The TV show The Amazing Race, one of my all time favorites, began another season this week. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it has been on since 2001, running two seasons every year. It is essentially a travel game show. Contestants are in teams of two with some pre-existing relationship, and they apply together. Typically, the contestants will be a couple, friends, siblings, or colleagues of some sort. In each episode, the teams travel to some faraway location, where they compete in physical and mental challenges related to the history or culture of the place they are visiting. At the end of each episode, they meet the host at a pit stop; the first team to finish wins a prize, and the last time (usually) is eliminated from the race. They continue, traveling through several different countries over the course of the race, until only three teams remain in the final episode, and the first one to the finish line wins the grand prize.
This season has a casting gimmick. All eleven teams are social media celebrities of some sort: YouTube video stars, Instagrammers with thousands of followers, and the like. (My first reaction to this was, “I wonder if one of the challenges this season will be to jump over a shark on water skis?”) I’m still going to watch it, but my perspective will be a bit different because I haven’t heard of any of these people before now. To me, the fact that “social media celebrity” even exists as a way to describe someone just shows how frighteningly fast the world has changed, and how out of touch I am.
I have an Instagram. It’s public. I don’t post pictures of me. I just take pictures of stuff I see. I’m not trying to get thousands of followers, and the overwhelming majority of those following me are people I know in person. But, as it is a public account, every once in a while I’ll get followed by someone I don’t know in person. A few weeks ago, someone I was pretty sure I didn’t know in person started following me, and I messaged her to ask if we had met in person, since I didn’t remember. She said she didn’t think so. I asked how she found me, and I also pointed out that I had looked to see who she knew, and that we seemed to have a few friends in common.
“Friends or followers?” she asked.
And that was the first time it really hit me. Most people out there in the world of social media make a distinction between the two. And I don’t.
Much of my social life between 1994 and 2007 revolved around people I met in chat rooms. I don’t do that anymore, for a variety of reasons. But I’m still in touch with some of those people. And I always thought of all the people I would meet on chat rooms and message boards as friends, or at least as people I’d like to get to know as friends. Occasionally on this blog I’ll get comments from people I don’t know. I try to check out their blogs when I can, and I’ve started following, and commenting regularly on, two blogs that I’ve discovered this way. I feel like, were the situation to come up, I’d want to be friends with them, at least so far. But I can’t expect them to feel the same way. Not everyone wants to make friends through their blogs. I haven’t told either of them this… and if they happen to read this, I hope this doesn’t sound creepy or stalkerish at all, because I don’t mean it that way. And I have no intention of stalking them. (Both of them live quite far away, so it isn’t an option anyway.)
The obsession with getting followers and not making friends isn’t the only thing that rubs me the wrong way about the existence of social media personalities. Maybe I’m just envious of people who have these street smarts and these opportunities. As a teenager, I would have loved to make videos. There was no YouTube back then, and we never had enough money to have a video camera.
There’s also the fact that I am a teacher. The stereotype I have of social media personalities with enough followers to make a living from social media is that they didn’t follow the traditional career path of doing well in school, getting into a good college, and getting a good job from there. But there doesn’t have to be anything wrong with that. Life changes, technology changes, and career paths change. “Truck driver” wasn’t a common career 100 years ago. “Computer programmer” wasn’t a common career 50 years ago. This is just a natural evolution of things. And making a living successfully from social media still requires street smarts. Being a YouTube star isn’t really any different from being an actor, and being an Instagram star isn’t really any different from being a model. Both of these careers have existed for a long, long time; the technology may have made these careers more accessible, but they haven’t really changed human nature. So maybe I’m getting worked up over the wrong things.