HERE’S A FACT of life I inherently believe: you either die, or you live long enough to see the things you love get ‘McKinsey’d’. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by thought leader presentations… or so I imagine a 21st century update of Allan Ginsberg’s Howl might go.

As someone whose job revolves around ideas, it stings a little to admit I have idea fatigue. It’s hard to identify a single culprit, but there’s no doubt algorithmic social media—TikTok, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram—plays a role. At every turn, I am being talked at, explained to or being instructed. Even if, to some people’s credit, they’re on track to be the next David Attenborough or Steve Jobs, when ‘expert’ content has become so saturated and disposable that it’s like the confectionary of the internet, how would we even know?

The term ‘thought leader’ was coined by American author and editor Joel Kurtzman in the ’90s, when he was the founding editor-in-chief of Strategy+Business magazine, and later wrote a book on the topic. Like catnip for the chronically corporate culture of the era, Kurtzman defined the term as a person recognised by “peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate”. Ok bet. But my beef with the thought leaders of today starts with Kurtzman’s all-important definition tail end: “They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”

How many of them can say they are truly meeting that bar?

We’ve arrived at an interesting intersection of culture, where business, hustle culture, storytelling, digital communication, entertainment, self-reflection and affirmation, and the creator economy have collided. It’s not enough to be good at your job, successful in your field of study or have a hobby you enjoy, you also have to be a brand. And so, as the pressure to perform grows, the line between influencer and trusted expert blurs. And as we’ve seen in other sectors, like journalism, the arts, academia, law and government, when you throw the accessibility of generative AI into the mix, it gets even messier.

“When it comes to posting on LinkedIn, we’ve heard that you generally know what you want to say, but going from a great idea to a full-fledged post can be challenging and time-consuming,” writes Keren Baruch, director of product at LinkedIn, in a recent post announcing the platform’s planned AI tools. “So, we’re starting to test a way for members to use generative AI directly within the LinkedIn share box.”

All the program asks for is a 30-word outline to serve as the core of the post, and the generative AI will do the rest. You just add your own polish and post. LinkedIn is already a hotbed of plagiarism, posturing and back-patting—I have seen my own work and the work of other journalists and researchers spat out and ChatGPT-summarised with a ‘get in contact for a free consultation on this topic’ call to action—so I’ll let you imagine what might happen when this application launches.

Despite all this, we’re just as hungry for ideas as we’ve ever been. It leads one to wonder if the issue isn’t quantity, but quality and the overall experience of consumption. In Australia, we have a thriving talks and ideas festival industry that’s been consistently growing for more than 20 years. Some of the biggest include Vivid Ideas Sydney, Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Semi Permanent, Tedx and SXSW Sydney— the latter just made its debut in Sydney this October, the first SXSW event outside of its Austin, USA, home base.

“There is nothing like being in a room and seeing people on stage, sharing big ideas,” says Fenella Kernebone, head of programming (conference) for SXSW Sydney, which has an involved and multi-tiered vetting process for its speakers. “It’s that physical experience of collectively having an ‘aha’ moment, or, you turn to the person who’s a stranger next to you and you’re nodding, clapping or maybe you even vehemently disagree, but you’re next to someone else. You can feel the impact of an idea in that moment.”

The power of being in the room is really what the digital ideas/creator economy has tried to replicate and democratise, maybe at its own peril. Because when everyone is inundated with industry thoughts, how do you program for original thought?

“I program with an appreciation and desire to hear from people that have a genuine connection and expertise in their subject matter,” says Mitchell Oakley Smith, global creative director of Semi Permanent. “Sometimes, that is people who are not public speakers.” This tone of humanity and vulnerability, he says, is the most important part of building connection, which in a way, is the antidote to brand-speak. “I want to hear from people that know all about their field. And work day-to-day in it, to give me those insights, as opposed to people that talk about everything, but specialise in nothing.

“There is always going to be a place, and I think it’s growing, for people to come together and have a shared experience around learning,” adds Oakley Smith. As we become busier and busier, and we work more remotely, there are fewer chances for that to happen, and so we lean on what is available.

“To be able to have that experience and to hear from sort of captains of industry is so integral to the professional experience, growing creatively or professionally,” says Oakley Smith. “I think people do forget this because there is so much [professional chatter] in the world now—but when it is done well and the people that you’re hearing from are offering something really of value, then the power of that shouldn’t be underestimated.”

In an ever-changing world, where innovation, technology and cultural shifts are central to the sharing of ideas, we’ll soon find that analysis and critical thought are what will help us to navigate how we move forward as a society. But you have to allow for humanity. If content is too robotic or polished, as the AI-generated thought posts you’ll be fed on social platforms are likely to be, it won’t matter how insightful they are; the opportunity for connection will have been lost. “If you don’t allow for any vulnerability or human element,” says Oakley Smith.

“Then you’re left to ask: how much of them [thought leaders] are you actually hearing from?”


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