If Shakespeare were alive today, what would he think about social media? This type of question is an imaginative prompt. It is a call to speculate. It can’t be a hypothesis because there is no way to prove it. Without the ghost of Shakespeare communicating with us, we can only use his words and ideas to dream up an answer.
One thing I can say with conviction is that Shakespeare understood the power of social influence. He dramatizes transformative dynamics of persuasion in the comedy As You Like It. In the first scene we have a confrontation between brothers. Their father has recently passed away and the younger sibling Orlando is asserting himself as a rightful heir. This kind of self-promotion, this dogged belief in one’s own rights and worth, has Logan Paul written all over it.
When he is denied his rightful portion of his inheritance, he fights a professional wrestler. This performance is a public spectacle and because he is willing to risk being hurt or being humiliated, Orlando creates a scene that has a lot of interest for the audience, including the cousins Rosalind and Celia. Make no mistake about it, Rosalind is the most powerful influencer of the play, the Call Her Daddy of the Forest of Arden, but the play begins with Orlando’s fight. Rosalind’s reaction to the occasion is funny and telling.
The title As You Like It might as well be describing how social media algorithms work. As you like things on Facebook, as you spend time on various websites, your desires begin to take shape in the form of data, and this is reflected to you in the messaging of targeted ads. Your affinity for things creates a path paved with offers for those things. As you like it, it is served to you. When we are first introduced to Rosalind and Celia, they are discussing their problems and they decide that to find some escape from their troubles they are going to use love as a diversion. They make the decision to play the game of liking boys.
This decision is followed immediately by an opportunity to meet a hot young influencer. Rosalind follows her instinct for pleasure when she hears about a wrestler who has been breaking young men’s ribs. Of course, she wants to see that. Orlando appears out of nowhere to fight the wrestler, Charles. It is as though their decision to find diversion through love conjures up a meeting. She wants to find a boy toy. Driven by desire for entertainment she meets Orlando. Rosalind and Celia are hilariously explicit in their desire to find distraction through love with the exception that they are not going to take the guys seriously. They are out for a fling, looking to feast on man tears. Along comes young Orlando. Poor unwitting dude.
The wrestling is being performed for the Duke, Celia’s father, so when they all assemble for the match, he sees his daughter and niece and calls them over to him. He asks them to talk to Orlando, to convince him not to wrestle. Poor Orlando is so bummed about his stupid older brother he has become super emo. He says he has nothing to lose, that if he dies then he opens a place for someone else, some real self-pitying stuff. It’s funny because he’s doing this brave thing, but he’s also super bummed on himself. You can see the negative influence his brother has on him.
Orlando shocks the crowd by beating the wrestler and his victory transforms his mood and his status. The women go to congratulate him on the fight, and he finds himself completely enamored with Rosalind to the point that he can’t manage to form any words. Talk about influence. Rosalind from this moment has the upper hand. She is also attracted to Orlando, but he is mad for her.
In Shakespeare’s depiction of their world, it is influence or be influenced and that is true in social media today, too. You are either driving the conversation or following it. Rosalind plays the game expertly. Orlando is such a simp for her that it is easy. She can manipulate him to her will.
Under the influence of his affection for Rosalind, Orlando becomes obsessed with romantic love. He spends his days writing poetry and pining away in the woods. He changes all his habits because of her. Rosalind can influence Orlando the way an Instagram model can get people to subscribe to her Only Fans. It’s all too easy.
To play the game better, Rosalind takes on an alter ego so she can interact anonymously with Orlando. She convinces the poor sap to pretend that she is Rosalind and to practice expressing his love for her. Orlando thinks he is pretending that this young man Ganymede is Rosalind, when it really is her. Rosalind uses this catfishing technique to test Orlando and to see how he responds. She begins to train him how she wants him to behave, punishing him for being late and constantly questioning the authenticity of his feelings.
Rosalind has extremely strict rules for how lovers should behave, and she holds him accountable. It is not until Orlando is physically harmed that Rosalind is in turn influenced herself. When she is shown a bloody piece of Orlando’s shirt and it is explained to her that he was injured defending his brother from a mountain lion she passes out. This reversal of influence illustrates the game of social influence and is relevant to understanding how today’s media and marketing functions. As you like it, you allow it to influence you.