Oi! You, over there, putting content up on the internet. How do you describe what you do? What words does your grandma use to boast about you to her friends when showing off family photos at her weekly bridge club? “This one’s a doctor, this one’s a lawyer, and this one… is an influencer.”
Or should that be “content creator”?
It’s a question that comes up regularly over here at ThoughtLeaders HQ: how should we refer to the people that we work with, who’s online work (be it audio, video or good old fashioned written text) we help to fund.
It’s not a question we have an easy answer for, and the topic seems to grow more thorny as the job description gets increasingly hard to define. A few years ago, creators might have based their job title around the medium they were active in, defining themselves as a “YouTuber” or a “podcaster.” Today, however, so many people find themselves jumping between different platforms that they want to find a term that helps to cover all the bases, and gives them the flexibility to build a presence on the next hot platform to come along (looking at you, Clubhousers).
“Influencer” is a relatively new term that has only really gained traction in the past decade. Before then, this word wasn’t recognized as formally part of the English language: Merriam-Webster only added “influencer” to their dictionary in 2019. By that stage, the word had become a common part of speech that we all generally understood to refer to someone on the internet sharing content with a sizable number of followers.
Reflecting on the term’s growing popularity, Dictionary.com makes the argument that “the term influencer has something that similar titles lack. It’s not tied to any one platform, and it’s more all-encompassing than domain-specific terms like YouTube star, Twitter personality, or gamecaster. There’s a certain heft to influencer that allows it to move beyond social-media platforms and into offline realities.”
Here’s the definition adopted by our friends over at Influencer Marketing Hub:
Interestingly, the very first piece of content scrapped on our platform that uses the term “influencer” is from the YouTube channel of Perez Hilton. In the video “Perez Hilton Loves Jenny Owen Youngs”, the text description contains the following:
About Perez Hilton: The original influencer, Perez Hilton founded and oversees one of the most iconic websites ever. In addition to his eponymous blog, he is the host of a very successful podcast, has a loyal following across two YouTube channels, has written three books, has acted in countless TV shows and films - as well as the stage.
However, in recent years, we have seen a decided collective shift away from the term “influencer”, and towards other titles like “content creator”. People now seem wary of defining themselves as an “influencer”, and the term “content creator” came to be seen to carry more heft and credibility.
The reasons for this change of preference are not immediately obvious. If we consider the competing terms literally, it’s actually far harder to claim “influence” than “creativity”. From the moment that you first put pen to paper, you are (technically speaking) creating content and able to lay claim to that self-definition. It is only once your content finds an audience, and affects that audience to the extent that they are swayed by your opinions, beliefs and brand endorsements, that you are able to legitimately cast yourself as an influencer.
Therefore, if the term influencer actually depends on your content’s success and impact on a group of followers, why is this term seen as the more pejorative of the two?
One possible reason is that this terminology carries with it a clear gender divide. Take a second to challenge your own assumptions here: what’s the first image that pops into your head when you hear the term “influencer”? I’m guessing the person you are imagining is female, white, young and conventionally attractive. Although we all know that other kinds of influencers exist, the Kylie Jenner / Addison Rae lookalike that you probably have in mind at the moment is the image that many of us instinctively reach for.
Wired published an article in 2019 asking “Why Women Are Called 'Influencers' and Men 'Creators'”. They pointed out:
The way people talk about these creators points to the prevailing assumptions: James Charles is a "male beauty influencer," while any woman who streams herself playing videogames on Twitch is a "female gamer." Those phrases may not catch everyone's eye, but words matter, especially on the internet, and how someone is identified can have a huge impact.
An unsurprising sexist snobbery has crept in around the female-dominated influencer industry. The term influencer has come to be seen as subtly derogatory. Phrases such as “influencer culture” or “influencer marketing” are commonly used to dismiss the influencer economy as shallow, mindless and devoid of creativity.
The Atlantic explored this shift in language in their article “The Real Difference Between Creators and Influencers”. Arguing that “It’s not a gender thing”, Taylor Lorenz laid out some of the other key parameters that people consider in selecting the language for their self-branding. These included age (older people stay away from the term influencer while teens view the title as aspirational) and platform (Twitter and Instagram stars were more likely to describe themselves as influencers than those producing long-form content).
As with all arguments, however, we choose to settle this one with data. Searching our platform for the terms used in content by way of introduction came up with the following results:
Surprisingly, the phrase “I’m a YouTuber” clearly takes the lion’s share of the mentions. We can also divide these introductory phrases by Thought Leaders and see a similar pattern emerging:
Hungry for more data, we decided to look beyond our platform and see how these terms are being used on Linkedin in the “headlines” people wrote for themselves on that platform. Here is the breakdown of the search results we found on there:
Within the context of this “professional” networking platform, the term “influencer” barely got a look in.
We also ran a Trend report to see how these particular terms have evolved over time. When we look just at the terms and not the “introductory” phrasing of how these thought leaders present themselves, we see a different picture starting to take shape:
The term “influencer” experienced its sharpest rise between 2017 and 2019, after which the growth of mentions begins to level out slightly. The past year has seen another marked increase, with the term peaking at around 4000 mentions.
Although the phrase “content creator” has been on a steady upwards trajectory since 2015, it hasn’t reached the same heights that “influencer” achieved. We also see that these mentions are overwhelmingly dominated by YouTube - other formats are hardly represented here.
What about the phrase “thought leader”, our personal preference (although, of course, we are biased)? Although it doesn’t win out on the numbers front, this trend graph reveals that the term “thought leader” is far more evenly distributed between the different formats we are tracking.
The phrase “thought leader” connotes the impact and authority that are implicit in “influencer”, whilst sidestepping the less positive connotations that have come to be associated with that term.
With all of this data and these many considerations, if you produce digital content you might still be struggling to decide how to refer to what it is that you do. Here are some guidelines that might help:
And however you decide to refer to yourself and your work, if you are looking for help to optimize your content, find more sponsorships and help monetize your channel, don’t hesitate to get in touch.