“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The answer from my friend’s 8-year old niece surprised me. Back in the day, 8-year-olds dreamed of becoming doctors, lawyers, or presidents. Never did I imagine a day would come when I would hear a child aspiring to become a vlogger — or in today’s umbrella term, an influencer.
There’s nothing wrong with being an influencer. Still, it’s interesting to figure out how influencers become such a big deal in today’s society. Are they really this generation’s new celebrity?
What is an influencer?
First things first, it’s important to qualify what it takes to be an influencer. An influencer is an individual that has the ability to affect a person’s buying decision simply by having influence over them. It’s not just about the number of followers, it’s about audience engagement.
An influencer has to represent a captive audience. In the words of marketer and social media strategist Daniel Snow, “The trust and emotional connection that the influencer has with the consumer inspire that impulsive buying decision.” Just because you have a certain number of followers on your social media account doesn’t make you an influencer. Your followers have to trust you for you to be an influencer.
But where does that trust come from?
How did influencers become influential?
In my opinion, influencers operate the same way the mainstream celebrities we know do. Academically speaking, a celebrity is basically anyone the public is interested in; they are the representation of achievement and success in the social world. While mainstream celebrities are a construct created by the media industry and the celebrity himself, most of the buying power of a celebrity comes from how the audience perceives the celebrity.
This applies to the influencers we have now. The more an influencer appeals to the audience, the more powerful an influencer is. The key to an influencer’s appeal is identification. The more the audience identifies with the influencer, the more of a celebrity the influencer becomes.
There are many ways the audience can identify to an influencer, here are just a few:
3. The influencer as an idol
Most of the time, an audience would have high regard towards an influencer because they base their ideal attitudes and behaviors on them. They consider that influencer as someone they aspire to be.
I did research on fans of Hallyu or the Korean wave, and one fan tells me that once she considers a celebrity interesting, she would religiously consume all their content — from music videos to game shows. This is because she wanted to see more of her ideal. She wanted to know the celebrity as a “real person”. She takes pleasure in unmasking the celebrity and seeing who the real person is inside. The more she knows of the celebrity, the more she likes and subscribes to everything the celebrity does. All because what the celebrity does is also what she wants to do.
This is the case with influencers too. Young girls, like YouTuber Janina Vela, rack up a following of up to 800,000 YouTube subscribers mostly because she displays qualities that people admire and aspire to have. More than that, these thousands of subscribers actively watch, like, and comment on her videos because they see that YouTuber as their ideal.
You could say that the audience is living their ideal life vicariously by subscribing to the content of the influencer.
2. The influencer as a mirror
At other times, the audience doesn’t really consider the influencer as their ideal but more of a mirror, to reflect themselves. They like following that influencer because of how relatable it is to who they are.
Based on my research on Hallyu fans, they started getting into a certain Korean celebrity because they saw aspects of themselves in that celebrity. The more they watched, the more they saw the same values and attitudes reflected in that celebrity. They keep watching because they enjoy seeing aspects of themselves on another person.
Influencers and their fans operate in the same way. The audience would form a certain affinity with an influencer because that influencer reflected their interests. That similarity intrigues them and keeps them watching more of the influencer’s content to see.
With influencers, relatability is key. It’s not about being ideal anymore. YouTubers like Pamela Swing or Mimiyuuuh would show their wacky sides on camera without shame.
Even so, they would rack up millions of views on their content.
In my opinion, people enjoy these imperfections. Not anybody can have clear skin or the perfect face, but by seeing these flaws flaunted on camera, people are comforted knowing that even influential people can have their bad days too.
1. The influencer as a gateway
For some people, they become captivated audiences of the influencer not because of the person, but because of the culture or environment that influences is in.
For Hallyu fans, this works in that they simply followed the celebrity because they wanted to know more about Korean culture. It wasn’t that they were fans of a particular individual, they just kept watching Korean dramas or listening to Korean music because they like Korea, in general.
This also applies to influencers. There is a term now called ‘micro-influencer’. These are influencers that have a fairly decent following from a certain niche. Even though their following is significantly less than those who are considered big-time influencers, their followers count on them for their opinion on a particular passion (e.g. sports, gaming).
Therefore, the audience of these micro-influencers may not see the influencer as their ideal, or as their mirror, but they’ve considered their opinion valuable when it comes to certain interests. These can be seen with tech vlogger Carlo Ople or dentist/YouTuber Dr. Glam. The audience’s trust in them doesn’t come from how relatable they are or how much of their ideal they see in them but from their mastery over a particular area of interest.
We can see now that more than the number of followers, it is the human psyche of the audience that elevates these influencers to celebrity-level.
But are influencers overtaking the mainstream celebrity?
The advantage of an influencer over a mainstream celebrity is their mastery of social media. Because people see them on Instagram or YouTube every single day, the audience sees influencers as a celebrity they can reach. They’re literally one click away. You don’t have to interact with them by going to concerts or mall shows. All you have to do is like, share, and subscribe.
Influencers may have a social status akin to a celebrity, but I think that people still hold mainstream celebrities to a higher level of prestige as compared to the vloggers we see now. In reality, you still pay a mainstream celebrity more.
But that doesn’t take away any of the influencer’s hold from their audience.
How did influencers become this generation’s celebrity?
It all comes down to the audience. Because of the self-awareness that social media can bring today, a lot of this generation tends to get attracted to anything that reflects or celebrates their individuality.
It’s the generation’s psyche. The influencers are this generation’s celebrity because they celebrate who this generation is.
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