The Inscrutable Rise of the Online ‘Influencer’
‘Influencing’ online has something to do with money, power, and popularity, with brand identities and likes. But when you get down to it, the influencer is pretty hard to picture.
The canon of American Halloween costumes usually includes an array of professions—nurse, pilot, fireman, cop—which return to the shelves autumn after autumn and remain, for the most part, unchanged. But last month, as the Halloween season got underway, fast fashion megacorp Urban Outfitters unveiled a new addition: the Influencer.
The Influencer Halloween Costume Set, which runs at $59.00 before tax and shipping, is understated as costumes go, to put it mildly. It's just a sports bra with leggings. The model is pictured with a cap, a sweatshirt, sneakers, sunglasses, and a butt-length blonde wig—but none of these, the caption notes, are included in the set. The result is a preposterously forgettable combo straight out of yoga class, or Kanye’s Yeezy collections, or the actual underwear section elsewhere on the site, which sells roughly the same pieces for similarly steep prices. “Channel Instagram style in this low-key costume set worthy of a superstar influencer,” the caption reads. “Featuring a minimalist sporty-chic sports bra + leggings in muted tonal hues for a look that’s so now.”
In the past few years, the term “influencer” has become virtually unavoidable. It’s been embraced by ad agencies (a recent study from the Association of National Advertisers found that 75 percent of companies use influencer marketing); adopted by retailers (fashion e-commerce site Revolve used the word 79 times in their IPO filing last month); welcomed into the lexicon of mainstream media (a Google search for “influencer” and “New York Times” yields nearly 3 million results); and cited so often by critics as an emblem of cultural decay, that it’s become a kind of shorthand for the perversions of late capitalism. But for a word so widely used, it’s surprisingly hard to grasp what it actually means.
By most accounts, “influencing” has something to do with social media and something to do with marketing. Money, power, and popularity are involved, as are brand identities, promotional samples, and likes. But like so much corporate jargon, when taken literally, the phrase, denoting only a vague power to affect, is spectacularly hollow. A Google image search for “influencer,” for example, yields a constellation—not of people—but of near-identical infographics, whose cartoon characters point, whisper, and, weirdly, hold magnets. Even the etymology is cryptic: “influence” stems from a Latin astrology term, meaning “the flowing in of ethereal fluid (affecting human destiny).”
When the Urban Outfitters costume set dropped, it immediately inspired takes from the fashion media—triggering disgust, enthusiasm, amusement, or often all three—both at the gall of company execs to repackage their own clothes under the guise of a costume, and their apparent self-awareness in acknowledging that part of the influencer demographic overlaps with their own.
But the blandness of the Urban Outfitters costume offered its own kind of commentary, highlighting the sheer ambiguity of the character it intended to capture. It illustrated, as the Wikipedia page for “influencer marketing” put it, that “there is no concensus (sic) of what an ‘influencer’ is”—or at least, not enough of one to attribute anything to their caricature beyond off-white athleisure.
As part of The Daily Beast’s 10-year-anniversary, we’re running reflections on 10 years of important topics in American culture—articles on Obama, Beyoncé, the royals, the president, porn, and, among other things, influencers. But any retrospection on “influencers” comes up against the same problem as the Urban Outfitters costume: namely, that the portrait of the “influencer”—a type which has seared itself into cultural consciousness so forcefully as to demand its own novelty uniform—is actually, when you get down to it, pretty hard to picture.
The distinction between the influencer and the celebrity—or any powerful figure, for that matter, whether they’re a businessperson, blogger, spokesman, or model—is blurry at best. Recent lists of top influencers, for example, reliably include Kim Kardashian, who could fit into most of those categories. They also name Pewdiepie, a video game YouTuber who took heat for using racial slurs in his streams; Deb Perlman, the food writer behind the popular blog “Smitten Kitchen;" and Huda Kattan, a beauty blogger who gained so much traction on Instagram that The New York Times published an article called “Is Huda Kattan the Most Influential Beauty Blogger in the World?” It's a motley crew of the digitally famous, brought together only by their dedicated online presence, their massive followings and the fact that they get money to maintain both. If a celebrity is, as Daniel Boorstin once put it, the “person who is known for his well-knownness,” then seemingly, the only defining feature of the influencer is that they’re the person who gets paid for it.
There was no shortage of people paid for well-knownness when The Daily Beast first went live one decade ago. But even still, the “influencer” was then a nonentity. According to Google Trends, the word wasn’t a popular search term, or even an occasional one—it was almost never searched. That was back in October of 2008, when Blogger was still the top-ranked social media platform (followed closely by Facebook and forgotten gems like Bebo, Hi5, and Yahoo Geocities) and the blogosphere’s most famous personalities included paid—but not yet “influencing”—icons like Arianna Huffington and “Icanhascheezburger.”
If not yet in use, the term was technically around. The noun “influencer” dates back to 1660, when English philosopher Henry More first used it on page 473 of a 478-page text with a tight, digestible title—A Modest Enquiry into the Mystery of Iniquity, the First Part Containing a Careful and Impartial Delineation of the True Idea of Anti Christianism in the Real and Genuine Members thereof, such as are indeed opposite to the indispensable Purposes of the Gospel of Christ, and to the Interest of His Kingdom—while defending the rights of monarchs to retain power over religious leaders after converting to Christianity: “Why may not then so sacred a Fountain,” he wrote, “be the Head and Influencer of the whole Church?” (The original influencers, in other words, were kings.)
But in 2008, the phenomenon of the “influencer,” as we currently understand it, had not yet been named. If “influencing” is anything, it is a very recent thing, a social media byproduct of only the past few years. It is, in the words of some underpaid Urban Outfitters copywriter, “so now.”
The real rise started in early 2014 when Google searches for the term began creeping sluggishly upward, before spiking precipitously in 2016. The Oxford English Dictionary added the word “influencer” in 2017, and since then, searches have more than doubled, reaching their highest rate ever this past month, with no signs yet of slowing down.
The catalyst of the spurt is hard to identify—no one has come out as influencer Patient Zero—but the trend broadly began, as the costume implies, with the resurgence of Instagram. The social media platform, which hit something of a rut in the early-2010s, underwent a drastic rebranding the same year that “influencer” surfaced. The company redesigned their app, launched “Stories”—the disappearing image concept stolen straight from Snapchat—and rearranged their feed to favor popularity, instead of chronology, rendering the app both friendlier to advertisers and to major accounts looking to widen their reach. As a result, membership rose by nearly 50 percent. At the end of 2014, for example, Instagram had 300 million users. In June of 2016, they had 500 million. At that point, the influencer spike was well underway, and by 2017, a survey of self-identified “influencers” showed that 78 percent of them operated on the Facebook-owned photo app.
Even if “influencer” owes its popularity to Instagram, the term quickly became associated with other media. In an Oxford English Dictionary blogpost called “The Increasing Influence of the Word ‘Influencer,’” dictionary editor Rebecca Juganaru noted that the word often appears as part of compound phrases, “with combinations such as social-media influencer, Instagram influencer, YouTube influencer, and Vine influencer proving to be amongst the most common.”
As it spread across platforms, “influencer” also spread from industry to industry, until there seemed to be influencers for every kind of category —beauty, gaming, retail, photography, travel, tech, food, sex, music, pets. There are even influencers for influencing, promoting experiences targeted towards their line of work: like pop-up museums designed to be Boomeranged and rentable penthouses for photoshoots. Anything that could be captured, commodified, and sold as spectacle was suddenly repped by some good-looking social media star.
Over the past 18 months, influencers have been in such high demand that companies arose just to manufacture them. A China-based “influencer incubator” called Ruhnn, for example, grooms bloggers by the hundreds to work in e-commerce. Another firm, Devumi, sells Twitter followers and retweets anyone aspiring to influencer-levels of popularity. And in one extreme case, L.A. start-up Brud created an entire influencer persona, known as Lil Miquela, from CGI. Though the project began as an extremely on-the-nose performance art piece, Lil Miquela later started promoting clothes from a smattering of high-end designers, and shared several Prada-branded gifs during Milan Fashion Week.
Only months after its emergence, in other words, the meaning of “influencer” was already unmoored, and it got increasingly loose, widening its range of scale to include even those who weren’t previously thought to have much influence at all. Juganaru observed that the OED frequently found the word modified to indicate size: “for example,” she writes, “in micro-influencer, uber-influencer, super-influencer, and mega-influencer.” These days, the moniker applies equally to the Kardashians, who claim hundreds of millions of followers on Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and TV, as it does to more minor figures, with audiences of only a couple hundred on just one or two platforms. This month, for example, Ad Age reported that Johnson & Johnson Clean & Clear had started hiring so-called “influencers” with as few as 500 followers.
There are now so many influencers, that we’ve created new words for them just to keep up. In her blogpost, Juganaru noted that the suffix “-fluencer,” for example, has become what she called a “productive suffix,” blending with other terms to generate increasingly absurd jargon (see: “thinkfluencer, Pinfluencer, fitfluencer, techfluencer, and manfluencer,” to name only a few), giving particularized names to “influencer’s” endless offshoots and dragging the root closer and closer to outright semantic nullity.
The rapid growth of the influencer population has eroded the already-fragile understanding of what the term actually entails. It’s part of what makes “influencers” so hard to imagine—when the standard for influence is so loose and the people who meet it are so commonplace, the difference between the influencers and the audience they’re intended to affect becomes difficult to discern. In a sense, the outright emptiness of the Urban Outfitters costume—a blank, but expensive canvas, which blurs the line between vendor and consumer, and can become, more or less, whatever its wearer wants—might capture perfectly what the influencer is all about.