When Nordy Club – the Nordstrom rewards program – informed me that I'd attained "Influencer" status, I felt a little bit smug. Behold my vast authority, I exulted, and follow in my stylish footsteps!
The thrill was short lived. "Influencer" is only midway up the Nordstrom loyalty ladder; I'd have to "increase my spend" to "up my status," as Nordstrom puts it, and become an Ambassador or, at the tippy-top, an Icon.
Still, being an Influencer isn't exactly chopped liver. It's two levels above Member, and one above Insider. More to the point of this column, influencer – the word, not the status – is one of the most influential buzzwords of our era.
Consider two examples from still-young 2019. On January 13, a picture of a brown-shelled egg, posted nine days earlier, became the most-liked Instagram image ever, with 35 million likes. (As of this writing it has more than 52 million likes.) The egg – which was eventually revealed to have a name (Eugene) and an agenda (mental-health advocacy) – inspired so many imitators that it quickly was dubbed #Eggfluencer.
Then, on January 26, Pope Francis. possibly aiming to seal his cool-pontiff legacy, told an audience at Catholic Youth Day, in Panama, that the mother of Jesus was "the first 'influencer'." He, or his deputy, later repeated the assertion on Twitter.
The pope's use of "influencer" is testament to the word's currency and clout. As lexicographer Jane Solomon wrote in January, usage of "influencer" has undergone a "meteoric rise" in recent years; the word was added to Dictionary.com in 2016. (It has two definitions: "a person or thing that influences" and "a person who has the power to influence many people, as through social media or traditional media.") Modern influencers, writes Solomon, wield their influence not for selfless purposes, like Mary and the well-intentioned egg, but for worldly gain:
Influencers, who typically boast a devoted and engaged following on their social-media platform of choice, are a boon for big brands who want to get their products in front of receptive audiences in a way that seems more seamless and contextual than traditional advertising. The result is a booming industry: influencer marketing could be worth $10 billion by 2022.
The boom can be traced in part to LinkedIn, which in 2012 created an "Influencers" program to share the "unique knowledge and professional insights" of 150 prominent "thought leaders" such as Richard Branson and Craig Newmark. By 2014, "influencer" had worked its way into business culture so effectively – some would say insidiously – that the editor-in-chief of the Silicon Valley Business Journal, Greg Baumann, included it in a list of "the most loathsome business words" of that year. "It's fine as applied to people who actually wield influence," wrote Baumann. "However it has spawned a wannabe army of self-appointed experts who pen too-often insipid business how-tos.") Ben Zimmer noted in a 2016 "Word on the Street" column for the Wall Street Journal that a LinkedIn search "turns up nearly 70,000 profiles with the word 'influencer'."
But "influencer" had begun emerging from the shadows even before LinkedIn staked its claim. A 2008 business book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, went through two printings and spawned a 2013 revised edition, Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. (From the marketing copy for the latter title: "An INFLUENCER leads change. An INFLUENCER replaces bad behaviors with powerful new skills. An INFLUENCE makes things happen.") Dozens of books with "influencer" in their titles have followed; a new book about the Los Angeles–born Duchess of Sussex, forthcoming in May 2019, is called Meghan: The Life and Style of a Modern Royal: Feminist, Influencer, Humanitarian, Duchess.
The original "influencer" book was Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936 and never since out of print. The "influence" in Carnegie's title is an old word, derived from the Latin for "flowing in," that was originally used in English in the 14th century to refer to the streaming of a fluid from the planets or stars that affected human behavior. (Astrology, in other words.) The viral disease known since the 1700s as "influenza" – Italian for "influence" – was originally attributed to occult or atmospheric influences; it started being abbreviated as "flue" around 1839, and as "flu" about six decades later. "Under the influence" (of alcohol) appeared in the 1860s; Mark Twain was one of the first to use the phrase. "Influence peddler" – a not-entirely-laudatory term for a person with the connections to arrange lucrative government contracts (for a fee) – entered the lexicon around 1949.
Today's influencers are also selling connections, but those connections are measured in Instagram follower counts and YouTube "likes" instead of Senate votes. The professional influencer may be a teenager paid to promote juice or scented candles; it may even be an animal. (Yes, there are dogfluencers. And also fitfluencers, twinfluencers, and – my favorite spinoff – outfluencers, influential outdoors enthusiasts. For several years there was a parody Twitter account, @ProfJeffJarvis, that mocked the real Jeff Jarvis, a media and tech writer, as a "thinkfluencer.") The promotion – also known as "sponcon," for "sponsored content" – isn't top down, like a TV commercial or billboard, but embedded in your social-media feed, "shared by someone who seems, on some aspirational level, like a peer," as Annalisa Quinn wrote last year in the New York Times Magazine.
There's a dark side to all this influence, and it too has a name: influencer fraud. In one variation, aspiring influencers create fake "sponcon," pretending to be sponsored when they aren't. "It's really common with kids in high school," a 19-year-old "lifestyle influencer" told the Atlantic last year. "They're very influenced by influencers." In another twist, people buy followers – some or many of them fake – to demonstrate their influencer potential.
Paying for the right to call yourself an influencer: When you think about it, that describes my relationship with Nordstrom. At least I'm getting some clothes out of the arrangement.