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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

The majlis: What defines a social-media influencer?

In many situations, more followers may equal more influence, but it’s not automatic – it doesn’t necessarily mean more engagement. During our short experience with digital fame, we have confused celebrities who have risen to fame purely via social media for social-media influencers.

It’s the latest craze that has taken over the Middle East. Companies are rethinking their marketing budgets while others are still trying to figure out what to make of it all. It has even become a popular career option for youth in the Arab world. Any young woman or man with access to a phone and decent internet has a fighting chance at it. Gone are the days when children wanted to become policeman, astronauts or doctors. Welcome, the “influencer”.

I put the word influencer in quotation marks because I still think we’re trying to define what it means to influence people. Given how the concept of an influencer is still in its infancy in the Middle East, that’s completely understandable. Hence the reason a lot of organisations take a vanilla approach to what an influencer is – more followers equals more influence. The logic goes that someone with 500,000 followers has more influence than, say, someone with 20,000 followers.

In many situations, more followers may equal more influence, but it’s not automatic – it doesn’t necessarily mean more engagement. During our short experience with digital fame, we have confused celebrities who have risen to fame purely via social media for social-media influencers.

The way I define an influencer is someone who shares things that impacts the way you think, either about yourself or the world around you. An influencer changes things and pushes society forwards, hopefully for the better. It’s an incredibly powerful thing.

A social-media celebrity, on the other hand, leans more towards entertaining us, making us laugh and making life a little easier – again a very impactful, powerful thing. However, if a social-media celebrity, say a comedian, were to ask you to take some sort of important action, would you? Most likely not. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s highly unlikely, because in most cases, the relationship ends at the viewer being entertained; it begins and ends with the joke.

When we begin calling social-­media celebrities “influencers”, we give them an unjustified level of credibility. I remember being told of one specific case in which organisers of a well-­publicised career fair invited a social-media celebrity famous for comedy to the fair to have them walk around and talk about the ­different companies, VIP treatment and all.

If I was a student at that career fair, the only message I would get from observing that is to become an influencer, because they were getting better treatment than most of the companies and staff in attendance.

I’m not suggesting that social-­media celebrities are a bad thing for society. On the contrary, they have done a remarkable job at levelling the playing field in media and marketing. They have shifted the power from the large media conglomerates to consumers and individuals. They provide new, innovative ways to market and promote products; they have paved a path in the creative and entertainment fields for others to follow and shape their own lives, which is something I respect.

The issue is when these ­social-media celebrities are automatically branded as influencers – when the number of followers matters more than the level of engagement; when the number of posts matters more than the number of projects or tangible work; when the scientists, artists, teachers, writers or doctors who truly impact our lives and communities are ignored. That is on us as a society.

During a social-­media summit at a local university, I was asked what it meant to be an influencer. My response was simple: if social media disappeared tomorrow, would you still be able to impact people’s lives? If the answer is yes, you’re an influencer, because social media is merely a tool to extend the reach of your work, with or without the internet.

Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati columnist and social commentator. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons.

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