How did creators become influencers?

How did YouTube's "creators" become Instagram's "influencers" — and what does the dinstinction signify?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Taylor Lorenz has dug deep into the history of the terms “influencer” and “creator”, triggered by a piece on WIRED she disagreed with. The history she exposes is fascinating, and fills in many gaps in my knowledge. But some of the stages might seem odd, possibly even laughable, from an old media perspective:

Very quickly, a hierarchy developed. Influencers, because they came later, were stereotyped as less worthy than traditional YouTube creators, a class of people who had already spent years establishing themselves and whose existence and worth had been validated by YouTube itself, a much larger social network than Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest.

However, it’s really just an indication that this whole area of social platform-focused media is rich and diverse enough for these sorts of distinctions to matter. And, make no mistake, it is a media ecosystem — even if it looks nothing like the ones we’re more familiar with. Yes, it’s young, and often amateur-looking from a more traditional view, but new industries often look like that — the games industry being another good example.

Semantic Influence

And, again, as journalism knows, apparently small semantic distinctions can make a big difference. Compare “reporter” versus “journalist”. That might not mean much to the average person as a distinction, but it makes sense to those in the profession.

So, too, with influencer:

“The word influencer means someone who is building a platform with the intention of being used by brands for marketing purposes,” says Natasha Hynes, a YouTuber who calls herself a creator. A creator, she argues, is in it for the self-expression.

Words still matter, though, and anyone who is aspiring to be an influencer is aspiring to have influence, rather than to create. And why do they want to influence? To make money.

And where there’s money, there’s a valid career choice:

While older people might sneer at the term influencer, to teens, it’s an aspirational job title. An overwhelming majority of the young teens I met with last year at VidCon, an annual conference for online creators, called themselves influencers, despite the “creator” badges distributed by the conference that hung around their necks.

Never wise to spend too long sneering at the next generation of customers…

unsplash-logoAustin Distel

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.