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Why building a cult of personality is probably easier than we think in the digital age

Last Sunday morning I was sipping coffee, scrolling through Twitter and found myself suddenly overcome by the urge to innocently tweet this—one of my favorite strong, never-give-up mottoes: 

Said it before, I’ll say it again: Go ahead & put an obstacle in my path. I’ll devour it & the outcome’ll be even greater than what u feared


Right away, a personalized T-shirt company saw an opportunity in that and retweeted it, appealing to me to put my motto on a shirt. I tweeted back an extra snarky, Thanks but no thanks, which I made sure would be publicly viewable. I didn’t stop there. Next, I retweeted a quote and dedicated it to the T-shirt company:

Success is normally found in a pile of mistakes. —Tim Fargo


I laughed to myself as I retweeted that. Then sat back, grabbed my coffee mug and slunk down in what I can only describe as a moment of self-reflection that didn’t feel particularly good.

That was the moment I began to realize this Twitter thing was going too far.

I started tweeting in 2009, dropping off in early 2011 and then left my Twitter account idle for three years, having amassed a paltry 300-some followers. I’d been building a solid following of real connections so most of them were still on board when I returned to Twitter earlier this year. Since then I’ve steadily doubled my following and counting. And as my audience has grown, so has my urge to tweet.

In August Kelly Keegs mercilessly live-tweeted an already-unfortunate public breakup (with pictures) that was occurring on her flight… To much acclaim. That was the point at which I realized social media—not just Twitter, all of it—has the very real potential to create monsters. Monsters who can’t get enough. Monsters who care very little for anything other than selfies and self-serving snark. Monsters who can be lead to rapidly spread inappropriate videos of the live murder of two journalists. Monsters like a murderer who would commit such an act on live TV and then post video of it. Monsters like The Fat Jew who pulled off a scam to become “internet famous” to the point of being signed by one of Hollywood’s largest agencies. And monsters like the one I recognized developing in myself when I publicly tweeted for laughs at the expense of another.

As a result of this, I began researching the effects of fame and power. Effects we’re all susceptible to with even just a small, growing social media audience, it would seem. Even without the use of hashtags and other tactical means, I've been surprised at how I've been able to attract followers. Followers that are beginning to interact with my content. And just like my urge to tweet, the more followers I attract, the more I want and aim to attract.

There is a paradox for nearly everything and as it turns out, there is a power paradox, too: 

 The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.

In other words, emotional intelligence, empathy, and cooperation—the very attributes we seek in leaders—are easily corrupted once people attain positions of leadership. So, in many cases Machiavellian tendencies don’t actually get people to the top, they show up after they’ve gotten there.

And when it comes to Emotional Intelligence (EI), last year The Atlantic reported that:

Researchers examined what they call “the dark side” of EI, and their findings suggest an unnerving link between understanding people and using them. [In 2013], a group of Austrian psychologists reported a correlation between EI and narcissism, raising the possibility that narcissists with high EI might use their “charming, interesting, and even seductive” qualities for “malicious purposes,” such as deceiving others. Similarly, a 2014 study linked “narcissistic exploitativeness” with “emotion recognition”—those who were prone to manipulating others were better at reading them.

To make matters worse (and then also a bit better):

Another study found that “Machiavellians” (those who rated high on a scale of “Machiavellianism”—essentially, manipulativeness) with high EI were more likely to have publicly embarrassed someone else for self-promotional reasons. Happily for the rest of us, there don’t seem to be many emotionally intelligent Machiavellians on the loose—Scottish researchers found Machiavellianism to be inversely correlated with EI.

So might these findings link to a power paradox? Maybe so. In that case, it would seem that the behavior researchers observed in Machiavellians who were willing to publicly embarrass others could have been a symptom of EI-meets-feelings-of-power. And certainly this could explain some celebrity behavior.

All of this goes to show that creating a cult of personality is probably a lot easier than anyone imagines, especially when one has high EI in the digital age.

As for me? For now, I’m cutting back on the social media use for a while and making an effort to not get too caught up in the idea of being in the limelight. I believe that with any kind of leadership and influence come a responsibility to be kind and fair—and to not publicly seek even just one meager Twitter accolade at the expense of another.

Alyssa YeagerComment