The Commodification of Vulnerability
The consumption of wisdom.
There is a certain subset of online influencers, and I am one of them, who have made a living (if only in part) by being vulnerable. By making wisdom bite-sized and easy to consume. Morsels of insight, in the endless scroll, for the public to bite off and chew.
There is so much easy psychology behind the desire - some may even say need - to do this, to be the vulnerable influencer. There is also much easy psychology behind the desire or need to be the consumer of it.
One, and the foundation of it all: being human is a complex thing. Navigating life is convoluted at best, deeply traumatic at worst - and of course at times utterly blissful. But we don’t only, or always, live in the bliss. We live in the vast spectrum of this ever-undulating space where horizons grow and shrink, the sky falls and heaves, the ocean swells and ebbs, and the land vibrates and sputters. Connecting with one another over these shared intensities makes perfect sense.
Two: it goes further than this, though - as we aren’t just seeking connection. That is where it starts, and perhaps attempts to end, closing the circle, keeping us all grounded. But this is not how I’ve experienced it, nor is it the title of this piece. Social media companies profit off of how desperate we are to connect. And it has done so with precision - preying upon our most vulnerable, yet most thunderous aspect of self: the ego. The ego is essentially our identity construct, and how deeply we cling to it. The clinging is important to note - as if we didn’t cling, our ‘construct’ of identity would not be as such: constructed. It would be malleable, relaxed, like a flowing river. The ego, by nature, is bolstered, built-up, like a tower, sometimes a fortress. When it is challenged, it feels threatening. When it is inflated, it feels self-satisfied. Social media companies understand this dichotomy and play the two (threat versus inflate) off of one another through likes, comments, shares, and follower count.
So our need to connect, as we are social creatures, is compounded with the ego - which of course has its time and place in real life as well, but ends up becoming the aspect of self that runs our social media accounts. Every single thing we post is a reflection of our identities in some way, and a beacon pointing back towards this self-identity, saying, “Please look at me, and like me.”
There have been countless studies done now on the harmful effects of this dichotomy on us, especially younger folk, who did not have a healthy period of life before the internet stole their attention and in no uncertain terms drove the message home that likes, follower count and comments are ever-increasingly the marker for love and success in this world. I recently downloaded TikTok as I was lured there by someone I know, and in many ways it seems even worse than other platforms in terms of how it commodifies “young talent” and self-validation is sought so hard through pleas of, “Come thru fam, don’t let this flop.” (Aka, please look at me, and like me). But I get off track a little.
Three: it goes even further. So we have the need for connection, and the beguiling of the tender ego. But then we have the harvesting of vulnerability, and wisdom. I can almost guarantee you that every single individual, and almost certainly every single influencer, who ‘went vulnerable’ once and saw / heard / felt the immense reaction from their following, felt hooked from the beginning. Why? Because it not only strokes the tender ego, but it also hits more deeply into that human need for connection. And perhaps most excruciatingly: these posts end up doing better than others that do not reveal the pound of flesh.
So...the basic psychology is there, and the math is there. Vulnerability / wisdom + sense of connection + ego boost + increase in likes / followers and perhaps even sales = hooked. Line. Sinker.
Prior to 2017 I was not sharing intimate moments from my life, morsels from my heart and soul - my account was mostly just strange occult images with short, succinct captions explaining them. One of my first ever vulnerable shares was about forgiveness, and why hello there, 50+ comments - this had never happened before. Suddenly I had people thanking me for sharing, and as time went on and I disclosed wisdom that I had accrued from this wild incarnation thus far, I was being thanked for that. Over and over again. And while of course this puffed up my ego and sense of identity, what was the most impossible to deny was the growth of my business as a result of these shares. I went from 10k to 30k, 30k to 50k, and 50k to 80k in a few short years. Yes, my tarot decks are also to thank for this (but hey, isn’t that also disclosure, and commodity of my wisdom, contained in those guidebooks? This question is rhetorical, as yes, it is).
Each time I show my glowing face there and accompany it with something I’ve learned from my toils, traumas and troubles the likes, comments and shares tally up, up, up. I make more money. My business grows. And so to, does my sense of being indebted to this AI machine (and the feeding trough attached). Over time, the demand for the pound of flesh grew, but my ability to give and serve did not - the opposite, in fact. What at first was an inflation soon became inflammation - of my nervous system and beyond. I was being frayed, eaten away.
Marshal McLuhan said that technology is an extension of our nervous systems - and I believe social media is the most tangible, without being touchable, addition to this theory. It is so because of the aforementioned interplay between the dopamine rush of likes and positive comments, the anxiety (and sometimes downright terror) of anticipating how well a post is doing, or some trolling / abusive comments, and loss of self-esteem if one’s posts flop. This all relates to the body - and how we process stress and excitement is governed by the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). We are meant to go from a sympathetic nervous system response, where our stress (fight / flight / freeze / fawn) is turned on, to parasympathetic - where we ‘rest and digest.’ But it doesn’t just end there - parasympathetic is also meant to include positive social experiences as well, as this calms and soothes our nervous systems. So what if many of our social experiences, which now take place online, exist in the sympathetic nervous system state? This doesn’t have to mean, even, that we are in full fight / flight / freeze / fawn - it doesn’t have to be that extreme. More of a constant irritation, plucking at the guitar strings of the nerves, tuning them up over and over again.
AI never sleeps because it is not human. The ‘feed’ never sleeps because there is always more content to throw to the top of the pile. And so our sense of relevancy as influencers is always in jeopardy, as if we do not provide more fodder for the trough, we may be bumped out entirely. Then there is the cascade that the ego certainly doesn’t want: fading into obscurity.
So it ends up being a relationship where we are anxiously attached to a machine, a machine that has become an extension of our very nerves, and neural pathways. It is not a two-way street - at least not in a healthy, nourishing sense. We are bled, drip by drip - and we go back for more because we are drawn into a false security of being loved, revered, respected, even at times worshipped - by those who are simply drawing from us. The vulnerability may actually help others, and this has always been my ultimate hope. But without the true human connection, wiping away the inflations of the ego and the anxious attachment - there isn’t much there of true substance. Yet, increasingly over time, we mistake it as such because we grow increasingly reliant upon it. We forget what real connection feels like, without all of that muck.
It is no grand shocker that over the years that I became a wisdom machine for my following on Instagram that my nervous system grew more and more frayed, and I got sick. (There were other factors too, but I can educatedly attribute a good portion of it to this). I felt there was no way out of the cycle while also maintaining my relevancy, success and monetary status. And in this entrapment I felt an increasing pressure to go through the deep, sometimes traumatic undulations of my life with succinctness, proficiency - to process quickly and package neatly. Even my style of sharing - which, to my credit, has been real as fuck - was still far ‘cleaner’ than my real life looked. It always is, make no mistake.
One of the grandest lessons I learned this year was that I haven’t tended to my amazing sensitivity the way I ought to - and one of the ways I betrayed myself was by attempting to process things too quickly so that I had more ‘material’ for the ‘gram. It sounds very sad and it is. I’ve always been seeking to serve a higher purpose - higher than myself, certainly my ego, higher than the realms of hungry eyes, ears, mouths fighting for a space in the limelight - and I won’t spend time in shame or guilt for not knowing just how toxic being an influencer on Instagram would be, despite the intention to the contrary.I will instead learn from it. I got so caught up in the high cloud of success and being told, constantly, how wise and amazing I am that I forgot to tend quietly to the number one important thing: my own organic process. It is one thing to find your art suddenly a commodity - essentially a piece of your very soul with a dollar sign on it. It is quite another to find your own organic process as a person commodified, and feel utterly bound to it, lest you be spun off into deep space and forgotten altogether.
Taking regular breaks over the last year, and now a radical long-term sabbatical, has been a test of my abilities to potentially ‘lose relevancy’ and still find my self-worth elsewhere. One of my first questions to myself when I first considered this sabbatical was, “Who am I, if not creating meaningful content for others to consume?” It had become so entrenched in my sense of personhood, as once again - the machine is a mainline into the egoic vein, and pumps the vein full of itself, and vice versa. One is a reflection of the other. How far out of the orbit could I go and still feel okay?
Truth be told, it has raised some existential questions. It has dented my sense of identity. But I think that is a very, very good thing. It has forced me to process some of the things I didn’t quite finish processing before packaging them with a beautiful, shining selfie during my time as a wisdom machine. It has forced me to do things more slowly, deliberately, mindfully. It has forced me into a space of more nuanced, subtle thinking and feeling. It has shown me that the ‘mob’ on social media (like one of those flocks of birds that looks like a moving black cloud) is like anxiety: once it is finished consuming one horror, it is onto the next, and the next, and the next. The more online you are, the more you are forced into participation in this flock, moving this way and that in rhythm with the collective. You may only think for yourself insomuch as it does not offend another, for fear that you may be cancelled. This frenetic, sympathetic nervous system state is always on, AI never even blinks an eye, and your organic human timeline does not - and never will - match up.
There is no hope in trying, and so the sooner we take our talons out of relevancy, embrace the possibility of obscurity, and decide against making our precious wisdom a commodity in the face of never-ending hunger for more - the healthier we will be.
Devany Amber Wolfe