The Influencers

The internet now means influence can come from anyone, anywhere; it can be visible or invisible, paid for by any power, approaching you any of myriad ways. Influence used to be understood as a top-down phenomenon, with governments, advertisers, donors or other powerful figures holding sway over the masses. These days we understand that the most powerful influences aren’t the distant ones but the most immediate and social — so the powerful tend to exert their influence by pretending to be ordinary people.

Marketers, for instance, work harder and harder to obscure the distinction between ads and real life. The last decade featured the rise of the professional “influencer” — someone paid to use their personal magnetism to promote specific agendas online. Instead of the top-down influence of a commercial or a billboard, these ads are embedded, shared by someone who seems, on some aspirational level, like a peer. The companies paying teenagers to hawk diet tea on Instagram are using the same tactics the Chinese government did when it recruited commenters to post hundreds of millions of pro-Communist Party messages online.

We like to think of our characters as fixed: We have our beliefs and our morals, religions and parties, states and countries, friends and enemies. We are inevitably ourselves — inescapably ourselves. We should be able to resist this kind of manipulation. But a steady stream of social-science studies suggests otherwise, demonstrating again and again how easily social pressures can affect the things we say, believe, do, think, eat. Our anxiety over influence goes back to the same fear Thomas Aquinas had, the same doubt families of alcoholics or cult members have. In the face of powerful influences, how can you locate and hold onto that original, irrefutable spark of self, your free will, your character, even your soul? That’s the fear that the idea of influence lays bare: that you can’t. Or that it might never have existed in the first place.

Annalisa Quinn writing in the New York Times

The ideal self loves the spotlight?

The archetypal extrovert prefers actions to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all to often we admire one type of individual—the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.

Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking

The creative process

The creative process is often not responsive to conscious efforts to initiate or control it. It does not proceed methodically or in programmatic fashion. It meanders. It is unpredictable, digressive, capricious. As one scientist put it, “I can schedule my lab hours, but I can’t schedule my best ideas.”

Creative individuals have the capacity to free themselves from the web of social pressures in which the rest of us are caught. They don’t spend much time asking “What will people say?” The fact that “everybody’s doing it” doesn’t mean they’re doing it. They question assumptions that the rest of us accept. As J. P. Guilford has pointed out, they are particularly gifted in seeing the gap between what is and what could be (which means, of course, that they have achieved a certain measure of detachment from what is.

It is easy to fall into the romantic exaggeration in speaking of the capacity of people of originality to stand apart. Those who are responsible for the great innovative performances have always built on the work of others, and have enjoyed many kinds of social support, stimulation and communication. They are independent bout they are not adrift.

John Gardner, Self-Renewal

The creative process

The creative process is often not responsive to conscious efforts to initiate or control it. It does not proceed methodically or in programmatic fashion. It meanders. It is unpredictable, digressive, capricious. As one scientist put it, “I can schedule my lab hours, but I can’t schedule my best ideas.”

Creative individuals have the capacity to free themselves from the web of social pressures in which the rest of us are caught. They don’t spend much time asking “What will people say?” The fact that “everybody’s doing it” doesn’t mean they’re doing it. They question assumptions that the rest of us accept. As J. P. Guilford has pointed out, they are particularly gifted in seeing the gap between what is and what could be (which means, of course, that they have achieved a certain measure of detachment from what is.

It is easy to fall into the romantic exaggeration in speaking of the capacity of people of originality to stand apart. Those who are responsible for the great innovative performances have always built on the work of others, and have enjoyed many kinds of social support, stimulation and communication. They are independent but they are not adrift.

John Gardner, Self-Renewal

When self-expression meets the classics

Should we teach art students to recognize, understand and dissect classic works of art - or should we encourage them to explore creative self-expression, apart from the cultural context?

If beginners are taught to internalize the classics before finding their own voice, won't they be nudged to conform to expectations and tempted to stay inside the box of what has gone before? Are they wasting time learning how others express themselves rather than learning to do so themselves? Will stepping in the shoes of the masters cause them to avoid pursuing ideas outside of the norm? 

Unconventional artists and visionaries have often been shunned by peers - only later to be revered by another generation. If these craftsmen had conformed, if they had stifling their inner voices, they might not have stepped out of the crowd and we would have never had the chance to appreciate their genius.

However, if we teach students to venture out on their own, aren't we just treating them like toddlers, telling them to go play in the paint - without guidance? Failing to study the masters means missing the opportunity stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and to see further down the road. Keeping them away from the classics could mean failing to grasp the value of the great works that have stood the test of time. How can students understand where their own feet are planted in history unless they know about others who have struggled and flourished.

Perhaps we need both sides and the danger lies in slavishly taking one position or the other. Perhaps we can learn the rules before breaking them and avoiding simply mimicking the masters. Perhaps we can tap into the echos of their inspiration rather than plunging into our own narcissism.

Asking, "Am I creating to please myself or to please others?" may bring clarity. If you are creating to please yourself, then diving into what’s culturally hot may take you away from your goal. But if you have decided to create for the crowd, then knowing what is already valued seems like a reasonable starting point.

Stephen Goforth