Influencers and the Decay of Social Networks | by Dr Stuart Woolley | Oct, 2020


Dr Stuart Woolley

Have influencers finally laid bare the ultimate end state, the grand attractor, of current social network platforms?

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

I tend to view pretty much everything in my life as a complex system — one that evolves from an initial state over time to some kind of final form. My ‘lens on life’ coming mostly from my background in fractal systems, now some time ago, and it’s become a judgement methodology that has stayed with me and grown over time.

I recently came across an article on the BBC News website that made me think about social networks — “‘I’m sick of influencers asking for free cake’” regarding the professional chef and baker Reshmi Bennett who was tired of getting free requests from influencers for her cakes.

The general influencer modus operandi, that I’ve seen reported many times before, is one whereby a social network user, the ‘influencer’, proposes a transaction to a creator whereby they receive either free or discounted material in return for a (promised or usually) favourable review.

Currently the most popular social network that supports this kind of activity seems to Instagram. The self-styled influencers usually showcase their number of followers, previous numbers of likes on their posts, and suchlike as a kind of currency that is offered to the creator.

Stories in the media report that the more successful influencers can go on to request money in return for posts. There are even calculators that offer advice based on your followers, engagement, and suchlike — here’s just one example of many.

“I was surprisingly impressed to find that I’m worth USD $1 per post on Instagram. Though I’d be even more surprised if someone actually paid me.”
– Dr Stuart Woolley

What occurred to me is that the influencer market must be pretty crowded with more and more people looking to make money from either sponsored posts or to receive free goods in return for a positive post or review.

As the number of influencers grow then the number of requests to creators surely must grow too, but not in an equal measure as there’s nothing to stop multiple influencers from approaching a single creator.

Of course, with larger creators and companies, an increasing number of requests can be repelled by dedicated personnel or complex procedures but smaller creators or ‘normal people’ (as I like to think of them) end up fielding a growing number of requests.

This, of course, would rapidly become both tiring and time consuming — and time is usually a highly valuable currency for creators.

These exchanges can often become fractious as can be seen from numerous creators and business owners now ‘naming and shaming’ certain classes of influencers who are increasingly aggressive in their demands for free goods or services.

Again, here’s just one of many examples that can easily be found through a quick internet search.

Now, I’m going to get to the point (no pun intended) and consider this as an evolving complex system. Try to imagine how it may evolve into its final state if it were left to evolve, without any deliberate intervention, after the following initial conditions have been set:

  1. The number of influencers is growing (possibly exponentially).
    As people in the social network see influencer posts they may consider it to be a worthwhile occupation to make some extra money or desire the lifestyle portrayed by existing influencers.
  2. The barrier of entry for potential influencers is low and the potential rewards are viewed as (in terms of probability… unrealistically) high.
  3. The number of creators is growing (but at a much slower rate).
    Creators emerge and businesses open all the time and generally their number grows over time.
  4. Each influencer tries to accrue as many followers as possible and drive a higher engagement with them.
    More followers are viewed as desirable as it gives the perception of higher potential value to a creator. It’s influencer currency.
  5. Each influencer approaches as many creators as possible in their niche. This would be an optimum strategy but, of course, not everyone does this but it’s logical to do so as it costs next to nothing to write emails to creators or businesses. The more that are written the higher the chance of success whilst an influencer is growing their influence, as it were.
  6. Influencers tend to follow each other — to both see what’s happening in their niche, to seek new and novel methods of engagement, and to search for new creators to approach.

We can immediately draw the following conclusions about the general evolution of state of the social network:

  1. Influencer posts grow quickly looking to gain users and engagement — even if not directly driven by sponsorship or goods they must peddle their brand to grow influence and hence be able to more effectively seek sponsorship or goods.
  2. Social network users see increasing numbers of posts by influencers and over time become ‘banner blind’ (in the old words) or somewhat indifferent to influencer posts due either to their positioning, methodology, or singular positivity (no negative reviews, always positive ones in exchange for goods or services).
  3. Businesses become (even more) resentful of influencers asking for discounts or free goods — those that did engage now engage less and those that don’t engage become hostile and unlikely to ever engage even if they hear about positive experiences from other businesses.

And, thinking it through, the final state may be akin to:

  1. Social network users tend to use the platform less, block influencers, or migrate to a different social network.
  2. Influencers continually compete for fewer users and fewer businesses.
  3. The social network becomes a hollowed out husk of continual influencer posts, primarily read by other influencers, with ‘real users’ gradually fleeing the platform which now has no ‘social value’.

I posit that any social network that allows the uncontrolled escalation of influencer posts will slowly be crushed by the weight of the inevitable growing mass of non-social posts.

Social network users tend to remain due to ‘social inertia’ — they have friends and family on the platform and are generally unwilling to migrate and reestablish networks on new platforms.

However, once the posts that tie them to the network become so obscured by those of influencers and sponsors their inertial loyalty will finally reach a tipping point and they will ultimately leave.

Social networks are born, evolve, and will eventually die.

The bigger social networks will last longer as it takes a longer period of time for them to become completely hollow and for their shells to finally crack and the platform implode.

Networks become unsustainable when so few actual users remain that creators are unwilling to view influencers with having any inherent value and the platform itself cannot attract sponsors due to the fundamental lack of users. The final death throes are when the platform’s own sponsored posts are targeted solely at the remaining influencers. This may sustain the platform for a relatively short time at the end of its life.

This does remind me of the stellar evolution of a star — when it reaches that point at which it can no longer sustain enough energy output from fusion to counteract the crushing force of gravity on its bloated mass and it finally implodes causing a huge explosion that ultimately destroys it.

Consider the ones you use right now and their place on the evolutionary path, then consider how newer ones are attempting to address this central problem of aggressive monetisation by the platform and exponential growth of their influencer users. It’s a telling exercise.

In this discussion we haven’t considered the problem of sponsored posts being undeclared by the poster — something that is currently being addressed by the FTC with regard to Instagram for example.



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