If you’ve been orbiting around the YouTube sphere for as long as I have, you’ll notice that every once in a while we enter a new era; another era, that is, of brands and digital businesses deliberately failing to understand the content creator game as they try their hardest to capitalise on it.
The latest phase seems to have taken shape in a bizarre theory that online creators – people who make popular YouTube videos, or post stunning lifestyle Instagram photos, or do anything remotely creative in the social media sphere – don’t actually take any pride in their work. That the goal, and ultimately the payoff, is having as large an audience as possible to do your bidding. That it’s all about the influence.
As such, the exciting new catch-all term “influencer” has gained traction amongst the more business-minded folks of the online world. The deeper you are involved with the YouTube industry, the more often you will likely hear this term; but the deeper you are involved with the YouTube community, the more it will likely give you the creeps.
A lot of you might be thinking “It’s just a word, put your thoughtpiece away,” but as is always the response to that pithy argument: words have meaning, and power. The power that this particular umbrella term holds is the ability to compartmentalise and classify creators by what brands believe is their most marketable asset: their follower numbers. Their reach. Their demographic. Influence.
After attending this year’s VidCon a little over a month ago, I noticed “influencer” being used far more frequently than I ever had before; But a glaring discrepancy lay in who used the term. It rolled off the tongues of the employees of ad agencies, networks and digital brands; but anyone to whom the name “influencer” would apply seemed to steer well clear of it in conversations.
Of course, there are always going to be anomalies – a few years ago I saw a friend referring to themselves as a “social media influencer” on their LinkedIn. I assumed it was a joke (at the time my role was “internet guy”), but evidently the phrase has since gained traction. We also recently saw comedian, actress and YouTuber Anna Akana refer to herself as an “influencer” in a lengthy rebuttal to Emma Thompson – but the important thing to note is this was part of a larger conversation about the value of online creators in the greater media sphere. Something that a phrase that leans heavily on the influence of a person fails to take into account.
Ultimately, my biggest beef with the phrase “influencer” is that it puts people who value their work, their identity, and yes, even their audience in the same box as faceless Twitter curators like @Dory and ‘Common White Girl‘ – the owners of which earn five-figure sums by reposting relatable jokes they found on Tumblr. If someone is willing to write a song, or direct a sketch, or even just talk to a camera about how much they think your product is the bee’s knees, do they not deserve more than to be classed by how many pairs of eyes are going to be on it?
There is a nasty yet growing murmur of cynicism when it comes to the industry surrounding YouTubers and their like – brands believe they threw too much money at creators at the start, and now resent that they won’t bend to their will with scripted phrases, impossible reshoots and week-long Twitter campaigns. But I believe there are still some of us out here with the crazy notion that what we make matters more to people than who we are. That even when working with a brand, our audiences can still trust us to create a genuine, relatable or evocative piece of digital content; and not just use our wealth in followers to push something we don’t believe in for the cheque. And that is true influence.