After his clash with the Wall Street Journal in February 2017 become memorialised as a struggle between YouTube Influencers and the legacy media, PewDiePie was embroiled in more controversy for amplifying anti-Semitic sentiment, attacking/calling-out more journalists and media outlets, and inciting a YouTube channel war that has stimulated his followers to spew racist remarks. Despite all this, journalists observe that “PewDiePie’s frequent controversies seem to have no real effect on his popularity“.
In the wake of these events, I asked by several journalists to provide context and commentary on Influencers and their relationship to the mainstream media. As expected, I was pressed to forecast if Influencers would eventually replace digital news media outlets, or to confirm if legacy and digital media were increasingly threatened by Influencers’ impact in the information space. I struggled to respond to sweeping statements such as ‘YouTubers have more legitimacy than the press’, ‘Young people generally trust Influencers over the media’, and ‘Influencers have a larger reach than the media today’, without providing situational context. As a reflection on a fortnight of such conversations, I briefly pen here three nuances to keep in mind when comparing digital news media to Influencers, given that each is held to distinct barometers of authority, engagement, and reach.
1) Digital news media’s promise of legitimacy vs. Influencers’ premise of charisma
Many digital news media carry the promise of legitimacy from institutional prestige, the public’s long-standing familiarity with their brand, and their reputation. This sense of legitimacy is heightened for outlets who were converted from print media with celebrated legacies over decades. As an institution, these are widely believed to be organisations and corporations staffed with trained journalists who are held to a code of ethics (sidelining the fact that the journalism industry itself is becoming a gig economy and that under-trained/under-experienced freelancers are increasingly replacing seasoned correspondents). On the other hand, Influencers generally offer charisma. Influencers who intentionally foster charismatic authority usually deploy internet-native forms of parasocial relations to maintain social ties with viewers, and strategically emphasise their amateur-like status and aesthetic to appear more convincing and homophilous to everyday followers. But the terrain and flavour of internet celebrity is diverse, and many Influencers burst into the scene with whimsical charisma birthed out of memorable catchphrases, bad photographs that become memes, or viral enactments of everyday skills. Even the most financially successful Influencers turn to everyman empathy and narratives of victimhood to produce impressions of perpetual precarity (even if it no longer applies to them), as they never want to appear to followers as if they have ‘arrived’ out of the fear that this takes away from the notion of everydayness.
2) Digital news media’s crisis of trustworthiness vs. Influencers’ burden of relatability
Digital news media outlets are facing a crisis of trustworthiness amidst concerns over ‘fake news’, especially internet-only/internet-native websites as opposed to the digital estates of already established legacy media. And at a time when they are expanding on social media to sustain their business models (see below), it does not help that consumers’ trust in news derived from social media is wavering. On the other hand, Influencers are not so much judged for their objective trustworthiness as they are for their ability to stealthily provide opinionated persuasion. Followers turn to Influencers not for a fair assessment or balanced view of social issues, but for specific takes and stances that are filtered through the Influencer’s personal preferences and identity-as-brand – Influencers are ultimately in the business of inducement and primarily serve as vehicles for sponsored messages (be they products, services, or ideologies) after all. In other words, the average Influencer is not instituted to be held to fact-checking or a code of ethics, save perhaps for recent moves by various governments and trade commissions to institute transparency around sponsored content. But even then, these initiatives focus only on the declaration of commercial interest and do not curtail Influencers in their production of harmful op-eds or sponsored messages, even when Influencers have been revealed to intentionally produce negative reviews to sabotage a client’s competitors, and even when a growing number of Influencers boasts readership that drastically overshadows that of legacy media.
3) Digital news media’s accessible legibility vs. Influencers’ niche reach
In an age where digital media companies are folding or organising mass layoffs due to budget cuts, it is important for these outlets to remain legible to the widest possible audience to maintain readership. This is achieved by simplifying the aesthetic delivery and content of the information they deliver, such as mass producing short articles with simple vocabulary and the use of listicles and clickbait to appeal to the ‘lowest common denominator’. On the other hand, on a regular basis Influencers tend to reach to rather niche audiences, whether this be the regularly scheduled content for their loyal followers comprising highly contextualised insider vernacular and community norms, or the scheduled controversy to antagonise others as way to parlay bad publicity into signal boosting one’s visibility – after all, the algorithms that register internet traffic (and in turn translates into ad revenue) do not discriminate between the eyeballs of fans and haters, and lukewarm sentiment does not sell. Although self-sensationalism has also birthed popular memes such as the YouTube Storytime Clickbait Parodies, the culture of Influencers can often be contextually and culturally insular to the general public despite their statistical prominence.
Dr Crystal Abidin is a socio-cultural anthropologist of vernacular internet cultures, particularly young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. She is the author of Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Emerald Publishing, 2018) and co-editor of Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures of Internet Fame (Emerald Publishing, 2019). Reach her at wishcrys.com or @wishcrys.