On Monday, BuzzFeed reporter Stephanie McNeal posted a tweet, along with a couple of screenshots from Instagram: “Omg this Instagram mommy blogger is celebrating her sons bday by writing about how out of all her kids, he ‘statistically’ performs worse on her Instagram. And she’s worried one day it will ruin his self esteem,” McNeal wrote.
Sure enough, the Instagram post from mommy blogger Katie Bower (which has since been deleted) said pretty much exactly that. After describing how thankful she was for her son, who she said is “one of the most helpful and sweet hearted little boys,” Bower went on to divulge something else.
“Guys I am gonna be perfectly honest… Instagram never liked my Munchkin and it killed me inside. His photos never got as many likes. Never got comments. From a statistical point of view, he wasn’t as popular with everyone out there,” Bower wrote. “Maybe part of that was the pictures just never hit the algorithm right.”
Our worth is being calculated by the data we generate. We might not enjoy evaluating each other that way, let alone our children, but we are evaluated that way.
Bower confessed she believed this statistical deficiency was due to something she’d done wrong.
“I say all that because I want to believe that it wasn’t him… that it was on me. My insufficiency caused this statistical deficit… because I truly KNOW that my Munch deserves alllllll the likes… whether or not a stranger gives it to them,” she wrote. Later, she clarified, writing: “I revealed this feeling because I know one day he will see the numbers and have to learn that his value is not in online approval. This is a hard lesson for anyone to learn and I’m thankful to have learned it.”
Bower signed off with a postscript, saying, “I hope you all can be understanding and not take things out of context or believe that this in any way affects how I see or treat my children.”
Her hope was in vain.
Within hours of McNeal’s initial tweet, outlets from around the world — the Daily Mail, HuffPost, Yahoo!, Mashable, the Independent, and many others — piled on, each reporting the intense Twitter shaming Bower was enduring. The post was retweeted thousands of times and formed the basis of McNeal’s subsequent story for BuzzFeed.
Arguably, Bower’s confession that she evaluated her child, even briefly, in terms of online engagement data seems a bit harsh. It’s easy to vilify and dismiss her for it.
But there’s a lesson in Bower’s candor. In fact, she might be onto something.
In a follow-up Instagram story — which Bower posted after her initial post went viral and then disappeared (but has been preserved in places like the Daily Mail) — she hinted at the logic she applied in her earlier post. Explaining why she was concerned that her son “didn’t get as many likes,” Bower said, “it’s because that was a personal growth for me.”
“I had to learn that the likes do not reflect much to me, I had to choose that, because I work with brands that tell you the opposite,” said Bower, whose blog is for-profit and who benefits from affiliate links and sponsored posts. “I read articles about how to grow your Instagram that tell you the opposite. I know that a lot of people aren’t going to understand because they don’t have a business account, and they don’t run their business based on social media and their blog content.”
We think Bower’s world is somehow different than ours. It’s not.
She’s probably right. Not a lot of people have Instagram business accounts nor do most people use the platform to make money. Yet, more and more of us are looking to do just that. This is especially true on Instagram, where the “influencer” marketing craze is turning the platform into one of the more potentially lucrative money-making channels around.
Influencers are Instagram users (they are users of other social media, too, but Insta is very common home) who are paid by brands and marketing companies to showcase and endorse products in photos posted to their feeds. Their rates vary depending on their followers and profile. Among the highest paid are members of the Kardashian-Jenner clan, with Kylie Jenner reportedly raking in up to $1 million per post, for example.
That kind of cash is rare, but $10,000 or $30,000 per post for influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers (as opposed to millions) is not. As Wired reported this week, some influencers are also paid hefty sums to tell their followers not to buy competitor products. Marketers are even now targeting users with fewer followers as “nano-influencers” in an effort to achieve a more authentic connection with consumers who’ve grown tired of the more obvious hypebeasts.
This is a realm in which someone’s picture and words are evaluated by engagement metrics. How many likes do you garner, how many comments do people leave, how many click-throughs do you generate, and to whom are you most attractive? All of this data (and more) is collected, and a literal value judgment is made on your worth. Bower’s comments came off as insensitive and inappropriate, but this is the world she lives in, and she knows it. All she did was talk about it at the wrong time and in the wrong context.
Our reaction revealed something else, too — something perhaps even worse: We think Bower’s world is different than ours. It’s not.
What have we learned from Silicon Valley and the tech giants over the last decade or so? Or, what have they sought to teach us?
Whether we’re shopping, going to the doctor, taking the bus to work, driving our kids to school, cleaning our house, talking to our friends, checking the news, applying for a loan, reading a book, watching a TV show, or taking our child’s temperature, the prevailing lesson is this: We live in a world of infinite, untapped data. Even more specifically, we — each one of us — is an endless individual data mine.
Furthermore, we have learned that the data each of us creates as we go about our daily lives is valuable. We are told that at every turn. We know why online services and platforms are free: because we hand over our data. It’s a simple trade-off that we’ve agreed to for years — something we now take completely for granted, to the point where we agreement to the terms of the deal is as simple as a mindless click. It’s now as hard and fast an economic reality as any other transaction: We get the tech, and the tech gets our data.
In myriad ways, our worth is being calculated by the data we generate. We might not enjoy evaluating each other — let alone our children — that way, but we are evaluated that way by the technological systems that now dictate the contours and pace of our daily lives.
The reality is this: we live in a world we have created with our technology and that our technology has created for us. A world in which the data we generate has recognized value, and in which we are judged for it. Some of us, like Bower, are deeper into this world than others, but eventually we’ll all get there. In time, we will all be consumed.
Maybe, with this in mind, we might consider Bower’s moment of brutal honesty as something other than a mistake. It feels more like a warning.