A brief lowdown on how someone can gain so much fame (and perhaps fortune) on social media.
Often, when you scroll through a popular Instagram account, it is a well-curated series of images that beguiles the eye, topped with soothing colour gradients or stunning Nat Geo-esque pictures.
Either that, or the social account belongs to a celebrity or public figure who is attractive and stylish, who appears accomplished and provides a certain feel-good factor.
Even in China, where Instagram is banned, high-powered luxury brands like Burberry and Louis Vuitton are already gunning for Chinese Instagram stars who have social clout both in the East and the West.
Names like Lu Han and Kris Wu, both formerly from hugely successful K-pop group EXO, have millions of followers and release chart-topping hits as well. There’s also Mr. Bags, well known for his collaborations with massive brands like Dior, Fendi and Longchamp. Mr. Bags, who despite clocking only less than 50,000 Instagram followers, possesses a huge following on Weibo (over 3 million).
The above depicts how there can be myriad pathways to social stardom, even if you’re a non-celebrity to begin with. So, how do influencers even become that influential? Jelle Fastenau of Medium.com breaks down the power of social media influencers into three key aspects:
Physical attractiveness bias
In psychology terms, the physical attractiveness bias is a concept that flourishes not just in the social media sphere, but have done so for decades within traditional advertising means.
Humans subconsciously attribute good-looking people with a slew of positive qualities. When an attractive person uses a specific product for example, there is instant positive association.
Similarly, when an influencer gives his or her opinion about a product, this immediately draws attention to the brand. Additionally, the social user who sees the association then generates an opinion subconsciously, which is often positive and might even lead to purchasing decisions.
In order to achieve a high level of credibility, one must be able to showcase traits like trustworthiness and expertise.
For example, a social influencer who promotes himself as a photographer would need to showcase some of his works as proof that he has the capability and skills, and these pictures would then generate credibility – whether it’s in his appraisal of cameras or opinions about photography-related subjects.
According to French and Raven’s (1960) framework of power bases, one of the key elements to perceived power lies in the value of expertise, which correlates to the degree of influence one possesses.
Such expertise then plunges the influencer into an authoritative position, one that is strengthened further by follower numbers, likes and positive comments.
Gradually, this creates social proof, whereby since masses of people are already dishing out stamps of approval to the individual, surely their judgments and perception of the influencer is right.
Social identity theory
One key trait of social media influencers, which sets them apart from other well-known, popular celebrities, is their relatability. Ultimately, influencers are still perceived as normal human beings who simply make the effort to portray themselves well on social media.
Most of the time, these influencers belong to the same age group as their followers, sharing their thoughts on current issues, lamenting about various problems they face in everyday life. They are relatable figures and followers want to know more about what they do and what they think.
The above is a small example of social identity theory, another psychology term that suggests how people associate themselves with a group comprising similar individuals. In social media terms, that would mean an influencer with his or her followers banded together, and unsurprisingly, any negative comments targeting the influencer would be batted away.
A gift that keeps giving
Being a social media influencer has also become one of the main desires of some millennials. The potential rise in status as a mini celebrity, the validation and the exclusive invites can be a tantalizing dream. Such a dream will surely keep afloat the community of social media influencers, adding not only numbers but also variety – delivering even more options to brands.
The influencer route has often been rendered either a superficial pathway to stardom, or a distasteful shortcut to substantial riches. But ultimately, the perception of influencers is what it is, a perception.
One man’s meat is another poison, and while a particular influencer may not be everyone’s cup of tea, a positive perception that is multiplied by hundreds and thousands would certainly be of benefit.