As social media expands its cultural dominance, the people who can steer the online conversation will have an upper hand.
When the first TikTok star is elected president, I hope she will save some room in her Cabinet for older and more conventional bureaucrats, even if they don't have millions of followers, great hair or amazing dance moves.
I say "when," not "if," because I just spent three days at VidCon, the annual social media convention in Anaheim, hanging out with a few thousand current and future internet celebrities. And it's increasingly obvious to me that the teenagers and 20-somethings who have mastered these platforms — and who are often dismissed as shallow, preening narcissists by adults who don't know any better — are going to dominate not just internet culture or the entertainment industry but society as a whole.
On the surface, this can be a terrifying proposition. One day at VidCon, I hung out with a crew of teenage Instagram stars, who seemed to spend most of their time filming "collabs" with other creators and complimenting one another on their "drip," influencer-speak for clothes and accessories. (In their case, head-to-toe Gucci and Balenciaga outfits with diamond necklaces and designer sneakers.) Another day, I witnessed an awkward dance battle between two budding TikTok influencers, neither of whom could have been older than 10. (Adults who are just catching up: TikTok is a short-form video app owned by Chinese internet company Bytedance.)
But if you can look past the silliness and status-seeking, many people at VidCon are hard at work. Being an influencer can be an exhausting, burnout-inducing job, and the people who are good at it have typically spent years working their way up the ladder. Many social media influencers are essentially one-person startups, and the best ones can spot trends, experiment relentlessly with new formats and platforms, build an authentic connection with an audience, pay close attention to their channel analytics, and figure out how to distinguish themselves in a crowded media environment — all while churning out a constant stream of new content.
Not all influencers are brilliant polymaths, of course. Some of them have succeeded by virtue of being conventionally attractive, or good at video games or in possession of some other surface-level attribute. Others have made their names with dubious stunts and extreme political commentary.
But as social media expands its cultural dominance, the people who can steer the online conversation will have an upper hand in whatever niche they occupy — whether that's media, politics, business or some other field.
"The way to think of influencers or creators is as entrepreneurs," said Chris Stokel-Walker, author of "YouTubers." "These people are setting up businesses, hiring staff, managing budgets. These are massively transferable skills."
Just look at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who has become a powerful force in Congress by pairing her policy agenda with an intuitive understanding of what works online. Or look at what's happening in Brazil, where YouTubers are winning political elections by mobilising their online fan bases.
In the business world, influencer culture is already an established force. A generation of direct-to-consumer brands that were built using the tools and tactics of social media has skyrocketed to success — like Glossier, the influencer-beloved beauty company that recently raised $100 million at a valuation of more than US$1 billion, or Away, the luggage startup whose ubiquitous Instagram ads helped it reach a valuation of US$1.4 billion. Many social media stars strike endorsement deals with major brands, in addition to earning money through advertising and merchandise sales. And even executives in sleepy, old-line industries now hire "personal branding consultants" to help increase their online followings.
Natalie Alzate, a YouTuber with more than 10 million subscribers who goes by Natalies Outlet, is an example of the wave of influencers who treated their online brand-building as a business rather than a fun hobby. Four years ago, when Alzate first came to VidCon, she was a marketing student with fewer than 7,000 subscribers. She decided to study her favorite YouTubers, watch how they made their videos and then test videos in multiple genres, seeing which ones performed best on her channel.
"I grew up watching people, like Michelle Phan, that were building legacies out of, honestly, just being really relatable online," Alzate said. "It was always an aspiration."
Eventually, she hit on formats — like beauty tips and lifehacks — that reliably performed well, and she was off to the races. Today, she is a full-time YouTuber with a small staff, a production studio and the kind of fame she once coveted.
In truth, influencers have been running the world for years. We just haven't called them that. Instead, we called them "movie stars" or "talk-radio hosts" or "Davos attendees." The ability to stay relevant and attract attention to your work has always been critical. And who, aside from perhaps President Donald Trump, is better at getting attention than a YouTube star?
VidCon, which started 10 years ago as a meet-and-greet event for popular YouTubers, is a perfect place to observe influencers in their natural habitat. And many of them were here to promote their channels, to network with other creators and to make strides toward the dream of internet fame.
Sometimes, that meant appearing in photos and videos with more popular influencers in an attempt to increase their own following, a practice known in influencer circles as "clout chasing." Other times, it meant going to panels with titles like "Curating Your Personal Brand" and "How to Go Viral and Build an Audience." For VidCon's featured creators, the super-famous ones with millions of followers, it can mean spending the day at a meet-and-greet with fans before going out to VIP parties at night.
Not all of the young people I met at VidCon will spend their whole lives pursuing internet fame. Some of them will grow up, go off to college and wind up becoming doctors, lawyers or accountants. Some will fizzle out and be replaced by a younger generation of internet stars.
But the lessons they learned from performing on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok will stick with them, regardless of where they end up. Just as the 20th century groomed a generation of children steeped in the ethos of TV culture, the 21st century will produce a generation of business moguls, politicians and media figures who grew up chasing clout online and understand how to operate the levers of the attention economy.
"In the early days, it felt like this was a sub-niche of youth culture," Beau Bryant, general manager of talent at Fullscreen, a management agency for digital creators, told me at VidCon. He gestured around at a room filled with influencers sitting on velvet couches. Some were taking selfies and editing their Instagram stories. Others were holding business meetings about partnerships and sponsored content deals.
"Now, it just feels like this is what youth culture is," Bryant said.
In other words, influencers are the future. Dismiss them at your peril.
Written by: Kevin Roose
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES