Being a "social media influencer" has nothing to do with the size of your audience or the nature of your work. An influencer used to be someone with a giant, million-plus following to sell things to, but marketers have since expanded the term, piling on prefixes like macro-, micro-, and even nano-influencers, who can have audiences of just 1,000. Influencers aren't confined to a genre anymore, either. There are still the standard-issue Instagram beauty and lifestyle influencers, but also restaurant influencers, real estate influencers, pet influencers . Really, the only way to guarantee that people will think of your online celebrity as "influence" is to be a woman.
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Many men of the internet will fracture their own vertebrae to avoid being called influencers, even when their work—building a brand, getting #sponsored, promoting products and themselves—fits the definition. They prefer terms like "digital content creator" or "content producer" or industry-specific terms like "gamer," usually because they think of themselves as artists or members of the entertainment industry, and sometimes, as several content creators and their agents have told me, because they just really hate the word influencer. Plenty of women do too, but the way people talk about these creators points to the prevailing assumptions: James Charles is a "male beauty influencer," while any woman who streams herself playing videogames on Twitch is a "female gamer." Those phrases may not catch everyone's eye, but words matter, especially on the internet, and how someone is identified can have a huge impact.
Self-branding makes divergence in terms inevitable. Anyone can give themselves any title they like, and there are reasons to resist "influencer": It's a money-minded bit of corporatese that, for some reason, thousands have embraced as an identity. (Granted, referring to your artistic creations as "content" also makes you sound like a marketing robot.) But in this age of keywords and hashtags, what you call yourself has an enormous impact on who sees and consumes your work. For fans, online celebrities, and researchers studying them, tiny differences in diction can make internet culture seem far more gender segregated than it really is.
The solution will not come from forcing all internet creators to adopt any one single term. When you try, people get hostile. While at a streaming and gaming conference, Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist studying internet celebrity, and a few other women presenters referred to people who think of themselves as "gamers" as "influencers" or "internet celebrities. "We got a lot of pushback," Abidin says. "They thought we were conflating them with lifestyle content producers." Nobody likes feeling lumped in with everyone else, but, according to Abidin, the reaction was political. It's not that these gamers thought the term influencer was confusing or imprecise. They thought it was offensive. "They don't want to be cast as frivolous," she says. "The idea is that influencing is easier than producing something." Even when what you're producing is a two-hour video of yourself playing a videogame.
Yes, of course, influencers produce things. Yes, the subtext is that influencing is somehow beneath producing, and, yep, that smells sexist. But it might point to the actual difference between men and women's contributions to the internet—not their value or their subject matter, but how the creator thinks about themselves. Take online fashion personalities. "Female influencers showcase their physical selves," says Brooke Erin Duffy, who studies social media and influencers at Cornell University. "But men show the flat lays." (Flat lays are an Instagram staple: a collection of objects artfully arranged on a flat surface, viewed from directly above.)
'Using multiple terms isn't inherently good or bad, but those who control the terms of conversation can use it to leverage power.'
David Nieborg, University of Toronto
The content is the same: Here are some clothes I like. Generally speaking, women consider themselves part of the product, while men separate their notion of self from their labor, considering themselves its "creator." Maybe that's another data point for the "men are interested in things, and women are interested in people" argument; maybe men feel less photogenic; maybe being taller makes bird's-eye-view photography easier. "Using multiple terms isn't inherently good or bad," says David Nieborg, who studies the politics and economics of online platforms at the University of Toronto. "But those who control the terms of conversation can use it to leverage power." On their own, those gender trends might not mean much unless you attach judgement to them, as the gamers Abidin encountered did, and give some terms privilege over others.
These folks, whatever you'd like to call them, carry cultural influence. Trends in their habits will ripple outwards to their audiences, to the companies trying to sell things to their audiences, and to the researchers trying to make sense of their worlds. The gender divide between internet celebrities has already shaped who studies them. "I have to do a presentation on the state of gaming research tomorrow and I realized I'm only citing men," says Nieborg. "Why is that? The gaming industry is a male-dominated field, and that translates into mostly research from white dudes like me."
Emma Grey Ellis covers memes, trolls, and other elements of internet culture for WIRED.
Most research on the women of the internet, and hence influencers and social media celebrities, is done by women, and those women tend to cite other women. Though, both Duffy and Abidin point out that, even when their male colleagues are doing similar work to their own, they tend to brand themselves as studying an industry or platforms. "It's not inaccurate," Abidin says. "It just extrapolates."
An identity-based divergence of research interests is no kind of problem. It's the argument for inclusion in the academy. Duffy and Nieborg are collaborators, coming at a single issue from two angles. "Her language is much more rooted in the language of the people who manifest themselves on these platforms. The people she studies talk about culture," Nieborg says. "In my work, 'influencer' is an industry term that masks what I'm interested in: the money, the economics, the advertising." To Nieborg, influencers of any gender might as well call themselves "data extraction facilitators," which is both funny and a valuable perspective.
The problem comes when these loose trends are made into hard divisions, either by sexism or by search, which may already be happening. "I struggle with studying internet culture, and it boils down to recruitment," Duffy says. "Female influencers recommend other female influencers, and the men just don't write back."
My experience tracking down male influencers and male researchers to quote in articles is similar, and, for the academics, was made worse by my choice of keywords. While researching an article about social media or digital culture or influencers, scouring Google Scholar for people doing research in "platform studies" would never have occurred to me. Without knowing, I, a woman, was using female-coded language to ask questions about female-coded interests and it produced female results, and those women recommended I talk to other women. So in my stories about internet culture, I always ended up quoting more women than men, and now I finally know why. So do the experts. If only we knew what to do about it.
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