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Influencers Decoded

Social media inaugurated a new kind of social power based on visibility.

Key points

  • The complex societies of history offered limited routes to fame and power. The main routes to fame were being a religious figure or miltary hero.
  • Now, Internet personalities influence trends in fashion and sportswear and cosmetics, technology, cooking, music, politics, and entertainment.
  • Obsession with influencers is associated with maladaptive daydreaming and problematic Internet use that robs fans of time and energy.

In societies of the past, there was a slight variation in status between individuals in a community. This all changed with the emergence of hereditary wealth and the rise of states, armies, and religious institutions. Internet influencers acquire a novel form of status.

Notable figures in complex societies come in three primary forms, saints, soldiers, and celebrities. Celebrities are of two kinds, hereditary celebrities, such as monarchs, and individuals who gain fame or notoriety on their account.

Saints, Soldiers, and Celebrities

The complex societies of history offered limited routes to fame and power. There were religious figures whose lives were held up as examples of living, whether Saint Maria Goretti sacrificed her life to be sexually compromised or Saint Francis, who lived at peace with the world. Saints were the subject of numerous biographies that inspired religious followers.

The other main route to fame was via military heroism, with conquerors from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Napoleon Bonaparte being widely admired despite their ruthlessness.

All mass media have the potential to create celebrities. This phenomenon was visible early in the 19th century when romantic poetry was popular. Leading poets, such as William Wordsworth and John Keats, were widely adulated to have a devoted following similar to rock stars of our era.

Authors of mass-circulation novels, such as Charles Dickens, became important public figures who increased their public exposure through public readings that were very well attended.

With the arrival of cinema early in the 20th century, there was an almost immediate emergence of a new kind of celebrity – the movie star. Movie studios quickly realized the monetary value of their stars and set about controlling every detail of their public lives so that their stardom was burnished rather than tarnished. Their fandom and earning power continued to increase.

Influencers as Stars of the Internet

Hollywood stars presented a public image of success, beauty, and affluence. They were widely admired and emulated even as journalists busied themselves in digging up scandalous stories that opened up cracks in their brilliant public image.

In general, their economic prospects were linked to the success of their movies. However, some enterprising individuals used their name recognition to branch out into other fields, such as Jane Fonda moving into the exercise-and-fitness industry. Others made money from product endorsements, such as Jill St. John marketing soap.

These subsidiary activities are a key part of the earning capacity of many celebrities. Today, including sports stars are marketing athletic gear. Internet celebrities continue exploiting this revenue stream, but they are active in a great variety of different fields.

Internet personalities influence trends in fashion and sportswear and cosmetics, technology, cooking, music, politics, and entertainment.

Some have used social media as a platform to launch their fashion brands, rising to prominence in a matter of days when conventional fashion brands often took years to make a dent. Chiara Ferragni is the most successful fashion brand spun on the Internet, and she makes a fortune from her sponsored fashion posts.

Some business niches are entirely new. An electronic games enthusiast has become one of the most viewed vloggers on YouTube, and PewDiePie is also one of the most subscribed influencers with some 100 million subscribers.

There are huge fortunes to be made by Internet content creators, and the most intriguing aspect of these success stories is that they can happen very quickly. That is one reason that the value of the online creator economy is growing more rapidly than any other industry.

The Internet creator economy increased by a factor of 20 in the past five years. Key content creators often identify unique niches and work hard to gain followers and monetize their attention. Unfortunately, these endeavors are not always benign, and some Internet personalities gain followers by spinning outrageous lies and conspiracy theories.

We can be happy for successful influencers pursuing more legitimate enterprises, but their large fan bases are generally luckless.

Fandom and Its Perils

People who become obsessed with Internet celebrities often aspire to be like them. Unfortunately, most who crave Internet fame are unlikely to realize their dreams of overnight celebrity and instant riches.

That such ambitions may lead nowhere is not very important in itself. Yet, it may interfere with more humdrum goals that involve working for success in more realistic channels. Obsession with influencers is associated with maladaptive daydreaming and problematic Internet use that robs fans of time and energy for more productive goals.

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