A juicy report into the mechanics of virality.
In my second year of university, a friend of mine started making prank videos. She joined forces with a popular YouTuber to create comedy sketches, where she played callous practical jokes on her ‘boyfriend’ and vice versa. Each skit went viral days (or sometimes even hours) after being released on Facebook. Not long after, she dropped out of her very competitive science degree to become a full-time content creator, where she would also share advertisements in the style of her signature skits. We haven’t spoken much since she chose to go down this path. Today she reports having over 3 million combined followers on her social media platforms, which include Instagram, TikTok and Facebook.
I may not be looking to go viral myself, but one thing I have noticed over the years is that, as a journalist, the way in which I use social media to promote my work has the hallmarks of an influencer. I think about the times I post, my number of followers, how frequently I share things and how frequently those things are shared by others and I sometimes deliberate over my captions or tweets for days before sending them. And I’m not the only one.
An influencer is described as a person who has credibility in a specific industry, has a large following online and can persuade people to act in a certain way. So, it’s no wonder professionals with a considerable following promoting their work or a cause appear to be one because by definition they are.
Jourdan Guyton, an entrepreneur, content strategist and TV producer, who teaches professionals how to use social media effectively, says that a lack of online presence can cause talented people to get left behind. ‘Instagram is now the new Google search engine. When you see someone’s name, you think “let me go see if they have an Instagram” and then you use that as credibility,’ she says. Guyton has coached everyone from nurse practitioners to former Wall Streeters to hairstylists on how to grow their platforms. She started off the pandemic with just over 6,000 followers on Instagram and is nearing 60,000 at the time of our conversation. ‘The last 40,000 have come in the past five months,’ she says. But much like many of the people I spoke to who see social media as an extension of their work, Guyton cringes at the idea of virality. ‘I think that a lot of times when people go viral, it’s not even in the avenue they are trying to succeed in; they post a video of their daughter throwing a diaper or something and they’re like a Wall Street executive,’ she says. ‘That’s damaging in itself because then you attract this whole new audience that will never buy from you.’ Long story short, she isn’t a fan. ‘I don’t know what the weird obsession is with going viral. I don’t like that.’
Writer, editor and content and community strategist Hannah Ray agrees. ‘I’ve heard all too often that those at the top of the pecking order see virality as something to be sought after, and chased. This statement rests on what I consider two false assumptions: that virality can be cultivated, and that it’s always a good thing,’ she says. Ray’s previous clients include the BBC, Farfetch, Netflix UK, Tate, and Art Fund. ‘Often virality is a quick “win” which has little real world impact for growing your community.’ Whether a post will go viral, or has the capacity to do so, is hard to foresee. ‘More often than not, it’s down to a series of factors the brand itself couldn’t have predicted or created, and completely outside their control,’ she says. That is, unless, you’re my friend from university who at the time of our friendship made every piece of content specifically for it to be created into a meme. ‘That might sound like a fun job for some, but I can’t see the inherent community-building or storytelling value in it.’
But, the motivation behind intentionally going viral online seems to be to gain followers regardless of who those people are. With it comes a determination to crack whatever rules a platform has in place for how widely a piece of content will be shared on their website. ‘There’s a lot of obsession with “beating the algorithm” as if it’s some omniscient beast to be wrestled with: and not a computer logic designed by real human people with good intentions,’ says Ray. ‘I think it all comes down to the fact that society at large is still looking at follower count as some kind of social status indicator.’ But despite saying it’s ‘meaningless’, she acknowledges that it can be a deciding factor as to whether someone gets a job or not. ‘I’ve heard that people have been declined from auditions due to their follower count not being high enough, have been refused book deals or been uninvited to speaking gigs.’
Since gaining millions of fans, my former friend has been invited to countless premieres (a quick search of her name on Getty comes up with 241 images and 65 events), interviewed a host of celebrities and has featured in a number of low budget films. I’m not in a position to say whether this is deserved or not, but I imagine having a strong online following hasn’t hurt her.
Another way people have forcefully gained followers is by buying them. In a piece in the Guardian, the infamous ‘scammer’ Caroline Calloway admits to making ‘smart early investments’ in her Instagram, explaining to the writer how she bought fake followers to boost her profile. And in Natalie Beech’s notorious exposé on Calloway for New York magazine, she wrote about this too. ‘The real story, she told me, is that she took a series of meetings with literary professionals who informed her that no one would buy a memoir from a girl with no claim to fame and no fan base,’ Beech wrote. ‘And so Caroline made one online, taking out ads designed to look like posts to promote her account and buying tens of thousands of followers.’
But Caroline is far from being the only one. A study by The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in 2019 found that it’s not that out of the ordinary for A-listers to have a high percentage of fake followers across their social media platforms. At the time, the study reported that Ellen DeGeneres had 49%, Kourtney Kardashian had 46% and Taylor Swift also had 46%. Footballers also scored highly: Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos had 51%, Isco had 49% and Luka Modrić had 49%.
While both experts I spoke to agree that there’s no real rulebook to cracking social media, they both also mention that authenticity seems to be the main way to naturally gain and keep a reputable following. This has been the sort of direction travel influencer and writer Lavina Dsouza, who has just under 50,000 followers on Instagram at the time of our conversation, pursues. ‘When I post, I make sure that I’m talking more about experiences and not just about the place,’ she says. ‘That’s what makes social media tricky because it is also about the person – people need to feel as if they connect with you or that you’re just a text away.’
But for some, using social media in a way that is reminiscent of being an influencer is simply a case of wanting to reach the right people. ‘Everyone is battling an unforgiving attention economy and we are all competing on the same social feeds to try and bring eyeballs to our content,’ says Sophia Smith Galer, a senior news reporter at Vice World News known for her funny and informative TikTok videos on everything from current affairs to the history of certain words. A video on a new purchase of a bag made to look like a box of penne pasta has 2.1 million views at the time of writing this article. ‘Audiences have always been a really important part of my job. It’s not just that I report on news, it’s that I make sure it reaches the intended audience – young people,’ she says. ‘For me, this means meeting young people where they are and figuring out how I can get my journalism into their content feeds. It doesn’t change what I report on, but it does change how I might choose to tell the story.’
A life without social media has become hard to imagine. In 2013, Instagram had around 100 million users, and today, it has over one billion. In 2018, TikTok claimed to have 55 million global users and revealed this year that that number has also reached one billion. Earlier this year, Facebook reported having 2.89 billion monthly active users. Consequently, with the number of people who use it, for professionals it has become about actively seeking out the people they want to look at their work.
The line between who is and isn’t an influencer has become increasingly blurred, especially as more and more people flock to Instagram or Twitter to check the validity of someone before considering their (god forbid) credentials. Whether they’re a writer, activist or businessperson, the number of followers someone has seems to have become the most important stamp of approval, a sign of success that sometimes means even more than their job itself.