Charli D’Amelio is a 17-year-old who two years ago started posting on TikTok videos of herself dancing and lip-synching to popular songs. Today she is TikTok’s biggest money-maker, last year bringing in $17.5 million. She is an “influencer,” and she makes more money than the chief executives of some of the country’s biggest companies.
The Wall Street Journal has published an article by Joseph Pisani on this lucrative profession entitled These TikTok Stars Made More Money Than Many of America’s Top CEOs with the deck “Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, Addison Rae are among TikTok stars who out-earned leaders of many S&P 500 companies.”
By way of illustration, the article (which is behind a paywall) points out that Exxon pays its CEO $15.6 million; Starbucks, $14.7 million; Delta Airlines, $13.1 million; and McDonald’s $10.8 million. The median compensation of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies, much of which comes in the form of stock options and other perks, is $13.4 million. Such amounts strike us working stiffs as wildly over the top, but they fall far short of what a teenage girl earns by lip-synching on social media.
How is this possible? Well, online platforms and advertisers typically pay a small amount for every thousand page views. Miss D’Amelio has 133 million followers. That adds up. “Influencers” with big followings then get paid by companies to use and promote their products. That, in turn, can lead to endorsement deals on other media and to product lines branded with the influencer’s name.
Miss D’Amelio is the most successful, but there are countless individuals on TikTok and YouTube who make their living and sometimes big fortunes simply by being on the internet. (Others, of course, make a living on the internet by using it as a medium to provide goods, services, art, information, and ideas. I am not talking about them.)
My question is, is being an internet influencer a true vocation, in the Christian sense of that term?
You can see Miss D’Amelio’s videos here. Usually she is lip-synching. She isn’t dancing much anymore, as such. Sometimes she talks to her audience about her life. Some of the videos just show her using products–putting on cool sneakers, brushing her teeth with a product-placed toothpaste, wearing different outfits. She doesn’t seem to be doing too much on her videos, which are extremely short. But, as her Wikipedia entry shows, she has parlayed her internet celebrity into many other more traditional ventures, including film, television, make-up lines, a book, notebooks and coloring books, and other merchandise.
Nothing against this young lady–she is talented, ingenious, and has an engaging personality–but I am just agreeing with what she herself told an interviewer: “I consider myself a normal teenager that a lot of people watch, for some reason. It doesn’t make sense in my head, but I’m working on understanding it.”
Now the intrinsic value of work cannot be reduced to its monetary value. Farmers, factory workers, the people who pick up our garbage, and others who perform services vital to our physical existence are doing far more important tasks than celebrities–not just influencers, but movie stars and professional athletes–and yet they are paid far, far less. Even among celebrities, influencers are a special case. Movie stars are paid exorbitantly for their art of acting. Professional athletes are paid exorbitantly for their physical performances. Internet influences do produce something–their videos–and they are putting on a performance, but they seem to be celebrated mainly for their own selves.
What defines Christian vocation is love and service to the neighbor. Who are the influencers’ neighbors? And what is the service they are rendering them?
Advertising is surely legitimate, a way of alerting people to products they might find useful. Madison Avenue advertising executives, marketing personnel, and people in sales are performing legitimate vocations. Aren’t influencers in that role? And yet, they are not planning marketing strategies or closing sales. They are not so much advertisers as the medium for advertisers.
I think the appeal of influencers, as well as other internet stars who chalk up big money-producing traffic numbers without advertising, is that they seem like friends. To their followers, they are attractive, personable, and cool, someone fun to hang out with. In our times when personal relationships are hard to come by, and even on-line relationships can be vicious, judgmental, and status-driven, watching someone you can relate to on a video channel makes a pleasant substitute.
So is being an influencer a vocation, a calling from God? I would say, not really but sort of. It is not a real vocation, but it is a virtual vocation. It is parallel to virtual communities and virtual reality, a simulacrum that falls short of embodied relationships and physical existence, but, for some people, is better than nothing.