Over the last decade we have witnessed the inexorable rise of the influencer economy – a $16bn dollar market that orbits a group of people not known for unusual talent, but their ability to monetise the basic, the shallow and the mundane. When “influencers” first appeared, they were confined to their own industry, operating on social media while being mocked and maligned in the mainstream. But a popular social media account is clearly a powerful marketing tool. Today influencers aren’t just wannabe celebrities but real ones: the stars of blockbuster films, the leads of serious documentaries, the authors of bestselling books, the creative directors of fashion brands and the voices behind music that tops charts. Only a surface glimpse at these contributions confirms their lack of artistic value: this is what happens when “content” becomes “culture”.
Perhaps the clearest example of this cynical trend yet is the Jake Paul vs Tommy Fury boxing match. On 26 February the YouTuber Jake Paul, 26, fought the Love Island finalist Tommy Fury, 23, in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia; Fury won after eight rounds in a split decision from the judges. The fight has been in the works for nearly two years. While Fury’s name added a professionalism to the proceedings (his brother, Tyson Fury, is considered one of Britain’s greatest boxers), this seemed to be just another “influencer boxing” match in which popular YouTubers fight each other. The trend is derided among boxing fans. Yet commentators predicted that the fight could be boxing’s first billion-viewer match (viewing figures are yet to be released, but some even suggest that estimate might be conservative), with a predicted eight-figure pay-out to be shared between the two men. This was a novice fight, only interesting thanks to the popularity of the opponents on social media – and yet it seems likely that Paul vs Fury will become the most lucrative and widely watched match in boxing history.
Paul vs Fury may well prove to be a tipping point for the influencer economy – confirming that it can not only transpose itself into every part of modern culture, but that it can turn any industry into an influencer-fronted, money-making machine. Few industries have managed to evade this phenomenon so far. In fashion influencers with identical, cosmetically-modified faces are now the highest-paid models and run popular fashion brands, filling the market with cut-out crop tops and oversized blazers in different shades of beige. In publishing ghostwritten influencer memoirs and poorly constructed novels go viral on “BookTok” and regularly reach the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list. YouTube and TikTok’s impact on the music industry has meant influencers rebranding as musicians, releasing generic songs built to be clipped and lip synced on social media. (In 2017, Jake Paul himself released a diss track he created in 90 minutes that briefly knocked Kendrick Lamar out of the No 2 iTunes chart spot.) There are few places left in popular culture that aren’t shaping themselves around the influencer economy.
There are many reasons for this rise. Influencers probably come cheaper than established, talented celebrities, but have similarly dedicated followings, so may be seen as ensuring a greater (and near-guaranteed) return on an investment. In many industries influencers can provide a familiar, smiling face that obscures the more dubious side of the companies who prop them up. Influencers have been fundamental to the rise of fast fashion, for example; and Saudi Arabia, where the Paul vs Fury fight took place, has spent billions on hosting athletic events, leading to accusations from Amnesty and others that it is “sportswashing” away its human rights record.
Of course, the influencer economy’s impact on arts and entertainment is not merely morally concerning – it is making our culture worse. What struck me most when watching Paul vs Fury on Sunday night was not the skill or the spectacle, but that neither of these men, despite all this hype, were particularly good at boxing. Had it not been for the two-year build-up I’d have said that the match was actually pretty boring. This was only made more depressing by the preceding warm-up matches, some of which featured professional boxers with decades-long careers, and offered more skill and excitement than anything in the fight that followed.
There always has been, and always will be, a tension between art and commerce in popular entertainment. You only need to go to the cinema in July to feel the impact of profit-hungry corporations on our culture. But this is only accelerated – dramatically – by the effects of the influencer economy. If our cultural industries continue to prioritise “content creators” with ready-made fanbases we will be left with a flattened, profit-motivated entertainment landscape that fails to do the one thing it should: entertain.