Four keys to think about the influencers boom
Social networks have given rise to a new type of public persona that their followers have made famous: the influencer.
Because of the visibility that followers give them, the influencers have the power to convert their tastes or interests into trends.
I propose four ways to think of a phenomenon that has spread from marketing to political communication, and that can reach other areas, such as health, education or culture.
What is influence
Influence, according to Merriam-Webster, means “to affect or alter by indirect or intangible means”. In other words, it is a capacity that we recognize in people who we believe have authority, based on their knowledge and experience.
Influencing is one of the functions of public communication and has to do with the ability to modify opinions and promote decision-making among members of the audience.
The beginnings of journalism, for example, are linked to the intention of influencing social and political debates. The newspapers themselves became spaces for debate and gave rise to “public opinion” (which, initially, were published opinions).
Who were influencers before social networks
Before the revolution of social media, at the time of the mass media, public influence was exercised by people quoted by the press, radio, television, and cinema: politicians, artists, athletes and, of course, the journalists themselves (especially those dedicated to criticism).
The critics of art or gastronomy, for example, guided the taste of the audience, as well as their purchasing decisions, due to their expert knowledge and thanks to the visibility granted by their media presence.
Why social networks have changed the dynamics of influence
Social networks, by diversifying access to public communication platforms (websites, blogs, networking sites and spaces to share images and videos), have led to the gradual de-professionalization of criticism and the emergence of amateurs as arbiters of taste.
One of the most worrisome aspects of the new scenario is that the ability to influence has ceased to be supported by expert knowledge of an authority and is based on the popularity that networks give to personalities admired by their communities of followers.
Reconnect influence with authority
Influence, deep down, has to do with authority, and the authority (of the one who knows, not of the one in charge) is exercised in limited fields of knowledge in which the public recognizes the moral strength of the influencer’s opinions and certainties.
Having many followers, subscribers or likes cannot be the basis on which to establish a relationship of authority. Two things have to be asked about the influencer: what do they really know, and what authority would we grant them if they were not famous?
In an era in which influencers and opinion-makers have displaced experts and intellectuals, it seems appropriate to go back to betting on knowledge as a source of authority.
Tell me who influences you and I will tell you who you are.
Jose Luis Orihuela is a professor, speaker and author, born in Argentina and living in Spain. He is a faculty member of the School of Communication, University of Navarra (Pamplona). Visiting scholar and speaker in 26 countries. Writer and blogger focused on the impact of the internet on media, communication and culture. His latest books are: Manual breve de Mastodon (2023), Culturas digitales (2021), Los medios después de internet (2015), Mundo Twitter (2011), 80 claves sobre el futuro del periodismo (2011) and La revolución de los blogs (2006). Publishing in eCuaderno since 2002 (ecuaderno.com), in Twitter since 2007 (@jlori) and in Mastodon since 2022 (mastodon.social/@jlori).