’s alternately funny, and often pretty vicious, but what he shows again and again is that Internet fame can be very fickle, and when audiences move on and the likes and views stop coming, these influencer types have a tendency to really lose it and sometimes resort to violence. That’s about when Metokur shows up to mock them ruthlessly. I believe he was chased off YouTube at some point but may have subsequently returned.

  9. JEHR

    The commodification of all human behaviour (not just labour) has created a world that is not really worth living in, as described in this piece. In fact, it has become an alien place which I no longer can identify with.

    1. jr

      Seconding this. It’s not just the change one expects as one ages, i.e. fashion or politics, or generational differences, in my experience. It’s a broad cheapening of things, a profound superficiality, a disregard for things of substance, of humanity itself. A fear of that which makes us human. Human nature is to be corralled and commodified. Therein lies happiness.

      I came across a video recently of some Musk devotee waxing effulgent about the recent incredible advances in AI. How they “create art” and will drive artists out of work. How they will make Meta even better, even more immersive, as the world dies.

      Of course, Elon is leading the way, he is prophesying a new “age of abundance” as automation drives away jobs, powerful new technologies come into the hands of the few, and vast networks of surveillance and control take shape. Oh, and consciousness is on deck too, although the narrator admits no one truly understands it it’s apparently soon to be generated like any other widget.

      It’s a sad new world. A world where men get breast implants and magically become women, as one YouTuber argued with the zeal of those who must constantly reaffirm their own delusions. A world of “virtual pets”, “virtual life-partners”, and “virtual walks in the park”. It’s all rather grotesque in my opinion. And it’s a spiritual death, a reduction of the human experience into shadows and mirages. But perhaps a necessary one, a cruel dance with the god-like powers we chimps have grasped. I am curious what lies on the other side of it, if not annihilation.

  10. Gulag

    ” But more often, the change to social media promotionalism is imposed on us and appears, to many, to be the worst option for exposure, opportunity and meaningful engagement.”

    It certainly seems more ideologically comfortable to go with this sentiment, but my best guess is that the arrow of cause and effect may run in both directions–with the interaction of cultural and structural constraints continually colliding with the creative nature of human agency, making it extremely difficult to determine where a particular piece of evidence fits in the causal chain.

    I also do think that whatever one’s political ideology it is increasingly important to reflect on the nature of each of our own will-to-power impulses and its contribution to anger, self-righteousness and out of control partisanship.

  11. Arizona Slim

    So, here I am, sitting on the couch. And I am blowing off the household chores.

    I have been waiting for a cleaning influencer to show up, but it just isn’t happening.

    Since my closets aren’t going to clean themselves, I will have to do the job myself.

  12. Sue inSoCal

    How many of these associate professor TikTok stars are adjuncts? Just wonderin’….

    1. JBird4049

      Since it seems most professors are adjuncts now, I would think just about all the influencer are. If all the teachers had tenure and were actually paid what they are worth, I think most of these people would retire from their side jobs. People are being superficial because it pays to be so and since paying people is out of fashion…

  13. Greg

    It occurs to me that in demanding respect for influencer-derived professional status in academia, this article is advocating for the exact opposite of blind auditions.

    It seems to me that if science wants to make any claim to objectivity, it needs to be pushing in the other direction, to remove the vestiges of primate culture that still affect the prominence of good research.

    It’s similar to the retrograde action in other spheres of feminism in the last decade, and I’m not a fan. Lo and behold, of course idpol demands the end of blind auditions too – because identity buckets are more important than talent in an orchestra, apparently.

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