ANAHEIM, Calif. — When the first TikTok star is elected president, I hope she is going to avoid wasting room in her cupboard for older and extra standard bureaucrats, even when they don’t have tens of millions of followers, nice hair or wonderful dance strikes.
I say “when,” not “if,” as a result of I simply spent three days at VidCon, the annual social media conference in Anaheim, hanging out with just a few thousand present and future web celebrities. And it’s more and more apparent to me that the youngsters and 20-somethings who’ve mastered these platforms — and who are sometimes dismissed as shallow, preening narcissists by adults who don’t know any higher — are going to dominate not simply web tradition or the leisure trade however society as an entire.
On the floor, this generally is a terrifying proposition. One day at VidCon, I frolicked with a crew of teenage Instagram stars, who appeared to spend most of their time filming “collabs” with different creators and complimenting each other on their “drip,” influencer-speak for garments and equipment. (In their case, head-to-toe Gucci and Balenciaga outfits with diamond necklaces and designer sneakers.) Another day, I witnessed a clumsy dance battle between two budding TikTok influencers, neither of whom may have been older than 10. (Adults who’re simply catching up: TikTok is a short-form video app owned by the Chinese web firm Bytedance.)
But in the event you can look previous the silliness and status-seeking, many individuals at VidCon are laborious at work. Being an influencer could be an exhausting, burnout-inducing job, and the people who find themselves good at it have sometimes spent years working their means up the ladder. Many social media influencers are basically one-person start-ups, and the greatest ones can spot traits, experiment relentlessly with new codecs and platforms, construct an genuine reference to an viewers, pay shut consideration to their channel analytics, and determine the right way to distinguish themselves in a crowded media setting — all whereas churning out a relentless stream of recent content material.
Not all influencers are sensible polymaths, after all. Some of them have succeeded by advantage of being conventionally enticing, or good at video video games, or in possession of another surface-level attribute. Others have made their names with doubtful stunts and extreme political commentary.
But as social media expands its cultural dominance, the people who can steer the online conversation will have an upper hand in whatever niche they occupy — whether that’s media, politics, business or some other field.
“The way to think of influencers or creators is as entrepreneurs,” said Chris Stokel-Walker, the author of “YouTubers.” “These people are setting up businesses, hiring staff, managing budgets. These are massively transferable skills.”
Just look at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat who has become a powerful force in Congress by pairing her policy agenda with an intuitive understanding of what works online. Or look at what’s happening in Brazil, where YouTubers are winning political elections by mobilizing their online fan bases.
In the business world, influencer culture is already an established force. A generation of direct-to-consumer brands that were built using the tools and tactics of social media has skyrocketed to success — like Glossier, the influencer-beloved beauty company that recently raised $100 million at a valuation of more than $1 billion, or Away, the luggage start-up whose ubiquitous Instagram ads helped it reach a valuation of $1.4 billion. Many social media stars strike endorsement deals with major brands, in addition to earning money through advertising and merchandise sales. And even executives in sleepy, old-line industries now hire “personal branding consultants” to help increase their online followings.
Natalie Alzate, a YouTuber with more than 10 million subscribers who goes by Natalies Outlet, is an example of the wave of influencers who treated their online brand-building as a business rather than a fun hobby. Four years ago, when Ms. Alzate first came to VidCon, she was a marketing student with fewer than 7,000 subscribers. She decided to study her favorite YouTubers, watch how they made their videos and then test videos in multiple genres, seeing which ones performed best on her channel.
“I grew up watching people, like Michelle Phan, that were building legacies out of, honestly, just being really relatable online,” Ms. Alzate said. “It was always an aspiration.”
Eventually, she hit on formats — like beauty tips and lifehacks — that reliably performed well, and she was off to the races. Today, she is a full-time YouTuber with a small staff, a production studio and the kind of fame she once coveted.
In truth, influencers have been running the world for years. We just haven’t called them that. Instead, we called them “movie stars” or “talk-radio hosts” or “Davos attendees.” The ability to stay relevant and attract attention to your work has always been critical. And who, aside from perhaps President Trump, is better at getting attention than a YouTube star?
VidCon, which started 10 years ago as a meet-and-greet event for popular YouTubers, is a perfect place to observe influencers in their natural habitat. And many of them were here to promote their channels, to network with other creators and to make strides toward the dream of internet fame.
Sometimes, that meant appearing in photos and videos with more popular influencers in an attempt to increase their own following, a practice known in influencer circles as “clout chasing.” Other times, it meant going to panels with titles like “Curating Your Personal Brand” and “How to Go Viral and Build an Audience.” For VidCon’s featured creators, the super-famous ones with millions of followers, it can mean spending the day at a meet-and-greet with fans before going out to V.I.P. parties at night.
Not all of the young people I met at VidCon will spend their whole lives pursuing internet fame. Some of them will grow up, go off to college and wind up becoming doctors, lawyers or accountants. Some will fizzle out and be replaced by a younger generation of internet stars.
But the lessons they learned from performing on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok will stick with them, regardless of where they end up. Just as the 20th century groomed a generation of children steeped in the ethos of TV culture, the 21st century will produce a generation of business moguls, politicians and media figures who grew up chasing clout online and understand how to operate the levers of the attention economy.
“In the early days, it felt like this was a sub-niche of youth culture,” Beau Bryant, the general manager of talent at Fullscreen, a management agency for digital creators, told me at VidCon. He gestured around at a room filled with influencers sitting on velvet couches. Some were taking selfies and editing their Instagram stories. Others were holding business meetings about partnerships and sponsored content deals.
“Now, it just feels like this is what youth culture is,” Mr. Bryant said.
In other words, influencers are the future. Dismiss them at your peril.
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