Thursday, April 16, 2015

On Lists and Influence

TIME Magazine is always publishing lists of influential people, be it their Top 100 Most Influential People in the World or Top 25 Most Influential Teens or whatever other lists I'm forgetting. These lists contain human rights activists, authors, politicians, artists, scientists, tech innovators--many (but of course, not all) of the best and brightest across all disciplines are named in these elite lists.

However, these lists don't just contain people enacting positive change. From Vine stars to YouTubers to reality TV personalities--all of whom are inarguably products of the inexplicable modern fame machine, these people aren't making quite the impact that people like Rula Ghani or Vladimir Putin are making (for better or worse, in Putin's case). In fact, some would contend that the aforementioned "famous" people are making the world worse with their deliriously high status; some have made more egregious offenses, i.e. racist and sexist remarks, and others are just uneducated and soaking up airtime that might be better dedicated to other subjects.

But before we go burning our copies of TIME, let's consider two things.

1.) Let's define the word "influence."
Influence is defined as "the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself." I would, of course, whole-heartedly agree that Laverne Cox and Hilary Clinton exert and deserve a great deal of influence over our country and our world as a whole. But Kim Kardashian isn't on this list for nothing. First of all, I mention her in conversation almost every single day. Why?! Why on Earth am I talking about Kim Kardashian and her Internet-shattering butt when there is social change to advocate for, music to review, books to analyze--hell, even localized school gossip to engage in? Because like it or not, she does exert influence over us. Without any of us wanting it to happen, Kim Kardashian affects our character, development, and behavior on a regular basis. We take people's opinions on Kardashian and her family to be indicators of education level or quality of character. It's completely absurd when you give it a moment's thought, but through borderline-sociopathic media manipulation on the part of Kris Jenner and the Internet's insatiable appetite for celebrity scoops, we are all subject to the goings-on of even the most mundane aspects of their lives. And if that's not influence, I don't know what is.

2.) Let's remember that these lists cannot make or break the fate of the modern world.
Yes, Nash Grier was put on the same list as Malala Yousafzai, even though he has made homophobic and racist 6-second videos and she risked her life to protect education rights for girls in Pakistan. No, those two accomplishments are not commensurate. But is putting Nash Grier on some list--the contents of which will someday be forgotten--going to erase the long-term effects of Yousafzai's heroism and activism? Of course not. There are thousands of brilliant minds, creative spirits, and brave hearts left off this list every year, and a handful of less-than-stellar candidates who make it on. But the unnamed people who are still doing good work will continue to do good work, even as their triumphs go unsung by the mass media. And some day, God-willing, the Internet and iPhone app celebrities will lose the last glimmers of manufactured influence and fade back into relative oblivion with the rest of us.

So there you have it. That's my opinion on the lists that journalists love to make. I would really recommend you read the mini-bios of the people included on the TIME 100; they're beautifully written and quite fascinating (especially considering I've never even heard of many of the people on the list). If I can leave you with one thought, it's this: there's enough room in the world--and on the Internet--for Kylie Jenner to post pictures of her lips on Instagram and for Jazz Jennings to advocate for transgender rights without all of us losing our minds.

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