Inverting The Obvious: Influencers Under The Influence I

Thoughts on the relationship between influencer and audience: towards a feedback loop theory of polarization

How can one have more interesting thoughts, more often? A simple, yet powerful method is to "invert the obvious": take a seemingly obvious statement - something that most people would instantly agree with - invert its meaning, and turn that into a question: explore from there.

This is the premise of this newsletter.

Welcome to ITO #1!

Influencers Under The Influence: Part 1

Here is some good old default obvious thinking:

“Influencers influence their audience's behaviour and purchasing decisions” - this is an idea so lame and obvious that advertisers today spend upwards of $8B annually on this very premise.

Inverting this idea - per our newsletter’s principle - we get the following, more interesting question:

How do audiences influence their influencers?

Thus, we are now looking at the inverse relationship of cybernetic influence:
namely, the flow of influence from an audience to its influencers, and subsequently, the interesting feedback loops this pattern creates!

Let’s play this through from scratch:

Consider the budding content entrepreneur who sets out to make a living in the attention economy, aiming to amass a large number of followers she later intends to monetize by means of influencing their purchasing behaviour with respect to stuff like the best tapas bar in Tulum or the most outrageous conspiracy of our times.

More often than not, they will - implicitly or explicitly - test different types of content to see which one works better in terms of increasing the amount of likes and new followers they are getting. A shot of the beach and some tapas, here’s the same shot, featuring a person, and here’s another one, wherein that person is inside a bikini.
Or: Here’s a theory of how the government is out there to get you. And: here’s how they’re being helped by aliens.

In the ad industry, this would be called an A/B-n test, is conducted with purpose, and statistically analyzed to identify the best performing pieces of content.

However, note that in the context of content creators, none of this has to happen in a conscious or calculated manner, and it likely rarely does: it is simply the workflow that things snap into when aiming to maximise 'social media engagement':
Partially, this is due to our nature as the attention-seeking organisms, and partially it’s due to plaform design choices: the dreaded "algorithm" is relentlessly aiming to surface the most engageable content within every possible niche (in terms of pure amplitude) in order to maximise views, clicks, engagement and ultimately ad revenues.

And thus the content creator may find that a specific type of content they originally intended to promote does not work as well as they thought it would - instead, they impatiently begin to adjust their sharing strategy towards the first local attention maximum they can identify - a thirsty hiker setting up camp on a different hill than originally planned.

The Curious Case Of A Cybernetic Accident

Consider the curious case of Attilla Hildman, a German restaurateur and vegan TV chef turned COVID19 attention adventurer.

Born to Turkish parents, Hildman has become a popular COVID-denying figurehead of the far right in Germany, followed by hundreds of thousands of people on his Telegram channel. The channel’s content is, by most standards, what we would call mad: over the course of a year, Hildmann went from vegan TV chef to Pizza Gate galore, labeling himself a “ultra right winger” - it appears he has now fled to Turkey as he’s on the run from the German police - after all, he is a dangerous influencer.

The following picture shows Hildmann cooking at the "Veggie Street Day" in 2018.

A mere 2 years later he's pivoted into a batshit crazy COVID-truther neonazi, posting antisemitic conspiracy theories to an audience of hundreds of thousands, most of whom are unlikely to be vegan.

What happened here?

Did Hildman, the vegan chef with Turkish roots, really set out to convince Germany's neonazi scene that COVID is a hoax?

What if, instead, we need to think of this as a cybernetic accident?

The standard view is to look at Hildmann as a someone who has compelled an audience he built into assuming his dangerous beliefs, namely, that COVID is a hoax, the government and Bill Gates are looking to implant mind-altering chips into your body, etc. - Hildmann is thus a dangerous conspiracy influencer and must be stopped.

Well, he really may be, but let’s consider what happened from our inverted perspective, where the relevant flow of influence happens from audience to influencer and not vice versa.

Maybe, what happened is more along the lines of the following:

Hildmann was angry about the German government shutting down his restaurants. He went online to rant. And then he somehow stumbled over a massive audience.

Turns out he’s incredibly good at riling them up. Daily follower gains in the thousands. No one really cares that he is vegan, or has Turkish roots. Folks just love it when he gets mad at the government.

Now, it turns out that part of his COVID-truther audience is also really into neonazi stuff (though seemingly not enough to take an issue with Hildmann’s Turkish roots). The crazier his posts, the better the reception.

And being a good showman, Hildmann likely just went with the flow.

So instead of looking at this merely from the “Conspiracy Influencer” perspective, wherein Hildmann’s posts are influencing a dangerously receptive audience with dangerous and possibly “illegal” thoughts, the whole story is maybe more akin to the 90s cliché of an aspiring actress suddenly finding herself on the set of a porn shoot.

Hildmann is a greedy attention entrepreneur maximising engagement with his content, and his content is curated through a feedback loop with an audience he didn’t create, but stumble upon - a pre-existing cluster of madness with powerful gravity.

Outlook: Towards A Feedback Loop Theory of Polarization

Formally, this type of pivoting from “Vegan TV Chef” to “Neonazi Influencer” happens in much the same way that Slack went from semi-successful online game to IPOed corporate communications tool with a market cap of $25B.

The resulting audience isn't really "created", as often purported - it is instead a preexisting cluster of interests that has merely been discovered, and vice versa has discovered the content creator in much the same way.

Regardless, the attention adventurer has an audience, and in come the likes, time to radiate some influence! Or, again, is it the other way around?

It is of course both - begging the question of what kind of messed up and interesting feedback loops this creates?

These feedback loops will be the subject of mail #2 - wherein I will argue that they are the key to better understand how our societies became so fundamentally polarized and fragmented.

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