I recently spent the better part of three days tapping the Instagram square on my phone more times than I care to admit, mostly to check in on a conference I wished I was attending.
Many of my favorite Instagram influencers were at this event and were (of course) posting constant updates. Despite telling myself I was merely checking in to feel like I was present, too, I couldn’t help but feel extraordinarily envious of everyone there—and disappointed for the missed opportunity to meet some of these influencers, who have truly influenced my life over the past few years.
And perhaps more significantly, I realized that I desired to be a woman who influences others to be better people.
But how would I ever build such a platform? Do I even want to build a platform? Where would I begin? Should I start a blog? A podcast maybe? My thoughts consumed me, and I began to consider how we toss around the words “influencer” and “platform” today like we do “celebrity” and “brand.”
Today, the term “influencer” is used to describe someone who affects others in some way through their social media “platform” (especially Instagram).
But the term influencer has a much broader meaning and a much longer history than our current cultural moment grants it. The OED has found uses of the word as far back as the 1660s. Quite simply, the term means someone who influences others. Nowhere in that definition is there the requirement (or even the mention) of a “platform.” Sure, a large social media following certainly helps reach a large number of people; however, a platform is not necessary to inspire positive change in the actions, behaviors, and opinions of others.
Cue lightbulb moment.
You see, my motives for suddenly wishing I had a beautifully curated, inspirational social media grid filled with snippets of wisdom were good: I wanted to help other people! And I figured the way to do that would be to create a platform. I wanted to share the small discoveries that brought me joy and my thoughts on faith, life, love, and happiness. I wanted to inspire others just as I’ve been inspired by people on my Instagram feed.
However, I realized that creating such a platform was neither what I truly wanted nor what would be good for me, personally. I didn’t need to decide what my platform would be, obsess over how to create it, or worry about how many people I would reach—because, as I told myself then and continue to remind myself now, I do not need a platform to make a difference.
Quality over Quantity
Numbers play an important role in today’s world, due in no small part to social media. How many people liked my post? How many people viewed my Instagram story or my Snapchat? And numbers hold power: Ten thousand followers gets you the “swipe up” feature on Instagram. Twenty-five thousand followers gets you $200 a post from sponsors. (Well, something like that. I, of course, would have no idea.)
But numbers are only numbers. If we make numbers our primary concern, then we miss out on opportunities for genuine connection and relationships. And it’s this one-on-one connection that is often the most effective way of spreading good. We would do well to heed a bit of wisdom attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta (at least on many of the inspirational Instagram accounts I follow): “Never worry about numbers. Help one at a time, and always start with those nearest you.”
The easiest and most important place to start, of course, is with our families: with our children, our siblings, our spouses, our parents. If I am busy curating inspirational quotes online for strangers to feel enlightened, but I’m too busy to put down my phone when my husband walks in the door from work, then who am I really helping? If I am focused on providing an intelligent reply to a comment on my Instagram post, but I’m too distracted to notice my daughter trying to show me how silly she is by wearing my socks as scarves, then is my focus where it is most needed?
I mentioned that I have been influenced to be a better person by some of the inspirational and outspoken social media influencers I follow, and this is certainly true. They have helped form some of my resolutions for this new year; they’ve planted the desire to do more outreach projects, to take on more creative projects, and overall to become a better person.
However, they have only helped plant these seeds. They lack the ability to help those seeds grow, for the simple reason that they are not actually in my life. I need real accountability partners, like my friends who will keep me in check with my resolutions, my husband who will encourage me to be more creative, and real people with whom I can practice the virtues I’m trying to cultivate.
When I reflect on courageous things I’ve done or virtuous habits I’ve developed, I realize that they are largely due to the influence of someone significant in my real life. We can all be that one person for someone else. (Perhaps we already have been and don’t even know it!) We don’t have to try to reach the largest possible audience on social media. We become “influencers” by our example, by listening to to others, by simply being present, and by gently offering whatever wisdom is in our power to give.
The Snowball Effect
Furthermore, we never know just how far-reaching our influence might be. We are so used to seeking immediate gratification that it is often hard to imagine how our small actions might have huge impacts. Rather than trying to change the whole world ourselves, we should love our families, be good to them, and watch the goodness trickle down from there.
My mind goes to my great-grandparents, who died when I was very young, and yet I feel as if I still know them well due to the legacy of love and the example of generosity and kindness they left behind. Their example manifested itself in my grandparents, from there to my parents, and (I hope) now to myself. We cannot underestimate the power we have to influence others, nor can we predict what legacy we may leave behind.
And to go back to Mother Teresa: She is one of the best examples of someone whose “one at a time” strategy of doing good created a truly phenomenal effect. (And all without the use of Instagram or Snapchat!)
We don’t need a platform to do meaningful work. We don’t need a social media following, a podcast, blog, website, or book in order to lead by example, to live a life worthy of emulating that draws people in by its inherent beauty. We can be influencers in our small spheres, but with an even greater effect by showing people how to live, not by telling them how to live through our screens.
We may not be able to trace the exact number of people we have impacted in real life like we can track our Instagram followers, but I am confident that the fruits of our positive examples are even greater than we could ever imagine.