Eshanthi Ranasinghe
Interim Lead, Exploration and Future Sensing

The Rise –and Fall?– of the Social Media Influence

March 7, 2019

There are estimates of more than 1 million “influencers” in the world, that speak to 84 billion accounts, shaping viewer opinions and purchasing patterns through videos, pictures, tweets, “stories”, and more. 

They are distinct from celebrities, politicians, and athletes because they gained their influence through social media platforms first, usually building off of an authentic voice that speaks to a specific (usually millennial) audience, and yes, attractiveness, especially for visual-based media, helps. 

The three biggest platforms for individual influence are Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube — though the blogosphere has long been an influencer haven. In 2017, Instagram alone had approximately 12.9 million brand-sponsored influencer posts. That number is estimated to double by the end of 2018, creating an estimated market size of nearly $1.7 billion. Some project total influencer marketing could reach $10 billion by 2020, enabled by growing influencer marketing platforms that allow easy search and access to influencers by advertisers. 

Decentralized communication platforms have inspired a true influence revolution, with cascading effects. But as the power of this channel grows, it changes just as rapidly, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, authenticity and advertising — even when you’re not actually getting paid, as we learn how to tap into its power. With its remarkable growth, we’ve also seen major controversies, from the YouTube beauty community scandal, to the now infamous Fyre Festival disaster, a hoax musical festival built on social media influence and very little else. Social media influence, as quickly as it rose, may die just as quickly, or transform, in a vacuum of personal meaning and authenticity — the driving forces that led to this alternative universe in the first place. There is change in store for influence in 2019. Here are a handful of emerging trends in the world of personal branding and influence we are particularly fascinated by:

Influence in Global Consumption 

China’s influencer economy totaled $17 billion in 2017. The recent “flaunt your wealth challenge” generated more than a million posts on Weibo. China’s growing army of social influencers have played a role in popularizing the meme. They usually pose as if they’ve just fallen out of a luxury car and spilled their most valuable possessions onto the pavement. Chinese influencers have also capitalized on their online popularity to launch clothing and beauty lines, and even sell cars directly to fans through live-streaming apps that reach an audience of 398 million. Many own businesses that sell products created around their personalities and lifestyles. 

In India, influencers have inverted the funnel to such an extent that marketers are starting to factor them into their annual calendars. Young African influencers are coming onto the scene in fashion, music, arts, and food. With new products and services being consistently introduced in Africa, there is a myriad of opportunities for influencers to introduce new brands or products to a wider market. Influence is even crossing over into healthcare. Patients in the US, for instance, with social media influence are getting paid by pharma companies for their opinions.

Role of the Nanoinfluencer 

Mega-influencers are highly valued by consumer goods and fashion, but nano-influencers can be just as valuable, especially for brands and ideas that trade on trust and authenticity. Nanoinfluencer is a new term to describe people who have as few as 1,000 followers and are willing to advertise products on social media. Their lack of fame is one of the qualities that make them approachable and appear genuine. At its core, influencer marketing is about storytelling and the co-creation of unique and engaging content. Honesty and transparency are often important, and this category especially has given voice to a spectrum of voices and perspectives that are often missed by mainstream media, channels, and advertisers.

Influence in Politics

Influencer marketing has pushed digital campaigning to a new level. Research indicates that social media platforms’ election mobilization features (i.e., digital equivalents of the “I Voted” sticker) have influenced voting behaviors. We’ve seen influencers use their reputation to back specific candidates and become active — and activist, voices. In Africa, where a generational divide between aging political rulers and their young constituents is strongly felt, youth influencers are playing an active role in challenging corruption, censorship, and economic crisis plaguing much of the continent. Some predict that “influencers (will) become the new liberated power in Africa” in 2019. To many this feels like a way for regular people to make their mark on politics. But, as we’ve already seen, there are risks when social media is combined with elections, that we’re seeing creep into the influencer landscape as well. In Indonesia, political actors are paying social media influencers to spread propaganda ahead of the 2019 elections. Dozens of influencers, referred to as “buzzers”, are working in swarms to flood social media in order to influence election results.

Influencer to Celebrity – the Compounding Effect of Influence 

It’s common for a celebrity to use influence platforms to build their brand, increasing their value as they negotiate media deals and contracts. We see the same trend among influencers — savvy influencers using their followings, personal brand, and social capital to further their careers, start new businesses (e.g., Tammy Hebrow, fitness influencer, now with a $3.6 million athleisure brand), sometimes propelling them into new areas, or into becoming celebrities themselves.

Influence and the Role of Bots

Bots are increasingly playing a significant and transformative role in social influence not just as followers or creators of content, but as influencers themselves. And it’s becoming more difficult to differentiate between real human influencers and artificial ones.

The Social Media Fembot 

We are beginning to see the rise of the social media fembot. Poppy, a human android-themed pop star and YouTube influencer, is one example. Poppy’s videos have been viewed more than 257 million times. Last year, Microsoft’s chatbot Zo partnered with Poppy to create “influential” internet content. Then there is Lil Miquela, a computer-animated creation posing as a human. This Instagram model is edited into real backgrounds, posed with real people, and dressed in real streetwear that real people can buy. Her rise to nebulous online fame has led to collaborations with brands like Prada.

Bot vs. Bot 

In April 2018, Miquela’s profile was hacked, by another social media bot. Many photos deleted and replaced with photos of a different computer-generated avatar, Bermuda. While potentially politically-driven (Miquela is liberal and Bermuda is pro-Trump), it also represents what the professional wrestling world calls “kayfabe” — the blanket term for anything within a storyline that’s meant to seem real, even if it’s fake.

The Follower Bot 

Bot followers have been inflating influencer fan counts for years, but now brands who collaborate with influencers have a heightened reason for skepticism. As many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users (15 percent) may be automated accounts designed to simulate real people. Facebook deleted 583 million fake accounts in the first three months of 2018, and in November 2017, revealed that up to 60 million automated accounts may roam the site. While Twitter and other platforms prohibit buying followers, other sites openly sell them to celebrities, businesses, and anyone who wants to seem more popular or exert influence.

The Social Activist Bot 

“Woke” chatbots have appeared on Twitter and have been dubbed the “next frontier of online activism.” While both Follower Bots and Woke the Social Activist Bot are not “influencers” in fashion or brand, these chatbots can play a critical role gaining momentum behind movements, and have their own “influence” game to play.

Influencer Regulation 

With the pickup of social media advertising, regulation has followed. The UK Advertising Standards Agency and Competition and Markets Authority has created an Influencer’s Guide with rules around social media advertising. The US Federal Trade Commission has started selectively bringing legal action against notable brands and paid influencers who haven’t disclosed sponsorships, saying disclosure tools by platforms like Facebook are insufficient as they are. 

In the Middle East, where media can be influencer-led given blocks on traditional new sources and content, countries like the UAE are even introducing regulations requiring expensive licenses to become an influencer. In a world of digital influence, the “who” (and increasingly, the “what”) become harder to define. While influencers can help brands gain trust and authenticity due to their “real life” authority, we can, through social media, craft an idealized persona through fake followers, fake content, fake images, fake recognition, even fake experience, none of which can be verified or proven otherwise, the exact opposite of its original intent. 

Deepfakes are further blurring the line between reality and falsehoods, raising many questions: How do we begin to prove that online political movements are real if we can’t even tell if they are created, managed, or followed by AI/bots or actual people? This becomes murky territory for advertisers in the business of influencer marketing. A new status marker has emerged — the number of people who follow, like, or “friend” you. But deciphering who has real marketplace and consumer influence is getting harder to prove, particularly as it becomes more difficult to differentiate on social media between humans and AIs impersonating humans. 

This could all very well lead to the demise of the influencer, or at least its transformation, as those in search of authentic experience and unmediated relationships look to new channels and voices. Reputation is a new currency, for employability, value in society; but how is “influencer value” affecting us — both socio-culturally and geopolitically? What effect will influencer-coordinated misinformation campaigns on social media have on global politics? Or global citizenry? Mainstream media? 

More broadly, what effect will social influence have on everything from corporate shareholder profit to hiring practices to future employability? Will it reinforce pre-existing beliefs to dangerous levels? Ignite more polarizing and extremist viewpoints? Or could it give voice to the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and the subjugated? What made us seek out and listen to influencers in the first place? What new power “influence institutions” are being created, and what will the counter-reaction be?

This is Trend #2 of 5 in Omidyar Network’s Exploration and Future Sensing 2019 Trends to Watch. View the full series as it publishes here.

Consider Explorations an open space for discussion. We welcome new perspectives — especially those rarely heard, contradictory, relevant, and tangential — and most of all, conversation and partnership to build the future we want, one that includes and empowers us all. To connect and follow new insights we generate, please reach us at [email protected].

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