My reading this week included an engaging piece by Ann Friedman, All LinkedIn with Nowhere to Go, which decries the rise of “thought leaders” on LinkedIn, the business-cards-on-steroids social media site. Friedman especially dislikes how people with no history of actual business success can hang out the “thought leader” shingle and start attracting streams of followers.
Half of my double major in college was in English Lit. So I immediately thought of an exemplar for this 21st-century phenomenon: someone who lived in the 18th century, Samuel Johnson.
Johnson, or Dr. Johnson as he made sure he was known in the London coffeehouses of his day, wrote a good bit of literary criticism and was best known for his stupendous dictionary, which took him nine years to compile. In person, he was the embodiment of bombast. I can imagine him horning in on the lively coffeehouse discussions, soon moving to the head of the table and transforming himself into the center of attention. He attracted lots of followers — including one, James Boswell, whose biography of Johnson helped ensure that his fame would last long beyond his lifetime.
Dr. Johnson was a “thought leader,” and had the term existed in the 18th century he probably would’ve embraced it. But in terms of literature, he actually wrote very little of note. Not that it matters.
Ann Friedman notwithstanding, we’ve had “thought leaders” for millenia. Blaming LinkedIn for their ascendancy is like blaming the rooster for the sunrise. I daresay there’s something about human nature that makes us want to be thought of as influencers. And there’s also something that makes us want to follow people who, when life has us at a loss, seem to have some idea which road to take.
As for all of the “thought leaders” on LinkedIn (and elsewhere on the web): I don’t mind them. I’ll read what they have to say, and then, applying the critical thinking skills I learned through the other half of my double major — Philosophy — I’ll take what I can use and leave the rest behind.
Image: Samuel Johnson portrait by Joshua Reynolds (source: Wikipedia Commons)