Life

How the Word 'Influencer' Lost All Meaning

Are we all influencers now? Or do we just need new terms to describe online people with personal brands who sell products and themselves?
Hannah Ewens
London, GB
July 5, 2021, 8:00am
What Does the Word 'Influencer' Even Mean Anymore?
Image: Owain Anderson 

This woman was influencing me across social media platforms for the best part of a decade. She once influenced me to buy a Fitbit that I never used. I watched her relationship form and marriage crumble and was influenced to feel a great deal of sympathy for her. I saw her decorate her house in meticulous detail, reminding me that I too wanted to one day buy a property, and influencing me to feel shameful about the fact I can’t (and to also make a mental note that I need a Smeg fridge).

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Then she posted a video like many others have – women in particular – about “influencer” being a shameful word and that she didn’t want to associate with it. What a curious thing to say, I thought, when I couldn’t think of a better word to describe her.  

You’ve probably seen crotchety British Gen Xers on social media say a variant of “everyone’s an influencer now”. What they really mean is that everyone is too online and has a personal brand, always pushing something, whether it’s their opinions or their work; a persona that’s only loosely related to the person you know or suspect them to be in real life. But it’s also true that “influencer” is now a sweeping term that is used to mean anything from “aspirational career path to riches”  to “talentless internet shill for brands”, depending on how old or how online (or not) the individual using it is.

“‘Influencer’ is a weird term in that it both works perfectly – in that the direct connection online celebrities and creators have with their audience makes them more influential and able to affect the likelihood of purchases – and is also essentially so broad as to be meaningless,” tech journalist and author Chris Stokel-Walker tells me. Does it mean your sister who recently signed up to an MLM business flogging essential oil blends, or your Dad sharing anti-vax memes with all his Facebook friends? The way people use the word colloquially now, who can say?

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I suspect much of this amorphousness is down to the power of the word “influencer” in the first place. It says “I can make you do what I want”. It has clout and energy. You can also “influence” anyone in any manner of ways – emotionally, psychologically. In 2019, the year the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary added “influencer” to its lexicon, its editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski explained to AdWeek that "all of us are consumers, even if all we are consuming is information”.

We’re not just being sold influencers’ ads – we willingly sell our attention and engagement in increasingly obtuse but intense ways. As Stokel-Walker points out: “In the dictionary definition of the term, people who have clout with their audience are influencers - in that they can influence people to do things, or to buy products if they choose.” It’s little wonder we throw the word around so carelessly.

Influencing has existed as a concept for as long as Western capitalist culture. Influencing is the reason the advertising industry exists; it birthed seismic tomes like Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People. The valorisation of influence in American culture is the bedrock of the entrepreneurialism that all young people seemingly now have to partake in.

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At the end of 2011, an updated version of Carnegie’s book was published: How to Win Friends And Influence People in the Digital Age. The following year Emily Hund, a social media and influencer researcher then working in the magazine and publishing industry, watched the blogging phenomenon begin. It was an exciting time, Hund recalls, when names like Susie Bubble and Fashion Toast were launching incredibly successful careers off their influence. 

“No one planned to create this industry,” explains Hund. “It happened by accident. People fell backward into it, because of this perfect storm of events; of the advent of these different technological platforms; and the crumbling of legacy media and creative industries, where there were a lot of people who were trained in or interested in creative jobs who weren't getting traditional jobs. There was this glut of people who were turning to the internet at a time when the internet was gonna save everybody.”

In the early 2010s, people were referred to by the platform they were famous on: YouTubers, Viners, YouNow stars. “You saw the rise of this new group who were true multi-platform creators and there needed to be an agnostic term for them,” New York Times tech reporter Taylor Lorenz says. That term couldn’t be ‘creators’, because that word was synonymous with YouTubers. “This was also when brands really came into the picture and did bigger brand deals. ‘Influencer’ was the word that the marketing industry applied to creators, and people started using it.”

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For years, Lorenz battled to even use the word “influencer” in her day-to-day work as a reporter for one of the most respected publications in the world. “I’ve had literally hours of arguments and conversations with editors at literally every place I’ve ever worked,” she says, “to try to describe people accurately and in a way that will be accessible to all audiences, and that old people and young people will both understand who you’re talking about.”

As Lorenz points out, these arguments about language happen with any emerging journalistic beat, but the reluctance to name influencers speaks to the fact that the industry felt both terrifyingly new and yet evolving and changing at an exponential rate.

A shift occurred in 2017 and 2018, when “influencer” took on a new negative connotation. Hund ties this to a wave of new influencers following what had previously been financially successful for their predecessors and ushering in repetitive content and trends – all of which was obvious to audiences. Think millennial pink, brunches and girlbossery but also spon con.

“People started to sense that the influencer class maybe was losing their edginess that maybe they had in the very beginning – and then also it started to become more clear that people that influencers were selling something,” says Hund.

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Similarly, Lorenz notes that most people weren’t paying attention to the influencing industry until around 2017, and associate “influencer” with the creators from that era: female, hyper-curated, millennial. “There’s a charge that comes with the word influencer and a lot of it is sexism,” she says. “Someone will say ‘I’m not an influencer’, but if you ask them what an influencer is, they’ll say it’s a beautiful young woman that they see as vapid and shouldn’t be building their brand and doing sponsored content.”

At exactly the same time, “influencer” became an aspirational word to Gen Z. The youngest creators self-identify as influencers, and for the wannabes or future influencers, the word translates to the lifestyle and income of mid-to-top-tier creators.  

Whether a slur or dream career, the word now reflects how the majority of us present and graft online. I always feel an uncanny jolt whenever I see people tagging brands in their Instagram stories of items they’ve bought themselves – as if that either makes them appear as an influencer or as if they assume that’s how friends and colleagues engage with their “content”.

“Everyone is sort of adopting this mindset of the advertising industry or the media industry logics that have existed for a long time,” explains Hund. “Now, they're kind of being applied to the individual, where it's like, ‘OK, now my M.O. is to influence.’”

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We’re all using influencer tactics, from the celebrity actresses turned cookery range floggers (acting like influencers but not technically influencers, according to Lorenz) to you sharing other people’s work in the hope of one day getting reciprocal shares on your own.

So do we need new words to name the actual influencers? What actually is an influencer? “My feeling is that influencers – and creators – are a subset of entrepreneurs,” says Lorenz, adding that what is important is that we have a term at all so that people can recognise and understand the industry. To say we’re all influencers makes it difficult to talk about or critique influencer behaviour and the ways in which they sell and or behave as an extension of the brands they make deals with. 

When I ask Stokel-Walker, he says, “There needs to be a term for digital-first – and largely digital-only – ‘influencers’, for whom the stakes are higher if they misstep and therefore are more likely to follow the rules around disclosure and more carefully protect their online brand, versus the traditional celebrities who get bunged a few quid every few months to plug a product online and are doing it as a bolt-on to their income, so aren't necessarily as careful about how they do it.”

The issue with making language more specific is that it would show the problem with the latter: “What we think of as a more authentic way of marketing products isn't authentic when you're not that bothered if your Instagram audience turns away from you, because you've still got your TV presenting gigs.”

Interestingly, the drive to re-define these terms is coming from influencers themselves. In a recent bid to legitimise their jobs and standardise practices and rates, they hope to unionise. “They're upfront, saying ‘we create our own content, but we're here to work with brands and do it in a professional way’,” says Hund, “They're trying to really clean up the field and normalise it.”

If our favourite influencers – the ones who’ve influenced us the most – insist they don’t really relate to the dirty word, this is a chance for them to reclaim it. Or, at least, use their social currency to become someone new.

@hannahrosewens