Forget AI, why viralism is costing you your job

Perhaps technology is not the greatest threat to your livelihood after all?

In a landscape dominated by conversations around AI, there’s another more subversive form of technological change at play that is creating an entirely new form of social divide: viralism.  

If it’s not a phrase already, I, AJ Lamarque, am coining it: viralism – discrimination based on follower count, engagement, reach and other social media metrics. But beyond influencers comparing how many followers they have against their digital enemies, the wider impact of discrimination based on your social media presence is becoming more apparent and changing industries themselves. None more so than the arts and entertainment industry. 

In yesteryear, there was the idea that a fresh-faced actor from the rough part of town with the right passion for performing could head into an audition and walk out with a career-launching role. I say “idea” because we all know they were still battling against nepotism, sexism, queerphobia, racism, ableism etc. Which are all still quite rampant, as the recent allegations against Lizzo go to prove. And, unfortunately, reporting toxic behaviour in the arts is the quickest way to kickstart your career in hospitality. But in the last few years, there have been changes in the way auditions, for everything from big blockbuster productions down to the humble TV ad, are being undertaken. 

On top of your headshot and measurements, it’s now becoming the norm to be asked for your social media analytics. How many followers you have, how well they engage with your content and how much you can persuade your audience to buy a product, watch a video, donate etc. This is being measured to such an extent that your follower count is becoming increasingly more important in auditions than the audition itself. 

From the business perspective, this makes perfect sense. These companies are spending an incredible amount of money to create work and their return on investment comes from viewership/ticket sales. So, why just hire an actor, when you could hire an actor who can share it directly to their thousands of audiences upon release? Win-win. And that isn’t a new concept either; the industry has hired celebrities for years on that basis, just without the intrusive social media metric analysis.

Additionally, viralism has also had some net-positive effects on disrupting other forms of discrimination. People from diverse backgrounds who have created space for themselves on social media and have garnered large followings are being approached to work on projects because, despite the industry considering their diversity a disadvantage, the number of followers and influence they possess provides a form of social proof that they’re worth investing in. The business transaction is viable. While the intention is impure, the impact means that people who are diverse have an avenue for equal consideration that didn’t exist a few years ago. 

As viralism becomes the new normal, artists are being forced to grow their online audiences and take on the complicated, shadowy and dangerous world of social media algorithms.  

I’ll be the first to acknowledge I have no clue how social media algorithms work. Most people don’t and I believe that’s the whole point. The idea that if you invest more time and energy on these platforms you could be rewarded greatly means the incentive to actually divulge the truth behind how algorithms work is non-existent. Even in conversations with friends that have incredible followings online, they’ll feel like they understand how it works then, seemingly out of nowhere, they’ll stop getting rewarded and have to change gear to keep up. There are even some indications that platforms like TikTok don’t just rely on algorithms, but staff can choose specific users that will get visibility over others

There’s an element of luck and potentially favouritism, but to make good content regularly, you probably need to be financially well-off too. In addition to having a decent camera (or phone) and microphone set-up, you may need to edit videos (or pay someone else), but more so you need the financial stability to have the time and mental space to create and record your ideas. I don’t know many people with full-time jobs that can also create seven days worth of videos, draft and post all the content, and then keep on top of trends and research so they can make sure they’re in the loop. And that’s not even considering the mental health aspect in regards to trolls, predatory comments, threatening messages and more.

All of that is an incredible amount of work just to have a social following and, if that’s required as a baseline for a modern arts career, are we slowly slipping into a new and toxic era for discrimination in the industry? And beyond this contemporary class divide, will viralism see a reduction in the quality of the work being produced? There’s nothing to say that a social media influencer has any more skill in their baseline craft than anyone else nor do I believe that the algorithms are actually seeking and rewarding those at the top of their game artistically, as opposed to those who keep people engaging with their social media platforms. 

Read: Elvis was the original influencer

I wonder how long this trend will remain solely in the arts and entertainment industries too. Is a start-up better served with a marketing manager who’s got a following they can piggyback off? Will a popular lawyer with a large fan base skew public opinion in your favour if you end up in court? 

So, to paint a grim picture: while AI may take your job in the future, viralism is probably costing you your job today.  

AJ’s writing spans TV, stand-up comedy, articles and playwriting. He’s currently working on a political-satire, murder mystery play with Bridie Connell. His premier solo show, 'English Breakfast', debuted in 2022 and was awarded ‘Best practice in Cultural Equity’ at the 2022 Melbourne Fringe Festival. On TV he has written for 'Gruen' and 'Question Everything' with Wil Anderson (where his best jokes were vetoed by the ABC lawyers). He also hosted Comedy Zone at the 2023 Melbourne International Comedy Festival and was the the Official Ambassador for the Sydney Fringe Festival in 2022. AJ recently completed his residency as part of the Australian Council for the Art’s Future Leader program.