Gaming the System: the Role of Influencers

The role of “influencer” has become a prominent part of the social media landscape. Influencers come in all shapes and sizes. Essentially, an influencer is someone who impacts another person’s decisions. This is accomplished through a variety of means and methods. Some influencers have celebrity status. Others have a large following on one, or more, social media channels such as Twitter or Facebook. Some have a wealth of knowledge or expertise about a specific topic. Mostly though, the influencer is about representing a brand and building personal relationships. Trust is key for the influencer, in addition to creating authentic (sponsored) content.

Most astonishing to me is the role of an influencer as an actual profession. Influencers make lots of money(!), to create content, build relationships, and represent brands. Ideally, the influencer should be generating business towards a specific brand or item, thereby making money for the company. However, using influencers makes sense from a business perspective. Influencers are a powerful marketing tool. They’re able to reach vast amounts of people, many of whom are likely the intended audience.

Seeing a review, or endorsement, from a person may have more weight than an advertisement. Whenever I check reviews for a new product, I usually read peer reviews. I also check some reputable product review companies, but peer reviews count too. Although, one must be mindful of the motives behind the peer review. There is a lot of fraud out there.

Gaming the System

Every time I hear about influencers, I always stop for a moment to wonder, how did we get here? How did this become a legitimate paid profession? And can I get in on the action? (Though I’m never sure what I would be good at endorsing…). Even more importantly, I always wonder about all the influencers gaming the system.

By gaming the system, I’m referring to influencers who buy “fake” followers to make their accounts look more attractive. Or people who are really savvy at creating catchy, sensational posts that go viral due to algorithms. Or by using bots to fabricate popularity and thus boost views.

So where does this leave us, as people, and consumers? Inundated by a never ending flow of content, some more authentic than others.

My advice, go for quality over quantity. Look into a couple of resources, or influencers, you like and verify them. Disregard the rest of the stuff.

Librarians: The Disinformation Antidote

One of the things I’ve always loved about the library is the validity of the resources. If I’m doing research and I find something through the library, I know it can be trusted. This doesn’t mean I agree with the findings, or that it’s the best thing out there, but it has a certain level of credibility. Libraries, and particularly librarians, are in the business of verifying the trustworthiness and quality of materials before they get added to the collection. This includes practices like developing criteria, vetting resources, and making sure items remain current and relevant as information changes.

Libraries, especially public ones, are amazing resources. I worked at a public library for about a year when I first became a librarian. My role as an “auxiliary librarian” presented me with the opportunity to work in branches all over the city. Basically I covered shifts for full-time librarians who were out. The wealth and variety of the collection, or how each branch tailored its resources to the patrons, constantly amazed me.

For example, a patron came to me once with an imitation of a signature he had found on a painting purchased at a garage sale. He wanted to know if the artist was famous. To my surprise, the library had a book of famous artist signatures exactly for this purpose. We weren’t able to match the chicken scratch he brought in, despite our efforts. But still, a book with famous artist signatures! I suppose now one could take a picture of the signature and use Google Lens to find a match. However, sometimes these things take a human eye to discern.

The Disinformation Antidote

Back to the main point, librarians are the perfect resource to combat the “infodemic.” Or any of the disinformation (and misinformation) spreading around digitally. Librarians are real information professionals. Our education includes methods for verifying and validating trustworthy resources. Many librarians are expert researchers and fact checkers.

How would this solution work? It’s not straightforward, especially considering how easily disinformation and misinformation goes viral. Facts are not always sensational, but during a pandemic, when information changes rapidly, it’s critical to get it right. One possible solution is for credible agencies to hire librarians to help with research and dissemination of accurate information. Get them posting the real stuff to drown out the noise of the infodemic.


Spring is one of my favorite times of the year. I love experiencing the unstoppable force of nature each year as things start to wake up and grow. Watching leaves develop on trees is one of my favorite sights. The leaves start small, appearing as reddish-brownish specks on the tips of the branches. Each passing day the specks grow bigger, changing from a bright yellow-green to a vibrant green within weeks. It’s awesome to watch.

Although spring is arriving with its usual energy, this year feels different. I suppose it’s because last year at this time we were locked in the house. For weeks and weeks. Last March, after the pandemic (and lockdown) started, my outdoor time was limited to my balcony. Luckily I had a view of some trees. And I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the increased birdsong. But it just wasn’t the same.

This year, however, feels like a fresh start. A chance to re-experience the wonders of spring that I missed witnessing first hand last year. Or rather, that I got to observe from a distance of a 12th-floor balcony. I know we’re still in the pandemic, but hopefully some things will soon be available for us to participate in again. When they are available, it feels like doing something for the first time, even though it’s something I’ve probably done dozens (or even hundreds!) of times before. Among my faves are the exhilarating feeling of running downhill or the satisfying crunch of dead leaves beneath my sneakers.

The other day I visited a field in a nearby park. Walking briskly, feeling the sun, the wind, and the slightly muddy terrain squishing beneath my sneakers was uplifting. Normally I would’ve been concerned about large chunks of mud sticking in the treads, but this time I enjoyed the sensation. I welcomed experiencing the mucky spring ground after missing out on it last year.

Too often, we live by our routines. Doing the same thing, the same way, every time, by rote. The pandemic is a huge pain. It’s been hard on everyone, in some way or another, but there have been some positives. Maybe it’s spring, but the long “pandemic” break from things has given me fresh eyes. I had forgotten the exhilarating feeling of simple pleasures, like watching the leaves grow on trees. Small activities I am now enjoying again after missing them last year.

Bad Tech vs. Bad with Tech

Whenever something goes wrong with technology, I often blame the technology first. However, in many cases, the real issue is how the technology was set up. I’ve worked with many clients who complain about new technology. They claim not to notice improvements. And in some cases, they even insist things are worse. Often, the configuration or set up, is the real culprit.

Recently, we hired an elite-status, Google-approved tech to install a Google Nest Thermostat. This was my first experience with a smart home device. Initially, the installation seemed successful. We downloaded apps. Then set it up from our smartphones.

Hours later, the house was freezing. We thought it was because we hadn’t set the temperature high enough. We quickly realized the furnace was not connecting with the Google Nest. This, despite the Nest giving us temperature readings and estimates of how long it would take to heat up. After 3+ hours chatting with Google tech support, trouble shooting and trying different things, we discovered the main issue. Our furnace required some electrical “tweaking” to be compatible with the Nest.

We were shocked! Checking compatibility between the furnace and the thermostat should have been the first step. Additionally, after installing the thermostat, the technician never confirmed if the furnace went back on. It hadn’t. Instead, he relied completely on Google Nest to let him know if there was a problem. Basic human errors. We went out shortly after the installation so we didn’t notice right away.

After exhausting all our options, we ended up re-installing the old thermostat. Within minutes we heard the familiar, and welcome, clanking of the furnace firing up.

Strategies for Using Technology Successfully

I always recommend listing your needs before looking for a technology-based solution. People are often seduced by fancy technology without even knowing if it’s a good fit for what they need.

Another strategy is to set time aside to plan and configure technology properly. I personally find that I always need more time than I think to set things up. For example, even going through all the settings on my new phone has taken me days.

Understand that success depends on a combination of human-based effort and technology. In other words, don’t solely rely on technology. Had that silly tech covered the basics, (e.g., compatibility and the furnace turning on) we wouldn’t have spent so much time later.

Digital Wellbeing: How to Take Control of the Tech in Your Life

I recently got a new phone. During the setup process, a notification flashed to customize the Digital Wellbeing settings. I investigated and discovered a whole app dedicated to monitoring and tracking my phone/app use. A dashboard summary neatly displays the results, such as:

  • how often I unlocked my phone
  • which apps I used most frequently
  • how long I spent on each app
  • the number of notifications received

The settings include ways to silence notifications, set up bedtime mode (i.e., gray scale based on scheduled times), and limit usage of time-consuming (aka addictive) apps. I’m trying out the bedtime mode. I haven’t set up time limits on the apps yet, but I glance at my dashboard once in a while.

The difficulty with this sort of tracking is that a benchmark hasn’t been set. I have no idea if 2 hours/day is good, average, or a waste of my time. I suppose the goal is for me to make my own decisions about my level of addiction. Additionally, it’s difficult to determine the quality of the time spent. Was I sending work emails, billing clients, catching up on news, doing research, or just goofing off on Instagram?

The one stat I’m really curious about is how often I consult my phone for the time and then get distracted by notifications. My watch battery died about the time the pandemic started. Between lockdowns and restrictions I haven’t managed to get the battery replaced yet.

The Irony of Using Tech to Track Tech Usage

It always seems strange to me that the problem is the solution. Tech companies invested lots of time, money, and resources to ensure that we became (and remained) addicted to their products and services. Now, likely because of criticism, studies, and backlash, those same companies are swooping in with a tech-based solution for too much tech.

While reviewing the Google pages on Digital Wellbeing, I was pleased to see some basic, common-sense solutions. These included tips such as “Create device-free zones and times (Tip 04).” Nothing complicated or high tech about this suggestion.

Two low-tech tips from the “Minimize Distractions” section include “Minimize your device use when with others,” and “Put your phone out of sight and out of mind.”

Is Digital Wellbeing about using tech to track, monitor, and control our usage? Or should it be about establishing a healthy relationship with tech and how we interact with it?

Decree of the Digital Mob, How the Internet Makes or Breaks You

Growing up, everybody talked about getting their “15 minutes of fame.” With the long digital memory of online presences, it seems that this time period is extended. Sometimes all it takes is one bad tweet, or post, for something to go viral. After that, who knows how far the information will spread? Or where it will end up. Or what happens to it.

The really challenging part is that it’s almost impossible to get rid of, or change, falsehoods, rumor mongering, and disinformation that takes hold. Bad information plagues, or sometimes destroys, people. Rebuilding a reputation takes a lot of work. If that’s even possible when so many untruths are floating around the internet and social media.

What’s always most surprising to me is how quickly this all happens. And how quickly people latch on to something untrue, unsubstantiated, biased, or sensational to start spreading it around. Often this happens before the information, bad or otherwise, has even been verified. Once the mob mentality takes hold, the momentum picks up.

Digital Mob Behavior

Mob behavior is fascinating to me. I remember in undergrad taking a course called “The Gaucho and the Cowboy: A Comparison of North and South American Cultural Myths.” My professor often reminded us that humans and cows behaved differently in groups. One cow alone is nervous. It remains agitated until it reunites with the herd. Humans, by contrast, are calm on their own. However, humans get worked up easily in a group setting.

In a digital setting, this behavior seems to be just as easy to replicate. In some ways, I think it’s worse. The reach of the internet is immediate and global. In a physical setting, the mob needs time to assemble their pitchforks and torches. It may slow them down slightly. Digital weapons of choice include malicious words, manipulated images, and sensationalized disinformation. Easy to assemble and instant to disseminate.

What isn’t easy is controlling, monitoring, or shutting down online mob behavior. This is especially difficult because sometimes great changes come about from people rallying together digitally. It’s hard to create rules when the outcome could be beneficial or disastrous.

I’m not sure there’s a good answer for how to manage this type of online activity. The only thing I could stress is acting responsibly online, reading things before sending them along, and validating information sources.