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The influence game

Chasing followers is no substitute for exercising dominion

I watched my first YouTube video after a tortuous wait on our dial-up connection: two minutes buffering for every two seconds of play. It was “Charlie Bit Me.” Once uploaded, I couldn’t delete it for a week, as it was such a hard-won treasure.

Now, like most Americans, I consult YouTube almost every day for advice on changing a water filter or unlocking an ignition key. And about once a week I get sucked into the vortex of video clickbait. From the promising brainchild of three former PayPal employees, YouTube now accounts for about 15 percent of all internet traffic, with 500 hours of content uploaded every minute.

According to most accounts (the founding myth is a little hazy) Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim wanted to build a dating website. Offering $100 each for videos of attractive women didn’t build content fast enough, so they opened the platform to anyone with uploading capacity. That led to a mixed bag of homegrown talent like the “Star Wars Kid” (aka, Ghyslain Raza), who in January 2006 uploaded a demonstration of his skill with a double lightsaber (aka, a golf ball retriever), going down in history as one of the first viral videos.

The lure of nobodies becoming famous is right in front of our faces every day.

Google saw the possibilities, and in November 2006 purchased the platform for a reported $1.65 billion. Since then, YouTube has made celebrities out of Ukrainian preschoolers and Latin American amateur singers and trick-shot Dudes from Texas A&M. “YouTuber” has replaced “astronaut” as a popular ambition of elementary-school children—at least that was the case in 2019 and is probably more so after a pandemic year. Who wouldn’t want to become rich by being themselves in front of a camera?

“There’s no amount of explanation that can account for the strange alchemy of YouTube stardom,” observes the website Thrillist. In 2014, a teenage Target shopper secretly snapped a photo of the cute boy at the checkout. She posted it on Twitter, and before his shift was over “Alex from Target” had become an internet sensation, going on to a brief career as a YouTube celeb. Felix Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie, a brash Swedish American who built his fame on videos of himself playing video games, has remained in the top ranks of YouTubers since 2013.

Who knows what strange alchemy will catch fire? Yesterday a chunky teen jumping around with a makeshift lightsaber, today Vlad and Niki brushing their teeth. And tomorrow?

YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok are the preferred platforms of today’s “influencers” who market themselves as much as any product. Schoolboys who dream of becoming the next PewDiePie (110 million YouTube subscribers) have as much chance of becoming the next LeBron James (98 million Instagram followers). Most influencers built internet careers on their singing, acting, or athletic talent. Being sensational is not as easy as it looks.

Still, the lure of nobodies becoming famous is right in front of our faces every day. Why can’t we be the ones uploading pandemic song parodies like the Marsh Family or Rube Goldberg contraptions like Joseph’s Machines?

Because those things are difficult and take more time, energy, and talent than most of us have. But all of us have influence.

One of the unhappiest effects of YouTube celebrity, especially among the young, is depriving them of their sense of agency. It creates “followers” rather than actors, who dream of making their mark in the social-media world rather than moving purposefully through their own world. Our boundaries may be small, depending on age, ability, and position, but we have more impact within those boundaries than we realize. Doing what your hand finds to do (Ecclesiastes 9:10) follows surveying your territory and figuring out how to make it better. This is what dominion means, and everyone has a personal share of dominion. In the end, when accounts are added up and eternal consequences weighed, that’s the influence that will matter.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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