Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Have Our Lives Become a Popularity Contest?

Internet competition is bringing us back to high school. Time to graduate.

Linda Moon/Shutterstock

Is it my imagination or has life regressed into a giant popularity contest, measurable (thanks to the Internet) in numbers of followers, views, “likes,” etc.? Is the new goal for our existence, the new virtue to aspire to, being popular, or at least perceived as such?

A young woman recently came to me excited and proud of herself. When I asked why, she told me that she had managed to acquire 20 new Instagram followers, cracking a ceiling that she had been unable to reach. She had achieved this “accomplishment” by using her Instagram credits in a particular way that I didn’t quite understand. While it was not clear if the new followers actually signed up themselves, she was quick to inform me that they were indeed real people, even if she didn’t know them personally. This is the new definition of “accomplishment"—raising your numbers of followers, thereby achieving the impression that you are interesting and, of course, popular. Who needs actual athletic, personal, or academic accomplishments, when you can feel the real pride that comes from having your selfie earn a one-minute spot on Instagram’s front page!

It’s sad enough to value popularity as a goal in life, but tragic when we realize that the so-called followers we consider valuable and important are not actually followers at all, in the true sense of the word. Followers used to mean people who believed in us or our ideas—devotees. It had a qualitative meaning. Now followers are numbers we amass by using the Internet in increasingly clever ways. Often our followers know nothing about us or what it is they are supposedly following. The new follower is simply a statistic that we buy with the “like” of someone else’s post or the promotion of someone else’s page. People even advertise: If you follow me, I will follow you. It's a game of smoke and mirrors.

In even more extreme cases, some followers are not even real humans but rather BOTs, otherwise known as web robots. These followers don’t exist at all, except as lines of computer code. They are in fact computer programs designed to behave like humans. Such lines of code pump up someone’s followers number, which then makes it look as if they are more popular. And here’s where it gets really high-school-ish: Other people then follow that person because they think he or she is popular. The emperor not only naked, but downright mad!

There used to be a developmental stage in life, usually sometime in our thirties, when we moved from the outside to the inside. That is, we would stop defining ourselves by what others thought of us and became more interested in what we thought about ourselves and the world, regardless of whether it was popular or not.

This stage could also be called “growing up.”

It seems, though, that this stage of life has now been canceled. More and more, no matter our age, our sense of self and what is important to us is determined by what others think, or at least what it looks like they think.

Young adults run much of the internet industry and for that generation, popularity as a pursuit is not appropriate. But as the internet becomes more pervasive in our lives, the rest of us, who are not creating code, and not twenty-somethings, are gradually taking on the values of the generation that is.

In truth, we still have a choice of how we want to behave. All great movements of change began because someone was willing to stand for something that wasn’t popular. I wonder if we still have the courage to put our name on something that has no followers? If it had always been this way, could any great revolution ever have come to pass?

Is being popular really what we want to hold up as the most meaningful aspect of life, or the truest sign of achievement? Because this is precisely what we are now modeling. We are encouraging children to chase approval, no matter how shallow, and view their own worth as determined by external sources, often people they don’t even know or respect. “Likes” are flimsy planks on which to build a house of self-worth and moral structure. If we adults don’t re-establish a firm gauge for what is important in life, for what sustains and nourishes us, makes us feel genuinely well, and gives us a deeper sense of meaning, we will emotionally and spiritually bankrupt ourselves and future generations.

We will certainly rob our children of the experience of true self-esteem.

The values I consider important may be irrelevant in 10 years. Perhaps by then, "followers" will come to mean something entirely different, and take on a profundity we can’t yet imagine. Perhaps there won’t even be a private, internal self left to consult with on what is important, and all that will remain is a universal, internet-based selfie.

In the meantime, I will encourage my children to like themselves, to become their own destination regardless of what’s gone viral, and to view accomplishment as something internally-driven, earned, and reliable. This is the best lesson we can offer. At the very least, it gives children a chance at having real confidence, and a life that will nourish them with substance and meaning. But, we adults have to model this mindset and behavior—by assigning worth back where it belongs, and not letting the internet dictate our larger human priorities and values. We can do better than popularity as our mission statement and purpose in life. We can all graduate from high school—yet again.