If you’ve spent any amount of time on X in the few days since this year began, you’ve seen Elon go on jags against immigration. You’ve seen Mark Cuban get into a big dustup with Elon over DEI. You’ve seen Bill Ackman go on a campaign to remove Claudine Gay from her post at Harvard (and subsequently find his wife in the same crosshairs he kept trained on Claudine).
On the surface, maybe that just seems like billionaires doing what billionaire do, but if you look just below the surface… at the replies… you’ll see something more interesting afoot. You will find fans of these men cheering them on.
As a capitalist culture, we’ve always deified titans of industry. Edison, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Buffet, Gates… their abilities to shape industries and amass wealth gave them an aura of preternatural knowledge and skill of which we could only hope to gain a fraction. They were above us. Back then, we revered them. Today, we stan them.
A few weeks back on a post about fandom, I noted that objects of fandoms tend to be both reflective of us and aspirational for us. Surprisingly, we have reached a point where the superwealthy can be reflective and aspirational. That’s because, for the billionaire class, social media has had the same kind of transformational effect on these entrepreneurs as it had on celebrities. It has changed our relationship to them. We now engage in parasocial relationships with billionaires who seem like they are like us because they tweet. And sometimes reply.
Not only has it changed how we relate to the billionaire class, it has also changed how they relate to us. It has turned them into influencers. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool techno-optimist, so please take heed when I say that this is terrible.
For most of this century, influencers have had the advantage of being perceived as being people “just like me,” and as our faith in institutions has fallen, faith in “people like me” increased. It’s made influencers great pitch people for all kinds of brands. These new Billionfluencers, however, don’t have mobile games or cosmetics to hock. Instead, they have revered educational institutions to bully, they have “steals” to stop, and they have their own platforms to convince you to use to influence the nation’s social discourse. Billionfluencers have the most to gain with the least required to gain it.
Part of what makes influencers compelling is that, because they seem “like us,” their accomplishments and lifestyles seem within reach. The lives of billionaires will not be within our reach until today’s billionaires are tomorrow’s multi-trillionaires, and the result of this billionaire $tan culture is a toxic populism that we’ve already witnessed with Donald Trump and the army of people who refuse to recognize him as an elite despite his being maybe the only owner of a golden toilet in America.
It’s 2024, and this is where we are. We are entering an age of billionfluencers (I would also accept billionfluencaires), people who already had the greatest corporate and political influence imaginable and who have gained more direct influence over us. They have the ability to shape our discourse by owning and operating our social media platforms (calling them “town squares”) and directing their millions of followers’ attention to whatever it is that is bothering them at the moment, whether it is Donald Trump insulting his judges on Truth Social or Bill Ackman bullying academic institutions on X. I’ll be honest. I don’t know what the solution is here. I can’t imagine a different kind of media literacy or regulation that will solve the problem. Ultimately, the solution lies with us, and the first thing we could all do is stop following these people. We don’t need to be following them to be aware of what they’re saying because other people will retweet and write articles about their every move. So if you’re following one of these people, think it over, and consider unfollowing for all of our sakes.
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