For people like me, sitting here quaintly typing into a Word document for some half-forgotten old thing called a newspaper, it’s easy to be dismissive of influencers. But, as I’ve learned from Olivia Yallop’s book, not only is that limiting my understanding of where we are as a society (and where we’re heading), my ignorance is partly the fault of the very industry in which I work. “Journalists and publications are very reluctant to promote the influencer industry,” complains one of Yallop’s interviewees, a makeup and style Instagrammer. “If you scroll down the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame … it’s like influencers don’t exist,” she says. “This silence around influencers – the same silence that may have you wondering why you’ve never heard of many of those mentioned in this book, despite their millions of followers – speaks volumes,” writes Yallop.
Indeed, this is a book packed with unfamiliar names and dizzying numbers. “Top kidfluencers include brothers Vlad and Nikita, aged six and four, whose shared YouTube channel has brought in an estimated $64 million.” YouTuber PewDiePie “has 106 million followers and is estimated to earn around $8 million per month”. And how about this: “In 2018, financial analysts shook their heads in disbelief as Kardashian sister Kylie Jenner wiped $1.3bn (£1bn) off Snapchat’s market value in a single day after tweeting, ‘Sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore?’”. Yallop contextualises these ludicrous stats with an engaging analysis of online culture that also takes in world-changing events from the Capitol insurrection to the pandemic.
After starting out in traditional advertising, Yallop jumped ship for a job in digital marketing when her agency started to lose out to social media. And who better to guide us through this bizarre and chaotic online world than an industry insider? She takes us to a VIP influencer party with a “million follower” policy. In an attempt to become an influencer herself, she tries out an influencer bootcamp and, in one particularly fascinating chapter, goes undercover to a meet-up for a “snarkers” session: a group of Redditors dedicated to hating on an influencer who was cast as a fraud in a viral posting.
But Break the Internet is more than just a series of gonzo dispatches. It addresses the decline of traditional media, the philosophy of fame, the wild excess and inequality of late capitalism. “Shrinking newspaper circulations, rising scepticism towards experts, financial precarity, millennial burnout, and a shift towards viewing corporations, rather than governments, as responsible for solving social problems are all trends that have propelled – and in some cases been propelled by – the rise of influencing,” writes Yallop.
This is a book that looks deeply at the commodification of the self, and the increasingly blurred line between leisure and labour. We often hear about influencers making six figures, but beneath that is an underclass, barely scraping by at the mercy of mysterious and fickle algorithms. “No labour movement will ever combat the inherent asymmetry of the influencer-platform set-up,” Yallop tells us. “Influencers are trapped in a permanent state of precarious codependency with their hosts: they don’t own their audience but merely rent it off a platform.”
Behind our small screens is an unimaginable vastness, which Break the Internet manages to shape into something understandable, even to the influencer-ignorant such as me. It’s wryly funny in places, but there’s a kind of sadness to Yallop’s writing. The sadness, maybe, of someone too smart and thoughtful to be working in a space that is – all too often – utterly without meaning.
• Break the Internet: In Pursuit of Influence by Olivia Yallop is published by Scribe UK (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.