The concept of influencers might seem superficial but their impact on society shouldn't be underestimated.(Getty Images: Westend61)
Jimmy Donaldson aka MrBeast, an American in his early twenties, is considered to be the world's highest paid YouTuber.
"He's an absolute phenomenon, he shot … to being one of YouTube's most followed channels within the space of about 18 months."
Youtube Mr Beast
That's according to Olivia Yallop, a digital strategist and commentator on technology and pop culture, who recently published Break the Internet: In Pursuit of Influence.
Influencers like Donaldson may not have the same household recognition as traditional celebrities, despite their work generating hundreds of millions of views and dollars every year, but their impact on society should not be underestimated, she says.
She argues that the power of influencers becomes obvious once the category is broadened to include some unexpected names.
"When we think of influencers we tend to think of a kind of skinny white woman in leggings, talking about flat tummy tea on Instagram," Yallop tells ABC RN's The Drawing Room.
But when you look at world leaders like Donald Trump and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, "they use a textbook of techniques that are replicated almost exactly from the influencer handbook," she says.
In 2019, the Pope joined the discussion, tweeting that he believed that the Virgin Mary was the original influencer.
"That got … quite a shocked and surprised response from his audience," Yallop says.
"But actually … the idea of influence itself, the idea of an influential figure, a celebrity is really nothing new."
Instead it is the context in which the influencer operates that has been transformed.
And Yallop says it was following the 2008 global financial crisis that the influencer culture really started to take hold.
"A combination of factors — economic, social, cultural — and the rise of platforms during that time … conspired to create the perfect conditions for influencers to emerge," she says.
Like Zoe Sugg, who became one of the first big beauty influencers in 2009 when she was just 19 years old. Today she has over nine million followers.
The rapid rise to influencer status
When the movement was taking off, Yallop says more was required of aspiring influencers.
"You were having to put out a lot of content … maybe five times a week," she says. "And it took a series of years to really build up your profile."
Now the influencer space is moving more rapidly due to the arrival of social media platforms like TikTok.
"You have people who are effectively blowing up overnight and you're having careers that are built in a matter of weeks, even a matter of days," she says.
She offers the example of Nathan Evans, who first gained fame in 2020, when he posted videos of himself singing sea shanties on TikTok. Within months, he signed a major record deal.
An 'internet friend'
Unlike traditional celebrities who are admired for their unattainable lifestyle, "influencers are famous for being really relatable", Yallop says.
"The reason they are so successful is because they are just like us. They're authentic, they have managed to harness a large audience by actually being more like a kind of internet friend."
Yallop says digital platforms lend themselves to this particular dynamic.
"With social media, [there's this] expectation to disclose and share personal information and this feeling of pseudo intimacy … also helps [to add] to that effect."
There is a subtle power in this dynamic too.
Influencers are sometimes dismissed as 'famous for being famous' and are seen as slightly vapid. But Yallop says the skill of successful influencers in building an audience should be investigated, rather than overlooked.
"They are able to harness one of the most influential media tools of our time … and use that to effectively navigate themselves and build their brand."
Develop and monetise the audience
It was in 2010 that influencer culture became heavily connected to monetisation and sponsorship, according to Yallop.
"In the early days of Tumblr and MySpace, people were just starting to build online profiles [and] there actually wasn't any monetisation available," she says.
Olivia Yallop has explored the power of the influencer in her new book 'Break The Internet: In Search of Influence'.(Supplied: Olivia Yallop)
Now junklord YouTubers — an informal title for a group of young American men who post videos of themselves doing dangerous and ridiculous stunts — make millions, Yallop says.
"It's a bit of a 'Jackass' for the YouTube era," she explains. "People just effectively pranking each other doing stunts and attempting to game the YouTube algorithm."
And it works. Some like MrBeast are earning hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
But the reality for many influencers is that it's not a hugely profitable enterprise.
And Yallop says pay disparities that exist within the conventional workforce are reflected within influencer culture.
"So white male influences are paid more or receive more sponsorship deals than black influencers or Asian influencers," she says.
Why aren't they household names?
Yallop says there is a "slightly antagonistic relationship" that exists between mainstream media and social media.
While researching, she spoke to influencers who were often critical of the mainstream media because, despite their reach and influence, they weren't approached by conventional media outlets.
Yallop attributes that to traditional media who often see influencers as a "slightly less legitimate form of self information or accumulating power … particularly with regards to things like misinformation or of lack of regulation or lack of standards."
The negative impact of influencers was easy to see, particularly throughout the global pandemic.
"In the past couple of years, there have been multiple instances of influencers being approached to spread misinformation related to the vaccine to coronavirus," Yallop says.
While she believes the majority of influencers are striving to work within a "moral, ethical and legal framework", she says the real issue is "that there actually isn't a lot of regulation around the influence industry".
But there's no doubt that influencers are powerful figures.
For example, in the lead up to the UK's general election in December 2019, British YouTuber and rapper KSI tweeted, encouraging young people to enrol to vote.
A record number of people aged 18 to 25 signed up in the hours after his tweet, and over 300,000 people enrolled to vote, Yallop says.
"It was an absolute landslide."
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