The most liked photo on Instagram is the picture of an egg named Eugene. With more than 52 million likes and 10 million followers, Eugene represents a mystery. The mystery of who created it and why has been since solved. How it got so many likes is best explained by a disgraced influencer, the model and actor Luka Sabbat: “People are way too influenced by what they see.”
Social influence rests on the fact that, when faced with abundance of choice, we habitually rely on others to know what to buy, read, wear, or listen to. When these others are “regular” people just like us, we tend to trust them more than we would a compensated spokesperson, a model in an ad, an invisible editor, or a distant celebrity. Influencers are close and relatable, and we perceive their recommendations as “honest” and “authentic.” Through our daily social media interactions, our vicarious presence at copiously documented weddings or births, we get to feel that we know our connections like we know our own friends.
The social influence market
But the social influence market is just like any market. It uses currency (taste) to build capital (social status). This capital eventually gets monetized, and we inevitably discover that our internet “friends” may be making thousands and thousands of dollars for selling us brands, products, and ideas, just like celebrity pitch people did before them. A decade ago, the opposite of authentic influence was selling out; today, it’s the reverse. Selling out equals being an authentic influencer, with a following and engagement large enough to be recognized and sought after by brands wanting to reach your audience. According to the research firm Neoreach, the number of Instagram posts using hashtags indicating advertising or promotion jumped from 1.1 million in 2016 to 3.1 million in 2018. And these are just the disclosed partnerships.
The social influence market lacks transparency, ethics, trust, and, increasingly, humans. According to data from anti-fraud company Sway Ops, a single day’s worth of posts tagged #sponsored or #ad on Instagram contained over 50% fake engagements. Points North Group, an influencer marketing analytics specialist, revealed that a whooping 78% of Ritz Carlton engagement from its Instagram influencer campaign came from fake followers or bots. But these are not the social influence market’s biggest issues. The biggest issue is that, in its current form, the market is rapidly becoming irrelevant. “A feed full of #ads comes with diminishing returns,” says Steve Dool, head of Community Partnerships at the U.K.-based social commerce app Depop. In the $6.5 billion social influence market, there are too many influencers not influencing anything. Fifty-two percent of millennials claim they trust influencers less than they used to, according to a Dealspotr report.
The next iteration of the modern influencer economy is not about hiring existing influencers. It’s creating one’s own. To get a glimpse of this future, look no further than 15-second video app TikTok. Owned by Chinese AI-company ByteDance and known as Douyin in China, TikTok’s core value proposition is algorithmic personalization.
Algorithmic personalization means that we get to enjoy highly appealing content regardless of who created it. We don’t need to follow anybody or browse or search. Content is delivered to us based on an algorithmically created taste profile rather than socially. TikTok effectively wipes out social status as the influencer market’s capital and taste as its currency. It creates the radically new kind of market where we equal our own taste profiles.
In this market, we are all potential influencers. On Diuyin, many popular videos are not created by celebrities, but by ordinary people doing creative things in the form of life hacks or hashtag challenges, which serve as trending topics on the platform and regularly draw hundreds of thousands of people to participate in making videos on the same theme. In the West, we see this trend in the rise of dedicated enthusiasts turning their passions into how-tos, leading to surge in popularity of topics like farming, house cleaning, cooking, and minding sheep. There’s now more than 2.8 million posts tagged #farming on Instagram–and the same number of those tagged #cleaning. In China, Douyin also actively scouts for new talent in art and music schools and works with MCNs (multi-channel network) agencies specializing in turning “regular” people into internet celebrities.
The rise of the bots
Second, in the influencer market of the future, bots wield the ultimate power of authenticity. Since the app is showing us only content that we already like, it teaches us which voices and perspectives are worth trusting. And because content that we like can come from literally anyone–an ordinary person as well as celebrity–it is perceived as more authentic than content created by an individual who was potentially paid for it. Authenticity is implied in the algorithm by design: Its content focus (versus influencer focus) is a powerful trust-building strategy.
The obvious danger here is that algorithms are not neutral. By default, they create filter bubbles and reflect the same biases as the humans who designed them. In case of widely used global apps like TikTok, any bias can quickly scale, to potentially disastrous results. Content algorithms are also very far from being a “bicycle for the mind,” as Steve Jobs put it. Instead, they are highly addictive, with potentially equally disastrous results for our brains and our social lives.
TikTok is a place of followers, each gifted with the opportunity to become a trusted and authentic leader. This opportunity is dictated by ebbs and flows of our likes. In the future of social influence, stars are not born. They are created by our collective taste and made popular via personalization algorithm.
Named to Forbes CMO Next list, Ana Andjelic is a strategy executive, writer, and doctor of sociology who specializes in modern luxury brands.