Social media have spawned many new words, and now they bring us “influencer.”
Social media influencers are distinguished by their use of YouTube, Instagram, or similar platforms to impact their many followers’ opinions and beliefs. These followers are typically young people who receive the bulk of their news and entertainment from online videos.
We used to use the word “celebrity” to describe such people, with its implication that their work and contributions to the culture were something to celebrate, that we all shared in their accomplishments.
“Influencer,” though, denotes only an instrumental relationship. A celebration is a party; an influence simply helps make something happen. One is decidedly good; the other can be good, neutral, or downright sinister.
Sinister is not how one would describe most online influencers. For the most part, their channels are full of normal-sounding, normal-acting people, generally of above-average looks, who produce slightly above-amateur pictures and videos of themselves using various products, sharing their generally bland observations along the way.
Those who make the products influencers feature have caught on. For a lot less than a celebrity, brands can target people who, because they think of themselves as having a personal relationship with the influencer, are much more likely to buy.
The neutral term “influencer,” then, perhaps masks a sinister intent.
Instead of using an above-board commercial pitch, influencers reach the young and impressionable not through the power of collective celebration, but through the power of misperceived personal connection.