If you don't follow the world of beauty vlogging, you've probably never heard the name James Charles. I hadn't either, and nor did I care, until a couple of weeks ago when the 19-year-old make-up artist and social media influencer was dragged online for posting the following statement after attending the 71st annual Met Gala: 'Being invited to such an important event like the ball is such an honour and a step forward in the right direction for influencer representation in the media and I am so excited to be a catalyst'.
His comment was typical of the kind of self-indulgence and egotism I had always associated with anyone who describes themselves as an 'influencer', and his suggestion that the profession is some kind of marginalised group deserving of affirmative action was met with haughty derision by the rest of the internet. It was a proclamation uttered with all the self-absorption and melodrama of Holden Caulfield, but as I guffawed audibly into my screen I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the boy had a point.
New research indicates that as many as 17% of British 11-16 year olds want to be a social media influencer when they grow up, outranking teacher and veterinarian. It's an occupation I didn't even realise existed until a few years ago, and still struggle to recognise as a legitimate job title, but influencers wield huge financial power worldwide that shouldn't be underestimated. For Gen Alpha, digital natives born after 2010, incidentally the same year Apple released the iPad, the relevance of influencer culture in their lives is already significant and will only continue to grow. According to one report cited in the New Yorker, the influencer economy will be worth $10bn by 2020.
Marketing and tech companies use these quirky online personalities to personalise the consumer's experience of the brand. Unlike the polished celebrity endorsement, influencers typically engage their audiences from the comfort of their bedrooms – and that's exactly their appeal. Uncensored, clumsy, maybe even a little awkward, their relatability makes them trustworthy. In many ways, what separates the traditional celebrity from the social media influencer is that, while the former embodies fantasy, the latter, with a little help and the right product, is attainable.
Or, if you're a cynic, what really differentiates the two is talent, or lack thereof. It's hard to defend the 'profession' of social media influencer when some of the content they generate is nothing short of drivel. Take beauty and lifestyle vlogger Zoella, whose most recent book 'Cordially Invited' was at best lazy and at worst a complete scam. In her 255-page 'seasonal guide to hosting', the 29-year-old offers her readership such revolutionary advice as 'open the windows and doors to let in the fresh spring air', 'go on a bike ride' and, my personal favourite, 'bring an umbrella for when it's raining'.
And yet for all I would characterise 'Cordially Invited' as unparalleled schlock, it sold nearly 20,000 copies across the UK. The scope of Zoella's influence is massive with almost five million YouTube subscribers and 9.8 million Instagram followers. To put that into perspective, Malala Yousafzai has 718,000, Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement, has 134,000, and Pope Francis has 6.1 million.
For further evidence of the spectacular power of the social media influencer, look at the 2017 Fyre Festival, dubbed by Netflix as 'the greatest party that never happened'. The hoax music festival was marketed by 250 of the world's most popular influencers as the most luxurious and exclusive live music event the world had ever seen. But in reality, the private jets, five-star, beach-front accommodation and unlimited fine dining turned out to be nothing more than rebranded disused aeroplanes, rain-drenched tents left over from Hurricane Matthew, and two sad slices of bread encasing an even sadder looking slab of plastic cheese.
Fyre Festival was built on nothing more than empty promises and pretty photos. It's alleged that high profile personalities like Kendell Jenner were paid £250,000 to post a single picture on their Instagram accounts promoting the event. No one seemed to question the fact that it was a new festival, on a remote island, organised by a man with a repertoire of disreputable business projects. The slick marketing campaign convinced hundreds to reach into their wallets and hand over $4,000 for a standard ticket, with some spending as much as $250,000 for more extravagant packages. Whatever you think about influencer culture is frankly irrelevant: that is power.
Don't get me wrong, I still think the tone of James Charles's comment was smug and characteristically immature. Influencers are not a historically oppressed group in need of a benefit concert. They are very much a powerful force in our cultural landscape with a huge voice, the problem is they are such a new phenomenon that they are often overlooked and their impact underestimated. But make no mistake, these are the new faces of media, tech, retail, beauty, travel, food and music. Their reach is virtually limitless and whether we like it or not, sooner or later, we're all going to be under the influence.