A Study into the Curious World of Influencers


Social media influencers are now changing habits, making people buy products, support causes and shift loyalties. The influencer is not your regular celebrity endorser or brand ambassador. N13 tries to unravel the uber-modern marketing phenomenon.  

“All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?” 

Thus spake the Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, one of the greatest works in English literature. If you’re not a student of literature, you may not know Milton’s Satan, arguably the most interesting villains in the history of art and literature. He speaks with conviction, delivers his lines with ‘punch’ and fervour, and in the process introduces a change of heart in his audience. He is a ‘popular’ and persuasive marketer. He is, on that cue, the oldest social influencer. With him we must begin the history of influencers. 

Social media is infested with influencers. Kim Kardashian is one. Kylie Jenner is another one. In India, wink girl Priya P Warrier is a popular influencer like Sunny Leone or Juhi Godambe. There are more kinds of influencers available today. The influencers’ club includes celebrities of all hues. Film stars, YouTubers, Instagram members, pets, toddlers and even saints. Yes, saints. On January 27 2019, Pope Francis tweeted: “With her “yes”, Mary became the most influential woman in history. Without social networks, she became the first “influencer”: the “influencer” of God. #Panama2019”. Among pets, Jiff Pom takes the cake. With over 10.5 million followers on Instagram, Jiff, a small Pomeranian dog, is the most followed animal on social media today.

There are even “Virtual influencers”, which are robots or computer-generated influencers. These accounts look human but are run by algorithms. A popular virtual influencer is Miquela or Miquela Sousa aka Lil Miquela. This young Brazilian-American model, singer and influencer has nearly three million Instagram followers. Miquela is computer-generated. There’s more. A quick glance into the world of social media influencers tells us that there are Granfluencers (retired uncles and aunties throwing their influence around), Cleanfluencers (who tell you how to lead a clean life), Dogfluencers (you know what that means) and the like. 

Change agents 

Interestingly, the word influencer was not a listed entry in dictionaries till a few years ago. Some records show that ‘influencer’ entered the official vocabulary of the world only in 2019, thanks to trends in social media-powered marketing. Editors and language experts at the Merriam-Webster added a group of marketing terms to their kitty and the lot included the mighty ‘influencer’. In a way, there was hardly anything surprisingly new about this phenomenon. Sales departments of companies had been using popular faces to sell products since the beginning. There were brand ambassadors and celebrity endorses. But the advent of social media and its potential in selling products through influencing people’s buying behaviour triggered a new trend and soon social media influencers started wielding immense clout.      

Past influencers

Looking back, social media pundits say, Nancy Green who was the ‘face’ of pancake mix Aunt Jemima in 1890 was an early influencer. Green was a former slave. She came to Chicago to work with a white family. Later she was hired to portray a living version of Aunt Jemima at a World’s Fair in 1893. The brand benefited a lot from Green’s influencing personality. She was not your run of the mill celebrity endorser. Another interesting character in the history of influencers is Josiah Wedgwood, a potter who lived in England in the 1700s.  He designed and created a tea set for Queen Charlotte of England in 1760. Wedgwood soon started using the queen’s name to sell his products. Wedgwood is a popular brand today, thanks to the queen, the influencer, notes social media historians.  

If you are familiar with marketing, you now know the influencer as a persona who has the ability to make a follower change a habit and start a new one. The key phrase here is ‘change’. The key difference between an influence and a celebrity endorser or brand ambassador lies in the personality’s ability to introduce ‘change’ “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything,” said George Bernard Shaw. In the age of social media, it seems those who can make you change your mind can change anything.

An influencer introduces that change for a price. Who pays the price? Obviously, the beneficiaries of the change. Globally, the influencer market for Instagram alone stands at $5-6 billion today and might hit $15 billion in a couple of years. A report from Business Insider says brands might splurge some $15 billion on influencer marketing by 2022. A report that the BBC has quoted says Kylie Jenner gets around $1.2 million for a single Insta post.

The sociology of ‘influence’ 

An interesting article in the New Yorker notes that the word ‘influence’ appears most Shakespeare plays. For the Bard, the term or the condition it represented was not a happy one, it seemed. He gives influence a dark hue. In Measure for Measure,” a character says human life is so inescapably “servile to all the skyey influences” that “hourly afflict” this earth. Influential mortals, meanwhile, often mock those who are susceptible to influence. Really? Do our influencers enjoy their control over us, in the ability to change our opinions to their whims and fancies and derive a value out of it?

Guy Debord thinks so. Debord is a French philosopher and the author of the famous book, The Society of the Spectacle (1967) which begins with the beautifully complex observation that in “societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” Debord didn’t live long enough to see social media. He died in 1994. But his analyses about societies that are populated with people who are controlled by the urges and desires to be ‘spectacles’ were bang on. “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images,” he wrote, many decades before Instagram was to happen. Debord “predicted our distracted society,” writes John Harris on The Guardian

A vicious cycle

In a way, to take Debord ahead, the influencer is an image. This image represents a powerful idea that is live and animated. The idea represents a personality that is potent. The personality is a spectacle. It is a ‘show biz’. It is an interactive show where the image speaks to its followers. The engagement is constant. Each time you open Instagram and check the feed, the avalanche of images introduces a rhythmic change in your attitude. Or they are designed to be so. The influencer is paid to do so.

Surfing through the feed, interacting with the influencer-image that is a ‘spectacle’, the follower’s desires are kindled and rekindled in such a way that the follower years to be the influencer or the spectacle. ‘Change’ is the only constant here. This is an interestingly vicious cycle. And a never-ending one. It ends, as media studies experts say, only when the market wins. And it does that by letting you know that you’ve won. 

“What Hath Night to Do with Sleep?” asks Milton’s Satan. “What Hair Color Should I Do Next,”? asks Kylie Jenner. 

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