Under the influence

Everything that social media influencers touch is destined to go viral. Is that why it’s called influenza?


A few years ago, on a junket to experience the Goa Carnival, I found myself among a ragtag party of media-persons invited by the state tourism board. Most, representing publications in drier states, couldn’t wait to hit the bar. We lost sight of them, except at mealtimes. 

The other invitees represented the infinite grey area between journalism and marketing. And there were some that I found harder to classify. Loud, boisterous and entitled, they had an opinion on everything. They quibbled about the arrangements and brazenly demanded upgrades and add-ons. They expected to be given exclusive, priority access to people, places and experiences that were off-limits even to journalists. 

Approaching one of these motormouths, a young lady in her twenties, I asked her which publication she represented. She scoffed and announced that she was an influencer. I misheard, thinking The Influencer was a new magazine issued by Alcoholics Anonymous for the freshly sober. 

She took my card, wrinkled her nose, and followed me on Twitter with a flourish — ta da! — as if she had done me a favour. She purred approvingly, thumbing through my timeline. “You must work on your DP,” she recommended. 

DP? Display picture, dodo! She snatched my phone, shot a burst, and tossed it back to me before I could type a hashtag. “You’re welcome!” she trilled, and adopted me as her understudy, generously showering tips and tricks for the rest of the trip.  

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That was my first in-the-flesh encounter with a social media influencer — one of a tribe more valued by marketers and PR pros than unreliable, cheap-ass journos (although that’s changed somewhat with the paid news pandemic). The organisers fawned over her. My curiosity deepened when I learned that my young friend had been paid to attend the event, unlike us press types who were crammed in on a threadbare PR budget. 

What about her social media credentials packed this much power?  

I peeked at her Instagram: A preponderance of salubrious exotic locales obstructed by duck-faced selfies, decked out in stickers, and cranking out every conceivable Instagram filter, with a cobweb of hashtags that passed for prosaic descriptions. My editor’s eye goggled at the surfeit of typos, especially in her posts from a destination she consistently misspelt as #kerela. I pointed it out gently, but she waved me away and said, “AutoCorrect, bro.”

Who would pay for this, I wondered. Until I noticed she had 28,000 followers, just 27,817 more than me.  

“Are those real people?” I asked. She scowled, then LOL-ed and ROFLMAO-ed, contorting her face in a remarkable mimicry of every extant emoji.

I did my homework on social media influencers. Some were celebrity profiles managed by marketing agencies, but most were millennials who inhabited the hashtagged realms of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Influencers, the industry acknowledges, are a notch above bloggers who, creditably, do some work besides envying each others’ Alexa rankings (no relation to Amazon). And — the heartbreaking part — some are paid insane amounts for pimping brands or destinations. 

While you and I might click an arbit pic and post it on the ‘gram, these perfectionists reject hundreds before picking the one to post. Tag brands and celebs — check. OD on hashtags — check. Emoji overload — check. It’s an elaborate, fussy ritual. They must be insufferable even on vacation.

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In its early-2000s avatar, social media heralded a free internet populated by strident, unshackled voices. LiveJournal, Wordpress and Blogspot opened up a world of self-publishing. Then came micro-blogging. Orkut came and went. The Arab Spring’s hour of glory faded. We hardly suspected that Google, Twitter and Facebook were building elaborate taste profiles and sharpening their algorithms based on our likes and dislikes.

With Instagram, they nailed it. Addicted audiences sink hours scrolling and ‘hearting’. It’s a fertile paradise for subliminal marketing, inhabited by influencers of all stripes from Insta-bloggers to Insta-poets, even Insta-coaches who teach you how to go viral, while follower farms let you bloat your follower count by the thousands for a fee. Since everything an influencer posts is designed to go viral (is that why it’s called influenza?), it’s anybody’s guess who influences the influencers. 

Every now and then, when Instagram and Twitter cull multitudes of fake accounts, influencers fly into a panic (as did the Big B and our selfie-savvy PM). But that’s now seen as an occupational hazard — cataclysmic but inevitable, like a mass suicide of lemmings. 

Influencers never say die. They just keep calm and carry on influencing. Hashtag that. And change your DP.

(A journalist and cartoonist in exile, Bijoy’s enjoying an action-packed career in Corporate Communications as he waits for the storm to blow over)


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