December 7, 2021

Break the Internet review: How influencers will take over the world

SINCE the word “influencer” started to take on new meaning in the mid-2010s, it has been tied to an image of a young woman hawking dubious diet teas to boost her currency on social media.

If that has ever been accurate, it is increasingly less so. Influencers – a broad church spanning content creators, internet celebrities and anyone who profits from online attention – are an increasingly powerful cultural force, an “economy of influence” that is predicted to be worth $24 billion by 2025.

In her new book, Break the Internet: In pursuit of influence, digital strategist Olivia Yallop argues that we should take the phenomenon seriously before it takes over our culture altogether. What influencers do – even what influence is – remains a slippery concept, and sometimes even those in the business don’t answer to the title.

“I would be wary of anybody who describes themselves as wanting a career as an influencer,” Dominic Smales, the founder of Gleam Futures, the first influencer management agency, told Yallop in 2018. “The word is too homogenous and faceless to be meaningful.”

Because of this, setting the boundaries of what influence is and the ways in which it is significant isn’t an easy task, particularly given the volume of information on the subject and the breakneck speed with which it is being added to. You might wonder how long Yallop’s book will feel contemporary as the economy of attention evolves. But the fast pace of change justifies this thorough, clear-eyed account of how the land lies now.

Break the Internet does well to define the sprawling parameters of influencing. Each chapter looks at a particular aspect of life as an online content creator – from gaining a following to monetising it. The accounts of mumfluencers, who focus their online profiles on their children, and influencer Caroline Calloway, who became internet famous for sharing the ups – and downs – of her life, make for especially uncomfortable reading.

Yallop is an authoritative guide, balancing her experience at a digital agency (where she worked as a go-between for influencers and brands) with the necessary critical distance of someone with only a few hundred Instagram followers.

Her analysis benefits from being grounded in rigorous, real-world reporting, with Yallop taking part in an influencer boot camp, attending meetups of “stans” (fans) and “snarkers” (the opposite) and visiting a “creator house”, where teenagers live to produce content for TikTok.

The glossary of terms and careful attention to attribution and referencing also elevates Break the Internet to a comprehensive account of a phenomenon that seems more likely to explode than to go away.

“If Yallop is right that we are all becoming influencers, what does that mean for who we are to each other?”

The book argues against “seeing influencers as a siloed industry” and in favour of instead reckoning with their already substantial and rapidly escalating importance to culture, politics and social trends.

“In the same way that we don’t speak of an ‘internet industry’, one day we won’t speak of the “influencer industry’ either,” Yallop writes. “Soon, all companies will be media companies, everyone will be a brand, everything will be subject to influencer principles.”

On the case for influencing as a cultural force to be reckoned with, Break the Internet is compelling and persuasive. Where it falls down is in making the stakes of the growing influencer economy feel real for those of us on the fringes who keep the online world turning with our attention.

We might conceive of ourselves as passive, as part of an “audience” or “following” – but if Yallop is right that we are all becoming influencers, what does that mean for who we are to each other?

As ever with writing about technology, the challenge is in centring the human element. As thorough as Yallop is in depicting the influencers’ world, the personalities and the platforms, after a while, the steady stream of larger-than-life avatars, fleeting controversies and large numbers of views, likes and followers become somewhat numbing – not unlike the experience of being on the internet itself.