Illustrator: Cristophe Vorlet

The endless echo chamber of online “influencers” is robbing the Internet of its soul.

Ben Belser
Dec 30, 2015 · 5 min read

This note is in response to Kamil Stanuch’s article, linked above, about a case of plagiarism on Medium.

According to Kamil, the other day somebody by the name of Yann Girard wrote a self-help article about something or other. Then another somebody named CamMi Pham wrote another, very similar self-help article, also about something or other. It’s clear that the two texts are similar, although CamMi’s got more attention. Here’s the deal: regardless of which article is better or worse–or which is more or less “authentic”–they’re both essentially rote rehashings of common cliches, the epitome of the reblogosophere, and that’s not a good thing.

The much bigger problem that I see, and the basis of this post, is this: upon reading both articles mentioned above, one gets the uncomfortable feeling that neither author actually cares about the message they’re sending, nor about the trials and tribulations of their readers, but about exploiting the patterns of their readers for viral loops. CamMi claims to be a digital marketer, so this makes sense. One of the worst things about living in 2015, the pièce de merde if you will, is the zergling rush of online self-promoters who delight in clicks and follows in the same way that slot machine addicts are lulled into pennilessness by playful sounds.

Even more troubling, these self-promoters (sorry, “digital strategists”) are peddling a product that’s worse than snake oil: not a cure-all for their readership, but an empty vessel for their own self-aggrandizement, or some increment of it, repackaged as an article or an aphorism or a piece of advice just for you, dear reader.

Except that these digital strategists (sorry, “new media consultants”) have no interest in your actually benefiting from the article or even in the content of the article itself. Their one and only concern is that you click, click, click, and follow, follow, follow. And the more of us who follow suit, the easier it is for these people to command our attention. Never mind what their actual message is — in most cases there isn’t one. In the words of Macbeth:

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

(The “tale” in question is any repetitive clickbait article on a social media site. Oh, and pretty much everything on LinkedIn.)

And so these new media consultants (sorry, “social media gurus”) carry on with the endless charade of following and unfollowing, liking and retweeting, upvoting and downvoting, caring only that their names pop up in a news feed somewhere and not about the significance of what they produce. It’s a bit like a microcosmic example of the Paris Hilton effect, where fame begets more fame begets even more fame, while onlookers are left panting in exasperation, wondering who the hell’s going to put a stop to this unruly tautology. (Answer: nobody.)

The problem with these people is not that they want attention, but that they’re unwilling or unable to trade fairly for it. For the longest time, society has had a pretty straightforward system of rewards: you give us something of value, and we’ll heap praise on you. It’s a fair trade, and one that most social media gurus (sorry, “omnichannel growth evangelists”) are unwilling to make. Instead, these people insist on trying to “hack” the system, a term they embrace for its sexy techie connotation but which, in their case, often amounts to sheer laziness, an impulse to look for shortcuts to notoriety rather than slowly, painstakingly, lovingly crafting something of value that they can give to the world.

Here’s a tip: if you use the word “content” when referring to works of creativity, you’re probably not creative, and your view on originality is likely to be deeply flawed. That word perfectly symbolizes the evil–and I mean it when I say evil–that pervades the Internet today: a reductive, dehumanizing, overly dispassionate view on authorship that sees art products as little more than data points swimming in a sea of other data points.

Unsurprisingly, “content” is the watchword of the digital strategist / new media consultant / social media guru / omnichannel growth evangelist. All too often, this breed of person cares little about what they create and instead gropes about desperately for “something to put inside something else.” Hence the term “content.” Their ilk are packaging widgets, polishing doodads, and varnishing nouns–all in a desperate plea for virtual gratification.

Is it any wonder, then, that some of these people are willing to plagiarize (sorry, “reblog”) one another? In their minds, what matters isn’t the content itself, but a statistical result: an increase of some kind, a slight movement of a needle. They don’t understand content, which to them is an antiseptic thing, something to be handled with tweezers.

Thus, the social blogosphere is polluted daily by clones of the archetypal “lead-gen” article promising business advice or startup wisdom, which article is awkwardly stitched together from a thousand similar articles, producing a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster. At the top of the article we see traces of one author, at the bottom another. In this paragraph the spelling is good, but here it’s not so good. Somehow it all comes together, but it’s clear that something’s missing, something very important. Have we forgotten what that is? (Hint: it’s authorship.)

The only difference between authorship and non-authorship is the existence of a real, live human being, one who presumably cares a great deal about what she’s saying. Or maybe she doesn’t–maybe she just writes out of sheer boredom–but at least she’s accountable for it. In the current climate, we are awash with semi-anonymous drivel, and it sucks.

Of course, it’s a two-way street. An economist might argue that the success of the reblogosphere depends on people like you and me tapping, clicking, following, liking, etc. If we didn’t bother, then the hobnobgoblins of social media wouldn’t have a clientele. To which I reply, “How many quotes will it take?” How many maxims, proverbs, mottos, aphorisms, and epigrams must we read until we’re brave enough to do the thing that must be done, whatever that thing may be? Seriously, I want to know. Because the answer to that question will likely influence the amount of godawful self-help articles I have to sift through every day, even on amazing platforms like Medium.

P.S. I happen to know that there are scores of brilliant digital marketing people out there, people who do care about the quality of the things they produce (and the things they help others produce). Hats off to them. This post is about a different kind of person–the one who revels in repetition and takes the “spray and pray” approach when it comes to posting online. To be honest, there’s a little bit of that person in all of us, I suspect. We’re all guilty of wanting recognition and, at times, wanting it so badly that we’ll post or repost basically anything. But that doesn’t make it a healthy strategy.