Full-text audio version of this essay.

In March, the UK Parliament announced the launch of a public inquiry into “influencer culture,” calling for experts who could inform confused MPs and civil servants what it is, exactly, that influencers do. As a media studies academic who has studied influencers in the UK for the past five years, I met with other academics in law, business, and computer science to help assemble a response. The first question presented to us was “How would you define influencers?” Each discipline’s answer reflected a different approach: Law scholars started with baseline contractual questions; business academics wanted to refer to the quality and effectiveness of their influence; computer scientists looked to influencers’ relationships with algorithms.

These are all worthwhile lines of inquiry, but for me, it’s pointless to identify influencer as a fixed occupational category. The use of this term and other related terms like content creator, is worth examining because these terms do certain things that are inseparable from the context of their use: They evoke certain feelings and associations, and they convey political motivations. Rather than give influencer or creator a static definition, we should look at who uses it and consider what they are trying to do. My approach here is informed by Sara Ahmed’s call in The Promise of Happiness to “follow language around,” seeing what terminology “can and does do.” Why do certain terms appeal? Why do they “stick to certain bodies” and not to others?

In terms of tasks or specifications, “influencer” and “creator” aren’t really different jobs: They both involve the independent, serial production of content for social media platforms. Both influencers and creators are renumerated in similar ways, through a mix of platform revenue-sharing schemes, sponsorships, and fan-funded models like Patreon. Why, then, are they made to sound like different things?

Concerns about who has “influence” and what they do with it are longstanding. The word influencer has held a dark and sorcerous connotation since at least the 17th century, when, as Laurence Scott points out, Shakespeare used it in All’s Well That End’s Well. In contemporary media, before its association with Instagrammers and TikTokers, the term had been used to describe news anchors (as in this 1984 New York Times piece about Dan Rather “helping direct the national agenda”) and ultra-rich noncelebrities, as in this 2005 Sunday Styles article called “Influencers Are Forever.” Even into the social media era, influencer could be used to describe business leaders, as in this 2014 celebration of Spotify CEO Daniel Ek in Wired.

More recently, the term influencer has often stood in contrast with creator to differentiate among those who independently produce content professionally for new media platforms. Within digital culture, the term influencer typically connotes someone specializing in advertorial, with an ability to persuade audiences to buy things. Creator, by contrast, evokes someone making art, motivated by their vocation rather than the likelihood that their content will attract sponsorship.

This somewhat porous distinction has also taken on a gendered cast: A 2019 Wired piece by Emma Grey Ellis argued that women are more likely to be called influencers and men are more likely to be called creators, noting that men working in lifestyle and fashion verticals (like James Charles) are often referred to as “male beauty influencers,” as though “female” was automatically implied by “influencer.” In his history of the consumer and consumption, Don Slater points out that historically, women have been seen as more commercially aligned — less rational and taken less seriously as proper economic actors. This may be where the gendered distinction between influencers and creators first comes from.

These gendered labels, Ellis argues, shape the distribution of power in these media ecologies. Influencers are often derided in popular culture and dismissed as frivolous because they use self-representations in part to sell products; detractors thus accuse them of being vain and narcissistic. They sit below creators within the value hierarchy of online culture, yet creators too feature themselves in their work and make money through advertorial content. Influencers are regarded as fundamentally commercialized, with any creativity and agency drained from their practice, while creators appear as the inverse, only incidentally commercialized because of the appeal of their creative agency. Influencers are seen as trading in the calculated depiction of an “authentic lifestyle,” while “creators” are held to a different standard of realness in representations, affording them flexibility and more opportunities.

In an article for the Atlantic, Taylor Lorenz, a reporter who covers influencers, rejected Ellis’s gendered typology — “that men are more likely to self-identify as creators, while women more often call themselves influencers” — as an oversimplification. For Lorenz, the influencer/creator divide is not political but a matter of corporate branding. As YouTube grew its partner program in the early 2010s, it poured its marketing budget into branding its top content producers — both women and men — as “creators.” The then ambiguous and flexible term helped the platform sell a new kind of star — ostensibly ordinary teens who could attract millions of viewers with amateur content made from suburban bedrooms — to (nervous) legacy industry stakeholders in Hollywood and ad land.

Following the success of this venture, the term creator was co-opted by other platforms like Tumblr, to describe the burgeoning group of bloggers who were gathering scores of followers on the sites. In Lorenz’s view influencer stands against creator as a “platform agnostic” term that is applied to newer, up-and-coming content producers with less experience, less early-adopter cache, and thus less legitimacy. That is, it helps “creators” distinguish themselves from their emerging competitors even as it ties them to platforms and separates them from celebrities in film, music, and television.

When discussing the terms influencer and creator, it’s important to differentiate between how content producers define themselves and how they are defined by other people. Lorenz notes that describing oneself as an influencer is kind of cringe; she claims that those who do this tend to be younger and inexperienced, less likely to be earning a living by making content. Indeed, when I scoured the profiles and websites of scores of content producers in an unscientific effort to test this theory, I couldn’t find any UK-based producers who publicly self-identified as influencers. (A friend later pointed me to ex-Love Island contestant Zara McDermott, a lonely “influencer” island in a sea of Instagram’s “beauty and fashion content creators.”)

Social media platforms also avoid the term influencer and are heavily invested in the creator label — not only YouTube (which has a Creator Support Team, as well as a Creator Monthly newsletter that spotlights Creators on the Rise) but also Instagram (which features a Creators tab on its support page and has promised to launch “creator shops”) and TikTok (which runs a “creator marketplace” where brands can “shop” the platform’s “most popular creators”). Even Twitter wants a piece of the “creator” action, with a “Twitter pro tips for creators” page. On none of these platforms is there any official mention of “influencers.” It’s as if they don’t exist.

But influencers are undoubtedly a culturally important part of these platforms’ business models. The sorts of content producers who some would deride as “influencers” are also among those who perpetually produce and post high-quality content that impels their audiences to scroll. Influencers attract and keep audiences. Why are the platforms afraid to speak their name? To return to Ahmed’s call to ask what words do, what work does their preference for creator perform?

In many ways, the distinction between influencer and creator is the product of longstanding critical divisions between art (seen as organically created) and mass culture (seen as manufactured and dangerous). Influencer suggests a mode of distracting and sedating the public, creating generations of docile consumers. Creator reaches into a different tradition.

Creator, of course, dovetails with creativity, a word softly humming with warm, positive connotations. Urban studies theorist Richard Florida, famously identified “creativity” as the “key factor in our economy and society” that “distinguishes us as humans from other species.” Perhaps most important, Florida argues that creativity is a “highly prized commodity in our economy, yet it is not a ‘commodity.’” For Florida, creativity is a valuable inborn quality within humans that can be grown and harvested by policymakers. If done right, this process can lead to explosive economic growth.

The elasticity of  “creativity” as a term — it offers a way to discuss “human capital” building in more conventional and organic sounding ways — has made it appealing for policymakers, particularly in the UK, where the 1997 Labour Government renamed the cultural industries (art, performance, theatre) as “creative industries”, a move that opened up this area of funding and policymaking to also encompass software companies, graphic design, and advertising agencies. Creative industries, moreso than fine arts and the humanities in their conventional conceptions, can be measured by their economic value. As a term, “creative” connotes this system of value: of cultural worth being a matter of how much economic activity it can generate. 

The governmental logic of “creative industries” dovetails with a neoliberal fixation on the figure of the entrepreneur: independent, self-reliant and economically generative. Under this movement toward the “creative,” art school merged with business school, as sociologist Angela McRobbie points out. Marketing and entrepreneurship are now standard parts of an arts education, with artists are encouraged to develop their personal brand. Social media platforms, upon their advent, were perfectly placed to attract these “creators”: people who had been encouraged to produce stuff independently, while also marketing themselves as brands. The platforms, in turn, can highlight the autonomy and initiative of their “creators” as testimony for how they nurture and incentivize entrepreneurship, demonstrating that creators can attract visibility and become successful without state support or social security. Where previous culture industries were marked by nepotism and exclusion, “creativity” and “creator” suggest an inner resource, an organic quality that any individual can claim provided they take responsibility for tapping on their own. Anyone can be (if not must be) creative.

Creator is useful in that it implies a binary opposition with consumption. The relationship between social media platforms and advertisers — and all the involuntary surveillance and efforts to manipulate users that it has entailed — has been the source of constant critique and scandal, summed up in the popular feeling that if the services are free, then you are the product. The term influencer only reinforces that perspective. But creator allows social media platforms to celebrate their role in supporting a burgeoning wave of talented young people, amplifying and supporting their technological and artistic potential.

If both social media platforms and digital producers strictly avoid the word influencer in their public-facing communication, then who actually uses it? Talent agents, for one. M&C Saatchi’s talent management arm manage “social influencers”; another big agency in the UK is simply called Influencer Ltd. It has latched onto this term in their brand-facing literature precisely because it summarizes their talent’s ability to “activate” audiences. Influencers are valuable for their ability to shift products; as an influencer marketing agency AsireIQ put it, “while influencers’ content might not be the most beautifully crafted, they make up for it with their ability to capture their audience’s attention and ultimately influence purchase decisions.”

Not all agencies embrace “influencer,” though: Gleam Futures, one of the biggest agencies managing online content producers in the UK and the United States, have historically distanced themselves from the term in favor of their own coinage, “digital-first talent.” In 2019, Gleam executive Lucy Loveridge told the Guardian that the label influencer was “misrepresentative and degrading,” because, as she noted in another interview, the term “implies that content creators are just one homogenized group of people and of course, there is so much variety within the industry.” Yet despite their fraught relationship with the word, Gleam’s website clearly describes the firm as an “influencer marketing agency,” a concession, perhaps, to the necessity of shared language in professional markets and the desirability of “influence” from the marketing perspective.

Journalists, particularly in fashion, beauty and tech fields, have also promulgated the use of influencer in popular culture. It may appeal to many of them because it distinguishes their occupation — with its implied framework of professional training and ethics and editorial support — from the work of content producers, who operate in similar media. With the dismantling of legacy media outlets and print media, journalists are increasingly found on blogging platforms like Kinja or Medium, not to mention Substack. Media companies like Condé Nast have moved longstanding properties like Architectural Digest and Bon Appetit onto YouTube, where they mingle with homespun prank videos and makeup tutorials.

As a result, the lines between content creators and journalists are increasingly blurred for audiences. Someone whose job involves doing cultural criticism or news reporting could be described using terms like blogger, vlogger, or content creator. They would not, however, be described with the job title of “influencer.” Journalists are expected to explicitly reject being influenced and maintain an attitude of “objectivity” in order to prioritize “accuracy and fairness.” Influencers, by contrast, are happy to accept compensation for promoting things; it’s their primary source of income.

Drawing on these distinctions, journalistic accounts of influencers often focus on how content producers violate journalistic ethics with advertorial content. In a 2019 “guide to influencers,” Wired states that “what once seemed corrupting is now the norm, and given the dismal state of truth online, it’s unlikely the lines will ever get unblurred.” In a 2016 write-up of Fashion Week, editors for Vogue Italia wrote: “Note to bloggers who change head-to-toe, paid-to-wear outfits every hour: Please stop. Find another business. You are heralding the death of style.”

Ultimately, different people invested in these industries choose to use terms like influencer or creator because they are trying to say something about the work that they do or the work that they hope to do. Monopolistic social media hope to obfuscate their exploitative reputations through celebrating the productive creativity of those whom they “platform.” Producers avoid terms like influencer in audience-facing content because they want to be considered authentic and unsponsored; they are advertising a genuine potential for connection with their audiences. Talent agencies and marketers take up and manage the commercial relationships that influencers want to avoid publicly managing; they are happy to promote sell influence to brands, for the right price. At different times content producers want to either escape from or embrace commercialism, exploitation, and power. Influencer and creator are two sides of the same coin. Which term appears depends on which face they want to show us.