Following the followers: so where are the leaders?

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Jackson Prince, co-editor-in-chief

@katyperry, @justinbieber, @taylorswift13, @ladygaga and @britneyspears.

You know them. You probably follow them.

In fact, these people amass 245,950,853 followers. To put it into perspective, if all of their followers lined up in single file, they’d wrap around the Earth approximately six times.

We have fixated our Twitter accounts on these figures, as well as countless other celebrities, athletes and mildly talented “Vine-famous” or “Insta-famous” sell-ebrities. Yes, there’s money in it for all of them, as they add each of us to their growing list of followers. We blissfully bask in the wake of every Tweet, Vine or Gram, take behavioral cues from them, and check our social media religiously for their changes in hair color, their favorite new song or movie (cha-ching), or their relationship status with @nickjonas.

For these societal figures to rack up so many followers, there are a few basic criteria that seem to be absolute musts: they must own an iPhone for proper Instagramming, they must be overly-attractive (or entertainingly unattractive) and they must keep an excellent ratio of “followers-to-following” in order to appear desired, rather than desiring.

And it’s not just celebrities. YouTube (over 45 million followers) and Instagram (over 35 million followers) have company Twitter accounts. Even Twitter itself has over 32 million followers.  Like I said, there’s money to be made.

We follow these people, or these cutting-edge companies, because they’re…well, sexy. They’ve been taught to be sexy. They have teams of experts on their payroll who train them to say the right things, take the right pictures and wear the right designer clothing in just the right way. If we acknowledge the ridiculousness of selling our souls in becoming followers of these clapping monkeys, then the situation is merely ironic. But that’s not so. Most of us take pride in being followers: we loudly retweet and share Vines and Instagrams with everyone we know. (And, thanks to the brilliance of social media, many we don’t know.)

That’s not ironic. That’s sad.

The point is simple. If we are the followers, who are we choosing to follow? The natural response to such a question would be a “leader.” From pre-school, we’ve been taught to follow the leader who is, quite simply, “someone that leads,” according to Merriam-Webster. But let’s delve a little bit deeper, as that definition would hardly be deserving of a Tweet. Warren Bennis, a pioneer in the field of examining this subject, says that “leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” In the past, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, George Washington, Eva Peron and even Adolf Hitler were hailed as leaders as they translated their visions to a common goal (good or evil) shared by hundreds of millions of literal, not virtual, followers. Today, there are few followers, especially here in America, willing to take to the streets to join forces behind a charismatic leader. Leadership demanded such action in the past. Instead, today it takes a mere blue checkmark beside one’s name to be considered a leader in society. Leaders of the past have nothing on Rihanna and the 11 million who follow her Instagram account, and its accompanying photo of the singer in a bikini, showing off her tattoos and smoking what appears to be a special kind of cigarette.

Bill Gates said, “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” But then again, why listen to this billionaire inventor and marketer?  @BillGates is only 36th on the list of followers on Twitter, paling in comparison to such great thinkers as @pitbull, @NICKIMINAJ and @NiallOfficial, better known as Niall Horan.

That’s right. The guy who stands behind the front-man of @onedirection, @harry_styles, is followed by more people than the creator of Microsoft.

Some people follow for breaking celebrity news, for information that separates those “in-the-know” from those out of it. Others follow out of societal pressure, as “Who are you following?” has become a much more significant question than “What are you reading?” or, more to the point, “What do you think?”.

With more people caught up in the seductive and socially imperative “follower” status, we have to ask a frightening question: Is anyone leading?

We have a President (@BarackObama) and the members of our federal, state and city governments who lead. (Obama is, indeed, in the top five of “most followed” on Twitter.) We have heads of societal revolutions (in the middle East and in Hong Kong, currently) and innovators of technology (not merely social networking technology) who lead.  And we have real role models in society (those who care about the environment and civil rights) who lead. But even these people are still prey to the wolf of the blue checkmark.

How do we create real leaders in a culture of followers? How will young people be inspired to act for the sake of taking action, either for or against a cause, to “translate vision into reality” and “empower others” as well? To act as a true leader, rather than being relegated to performing a “Jackass” style stunt in order to attract more followers? How will society progress if we are stuck in a vicious loop of retweets? Of a generation who gets more credit for following than they do for leading?

Yes, there is “cred” given for collecting followers but, to be honest, currency for the non-celeb (the rest of us) is in the importance of who we are savvy enough to follow. And that currency increases with the creation of every new social media app or site. The “follower” culture is in full-swing, and there’s no going back. The only thing that our society can do is to find ways to assign less value to who we’re following, and more value to who is leading, in the traditional sense. Because there will always be a problem if, in the flock, each sheep follows the next sheep who is following yet another sheep, often without knowing who’s the leader.

As it has been said, “He who follows the flock will eventually step in s***.”

If the endless retweeting continues to expand, I’m afraid society will be burdened by billions of pairs of s***-stained shoes.

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