Once upon a time, the most liked photo on Instagram was the picture of an egg named Eugene. With more than 56 million likes and 4.8 million followers, Eugene represented a mystery. The mystery of who created it and why has been since solved. The mystery of how it got so many likes is best explained by a disgraced influencer, the model and actor Luka Sabbat: “People are way too influenced by what they see.”
Social influence rests on the fact that, when faced with abundance of choice, we habitually rely on others to know what to buy, read, wear, or listen to. When these others are “regular” people just like us, we tend to trust them more than we would a compensated spokesperson, a model in an ad, an invisible editor, or a distant celebrity. Influencers are close and relatable, and we perceive their recommendations as “honest” and “authentic.” Through our daily social media interactions, our vicarious presence at copiously documented weddings or births, we get to feel that we know our connections like we know our own friends
The social influence market
The social influence market is just like any market. It uses currency (taste) to build capital (social status). This capital eventually gets monetized, and we inevitably discover that our internet “friends” may be making thousands and thousands of dollars for selling us brands, products, and ideas, just like celebrity pitch people did before them. A decade ago, the opposite of authentic influence was selling out; today, it’s the reverse. Selling out equals being an authentic influencer, with a following and engagement large enough to be recognized and sought after by brands wanting to reach your audience. There are more than 32 million “advertising” and “promotion” hashtags on Instagram. And these are just the disclosed partnerships.
The social influence market lacks transparency, ethics, trust, and, increasingly, humans. According to data from anti-fraud company Sway Ops, a single day’s worth of posts tagged #sponsored or #ad on Instagram contained over 50% fake engagements. Points North Group, an influencer marketing analytics specialist, revealed that a whooping 78% of Ritz Carlton engagement from its Instagram influencer campaign came from fake followers or bots. But these are not the…