Like many other late-2000s teens who only emerged from their rooms for school and to be fed, Olivia Yallop had a tumblr page. She posted photos and text that she liked, and began to cultivate a large following on the blogging site. It was her first taste of online influence.
Years later, Olivia began working in advertising and found a niche in influencer marketing. It felt like a world she understood inherently – but she soon realised that very few people considered influencers to be the paradigm shift she knew they were. Frustrated at the lack of literature on the topic, Olivia decided to write the book on influencer culture herself, and the end product – Break the Internet: In Pursuit of Influence – was published last Thursday, the 4th of November.
During the writing process, Olivia committed to turning the webcam on herself to get under the skin of what it takes to truly wield influence on the internet, a decade or more on from her tumblr days. Her voyage through influencer culture saw her making vlogs, attending an influencer training camp, being photographed by a sought-after influencer photographer, infiltrating fan events and exploring the murky world of “engagement pods”.
I had lots of questions about this immersive study of the last decade’s most divisive profession, so caught up with Olivia for a chat.
VICE: What made you want to write a book about the influencer world, and why now?
Olivia Yallop: What’s quite exciting about being a millennial, or zillennial, is that our evolution and maturity echoes that of the internet itself. We’re the first truly internet generation. Years before we had the term “influencer”, before people were taking selfies with flat tummy teas, I had a tumblr blog. I spent tons of time digging into basic html, discovering the language and the architecture of influence, years before we had the vocabulary to describe what it was that we were really doing.
The word “influencer” is almost like a dirty word. They’re dismissed as this frivolous subject that’s unworthy of cultural study, they’re overlooked, underestimated. I was kind of shocked when, having worked my way through a stack of books I’d been given – which were kind of, you know “The Power of the Algorithm”, or “The Way That AI Is Changing Culture”, insert whatever tech-bro word of the moment – I was desperate to read the book about influencers and it didn’t exist.
There’s a lot of variety in there. When I think of an influencer, I think of a fashion influencer, but actually there are cleaning influencers who are multi-millionaires.
Absolutely. I wanted to bring alive the eccentricities of the space. You do get that really monolithic image of influencer culture, which is the Kylie Jenners, the BBLs, the Botox. But actually you get seven-year-old multi-millionaires unboxing toys, farmfluencers – especially with TikTok. Previously, influence was limited to certain lifestyle categories: family, beauty, lifestyle, travel. But with the arrival of TikTok, there’s been a kind of plundering of identity. Now you can be a legal influencer, a McDonald’s influencer.
Or, you know, that woman with the bees?
Yes, exactly! There is no stone left unturned in the commodification of identity groups, which is a really different way of thinking about things. People often treated these things as an oddity pre-TikTok – cleanfluencers are a great example. Mrs Hinch, they’d be like, “Oh, this is so weird.” But with TikTok, everyone’s looking around at their lives and thinking, ‘What can be turned into content?’ I do believe everyone is going to become an influencer in the future – though that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is this charismatic superstar. Everyone will be subject to the rituals of influence, but on a more micro-level, like being required to personally broadcast or self-optimise.
You talk in the book about your experiences of an “influencer training camp” – how did you first come across this concept? What did you learn from your experience of one?
I first learned about influencer training camps – there are multiple all around the world – through social groups in which parents discuss their kids becoming influencers. Micro-influencer communities, basically. Like many people, when I first heard the elevator pitch – you know, “It’s an influencer training camp for kids” – you think, ‘Dystopian! This is horrendous, unethical, immoral and feels like we’re commodifying childhood.’
I found that, far from it being the case of the course training these wide-eyed and naive young people in how to be a cog within the capitalism system, these kids – who were all between the ages of seven to 12 – actually arrived fluent in the language of self-branding, optimisation, sponsorship. They knew more in some cases than the course instructors about the intricacies of earning money online. It’s an easy but false narrative to say that influencer training camps are a negative thing. I actually found that the course provided a great framework for online safety, some really great training that I think was very helpful. A more interesting conversation is around digital education. We should maybe be thinking about this from a more educational perspective, and building in digital safety and interaction as part of a curriculum.
I’ve been online for over half my life, from the age of 12, and even now I’m pretty shoddy when it comes to understanding internet metrics. Did the knowledge of the Generation Alpha would-be influencers surprise you?
Funnily enough, a few weeks before going on the course, I’d sat behind some kids on the bus coming home from school. They were having a heated, heated debate about YouTube metrics and engagement rates. They were comparing their YouTube channels, and these kids would have been in primary school.
The camp was a very eye-opening experience. But something I call out in the book is that when we talk about digital fluency, we need to be quite careful about what we mean, because although as children they were incredibly technologically fluent in the way that the platform was working – and the hacks and the tips and tricks to game the algorithm – they had a massive blind spot when it came to the social side of, “What is performance? What is authentic? Is this person actually really my friend?” The parasocial side, they had very little grasp of. They found it very difficult to distinguish between a genuine blooper and a fake one.
There’s a tendency to look at Gen Alpha and say, “They’re so much more advanced than us,” but what I think they’re possibly lacking is that they may be technologically fluent, but they’re kind of not media literate.
I was fascinated by what you write about engagement pods. I’d always suspected these existed, because I’m not an idiot and I use Instagram. But I can’t believe it’s so formalised. Can you explain what this is and what it was like to be a part of one?
An engagement pod is a syndicate of social media users who’ve mutually agreed to comment on each other’s content, in order to get it boosted up the news feed and game the algorithm. It’s not totally fraudulent behaviour, like buying fake followers or buying likes. But it’s a grey area where you are artificially inflating the engagement of a particular piece of content. And this is a strategic activity that is done sometimes among groups of influencer friends. So I know, anecdotally, of influencer friends who are part of big groups of influencers – maybe there’s 30 of them – and every time they do a post, they drop a link in the WhatsApp chat and everyone goes and comments on it, like, “Hey you look amazing!”
That’s not too far removed from the behaviour of your average teenage girl who also does that, so it’s worth saying this is not totally reprehensible behaviour. But then, all the way down the other end of the spectrum, where it starts to move into this slightly more dark and submerged territory, are private, invite-only groups, often on Telegram or Signal, that are moderated by bots and are big groups of tens of thousands of people who have never met each other, distributed all around the world, and they are all engaged in this kind of drop cycle of content, liking other people’s content, in a kind of Sisyphean wheel of fake engagement.
It was jarring. There was soft porn and then an advert for a scented candle! It was a really fascinating community – I say community, it was actually ironically very anti-community – to be a part of. There are people toiling every day, to get incremental increases to gradually push them up the algorithm. It gave me a sense of the desperation, the effort and time, the intricacy of the attempts to hack the algorithm, that all goes into trying to become an influencer.
There’s a specific “Instagram look”, which I actually think is changing, but in its original form has transcended continents. Why do you think that happened?
This is really interesting when you look at it from a technological perspective – the links between the actual physicality afforded by the technology, and the corresponding changes people make to their corporeal physicality. So there’s this idea of “Instagram face”, which is shaped by the way we take selfies – the size of the screen, the format of a picture, the kind of filters people are making.
It’s a direct reaction to what is thumb-stopping – the specific attributes that will fit themselves well into a frame. It’s a bit like, for example, how TikTok dances are designed within a frame that is predetermined for them. There’s a reason why that TikTok dance style has evolved, and it’s because it fits well within a vertical format. It’s the same for beauty, interiors, fashion. The beige-look interiors work really well with the beige outfits that have become the influencer uniform. It’s a very interconnected ecosystem, and there are clear links that you can draw between the Instagram interior, the Instagram face and the Instagram outfit. They’re all designed to work in a coherent and shoppable ecosystem.
One of the most interesting things about the book is how committed you were. You shot with one of London’s most sought-after influencer photographers. Did you find yourself becoming more and more sold on your own influencer project? How did it affect you psychologically? Did you think of yourself as content more?
Absolutely. I am a very private person. I’ve had my social accounts on private for a really long time, and it’s been a real push to make them public for the purposes of this, and I do not wish to be perceived! I found it very difficult to look at my face. I was surprised about how hard I fell for the facial dysmorphia trap, and obsessing over what I looked like and how I was coming across, and being hyper-aware of movements and facial expressions. It’s very topical, or almost overdone, to talk about influencers and mental health – yes, we all know, trolling – but the impact of staring at your own face day-in, day-out, I think, is a serious thing.
You work adjacently to the influencing industry anyway, so was there much that surprised you about your findings?
I was forced to reconsider my role within the influencer industry and how I relate to much broader and more serious topics than I’d previously thought. The conclusion of the book is linking the rise of QAnon and the storming of the Capitol with the other side of the coin – the rise of lifestyle influencers and fashion content and all this bubbly fun stuff that I’ve been actively engaged in. It really forced me to confront the broader implications of the growth of influencer culture beyond just my quite sheltered niche of fashion, beauty and lifestyle. “Trump is an influencer” is quite a commonly repeated phrase, but Q is an influencer, and all these right-wing streamers are technically influencers.
I hadn’t really thought through the implications of that, just working on the side of brands and advertising and sexy parties. I left it slightly more on a down note than I’d thought. But I’m not too down on it: one of the theses of the book is that the gig economy of the 2010s is the influencer economy of the 2020s. We have just over a decade’s worth of learning about digital economies, which we can use to build a better internet and a more equitable influencer system. It’s not necessarily that it’s totally dystopian, and influencer culture is going to suck everyone into its grasp. There are more positive and optimistic outcomes the more that we engage with influencer culture, and don’t treat it as something that is inherently ephemeral.
Break the Internet is available to buy via Scribe Books and in all good bookstores now.