What if you could be paid for letting someone else decide what you have for breakfast?
A wave of new startups are betting on a future like this. These companies want to provide internet influencers and online content creators—YouTubers, Instagrammers, TikTok stars, and others—the ability to monetize every mundane daily decision.
Fans pay to accrue votes that they can then cast to decide everything from who their favorite influencer dates, to the food they eat for dinner, to what sort of pet they buy. It’s up to the influencer to decide which parts of life to put up for auction.
Taylor Lorenz, technology reporter at The New York Times, wrote about this phenomenon:
One [company] comes in the form of NewNew, a start-up in Los Angeles, that describes its product as creating a “human stock market.” On the app, fans pay to vote in polls to control some of a creator’s day-to-day decisions.
. . . Courtne Smith, the founder and chief executive of NewNew, said the company was “similar to the stock market” in that “you can buy shares, which are essentially votes, to be able to control a certain level of a person’s life.”
“We’re building an economy of attention where you purchase moments in other people’s lives, and we take it a step further by allowing and enabling people to control those moments,” she said.
This ominous innovation feels like an episode of Black Mirror. The script writes itself. What should Christians make of this new frontier?
Influencing’s Appeal and Stress
One recent survey showed that more kids want to be internet influencers than want to be doctors, musicians, artists, and other career aspirations traditionally held by children.
Young people see their favorite YouTuber and think, You mean I can play video games on camera all day and make millions of dollars? Sign me up! To “be yourself” for millions of fans and millions of dollars sounds like a dream come true. But it can easily turn into a nightmare.
More kids want to be internet influencers than want to be doctors, musicians, artists, and other career aspirations traditionally held by children.
Professional content creators, like YouTubers or Twitch streamers, burn out regularly, taking long breaks from creating content or quitting altogether. Mental-health struggles like anxiety and depression run rampant among even the most popular online influencers.
Part of the pressure is the feeling of always being in front of an audience and believing every part of life has to be turned into content in some way. The content beast is never satisfied, and professional online content creators feel the strain of always keeping it well-fed and pleased.
As new technologies make it possible for online influencers to monetize every aspect of their lives and personalities, the pressure to constantly “perform” the self will only intensify. And the temptations of this brave new world aren’t just for the most successful influencers; they will be temptations for all of us.
We’re All Performers Now
Our lives are increasingly lived in public. Whether we intend to use them this way or not, social media offer a fundamentally a performance-oriented experience.
If you’ve ever caught yourself wondering how many likes your picture received or felt a jolt of excitement at a notification dot in the corner of one of your apps, you’ve slid into performance mode. The fundamental equation of almost every social-media platform is this: post content and be rewarded with notifications. It’s a rather rudimentary behavior-modification experiment.
This notifications-for-content exchange means if you perform better—more interesting content, more attractive photos, more eye-catching videos—you draw more notifications. This subtle but ubiquitous desire to perform for notifications tempts us to turn every bit of our lives into public content.
The subtle but ubiquitous desire to perform for notifications tempts us to turn every bit of our lives into public content.
Very little becomes off-limits when you stress performance over private life. We film our kids doing funny, cute stuff and post it on Facebook. We buy new wall art or a fig plant for our living room mostly for a future Instagram photo. We go to a trendy restaurant or coffee shop already thinking of the photo and caption we’ll post of the experience. We read an article or a book through the lens of tweetable quotes. Vacation becomes less about a private escape for our enjoyment than a public expression for our followers.
The addictive notifications we receive make the sacrifice of private life feel worth it.
What We Lose
When we start to see every aspect of our lives through the lens of content for public consumption and approval, we give up more than we realize. We lose intimacy. We lose authenticity. We lose our grasp of the inherent dignity and worth of human experience lived offline. Our understanding of value begins to be warped into the image of Instagram rather than the image of God.
For Christians seeking to maintain a wise, God-glorifying witness in public (Col. 4:5–6; 1 Pet. 2:12), here are several questions to ask about this new world:
- What happens when your Christian faith—and all of the ways it should shape your choices, convictions, speaking, and living—doesn’t sell well in the “human stock market” of social media?
- If we start making decisions based on patterns of social-media feedback (“This sort of thing draws likes; this sort of thing doesn’t”), won’t we lose control of our life, opinions, and convictions?
- Do we really want the faceless masses of “followers” determining our choices in life, as opposed to our real, proximate communities (family, friends, church) who are invested in our spiritual growth rather than just our amusing behavior and “content”?
- When you look back on your life 10 or 20 years from now, will you be proud of everything you said and did online? Or will you regret that much of what should’ve been kept private is now forever available to dig up in digital archives?
- How does an attention economy that assigns monetary value to daily decisions change how we understand the value of our time? Will we lose interest in things like rest and silence because such private moments have low social capital?
The content-for-notifications exchange may feel like a cheap way to win friends, influence people, and earn more money (as startups like NewNew make possible). But such a life sets us up to be enslaved to the demands of the crowd and the fickle whims of the market—when the only person we should be enslaved to is Christ.
A quiet and faithful life (1 Thes. 4:11–12), untempted by the seductive stages in our pockets—and freed from the prison of constantly needing applause—is a richer life than that of even the wealthiest Instagram influencer.