Social media influencers are the prophets and seers of our times — regular people who hawk product through the irresistible draw of their personalities. The Instagram teen who teaches you how to draw on eyebrows, and then starts a bestselling makeup line. The grandmother on YouTube whose recipes attract a huge audience, and then opens a restaurant. The beautiful people who start wearing tiny pointy sunglasses, and then make them appear in stores around the world.
They are sought after by companies and advertisers and political campaigns. They can divine what sells, and get everybody else to buy in. On social media, they know exactly how to hold our straying, skittering attention.
But this week, the New York Times flagged a new category of people — the anti-influencers. Marketing professors from Northwestern University stumbled upon this discovery when they were studying purchasing patterns, and those who bought products that were later pulled from the shelves. Turns out, these are not one-off whims — there is a whole class of people who are drawn like moths to a flame, to products that will never take off. Those who just loved Diet Crystal Pepsi and Frito Lay Lemonade, for instance, famous fails in the US market.
If social influencers have their finger on the pulse, a sense for what will work, these people have a nose for what is not monetisable and mass-marketable. And they pick it every time, they are systematically off-target.
When I read about the study, I knew I’d found my tribe. The marketing profs have named us “harbingers” (of doom, of failure). It sounds harsh, but I don’t mind. We are the group that any product launch team should consider, while they still have time to rethink their decisions. If we like it, it’s unlikely to make it big.
And there are lots of us anti-influencers or harbingers, apparently: a full quarter of the customers in the study “consistently took home products that bombed”. Even Tim Harford, who writes the column Undercover Economist, fessed up to being one, saying: “come study me, oh trendspotters and psephologists, for a glimpse into what the future does not hold.”
I was an early and enthusiastic adopter of Google Plus, shortly before it became a virtual graveyard. Through two decades, I never gave up on bootcut denim. Things I order get taken off the menu, magazines I subscribe to fold up. My go-to moisturiser has been recalled, though there are a handful of others who mourn the loss online. When everyone’s discussing Netflix shows, I pipe up for the random one no one seems to have seen, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Rahul Gandhi is my preferred political leader, and his prospects seem bleak. Now that I think about it, I must’ve hexed Elizabeth Warren too.
Occasionally, time and the judgements of posterity might vindicate us. Take the 1987 Hollywood movie Ishtar, famous for being the worst film ever made — an expensive fiasco, a commercial failure, a critical write-off. But some people — guess who — liked it. A few decades later, it was rehabilitated in the New Yorker as a masterwork, one of the “most original, audacious and inventive movies” of modern times. Same with the movie Andaz Apna Apna, which only became a cult watch many years after.
But this is not to congratulate anti-influencers for our foresight or eccentric flair. No size fits all, we’re all conventional and weird in different ways. No human really conforms to focus-group ideas of average. What makes us this way is probably that we don’t get the information signals, hear the calls of the herd as clearly. For instance, I am a social media wallflower, an isolate in a networked world — so people like me can’t possibly sniff out the trends or even keep up. Someone in high school or college, on the other hand, is intensely aware of their peers.
After all, the quality that makes social influencers so influential is the fact that they are naturally social. Their clout comes from connection. When they post something, the likes and engagements start totting up immediately. Other people are interested in their taste and validation. Social media creates cascades of opinion — so when people you trust say that a pair of sneakers or earphones is amazing, and then you find yourself getting it, and talking it up till others are also convinced of its value.
But anti-influencers are alright too, even if marketing mavens say mean things about us. After all, the other happy fact of our times is that niche preferences can also be catered to — so even if the big stores don’t stock bootcut jeans, somebody on the internet will ship it to you. The rushing mainstream may not care about us, but there’s plenty of life in the shallows and corners.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.