by Carl Kruse
These are notes from the chat on Internet Culture between Anthony (Pomp) Pompliano and New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz. At the Times, Lorenz focuses on social media, influencers, memes, games, and online trends, and on April 29, 2020 she had a wide-ranging discussion with Pomp on these and other topics. You can hear the interview in its entirety here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbBEN4kX6tQ
These notes were originally for an audience of one — myself — and were written quickly and only lightly edited, so buyer beware. I share them at the request of several friends. They are not comprehensive nor are they chronological. Neither are they verbatim nor intended to steal Pompliano and Lorenz’s thunder. If anything I hope more people plug directly into the original source.
With that preamble, here are ideas I gathered from the conversation.
The growing pervasiveness of the Internet
Every year the Internet is more enmeshed in our lives and every year online social platforms become more powerful as an increasing number of people interact with them, indeed live on these platforms. While this observation might not shock anyone, what struck me was Lorenz’s sense that the power and influence is greater than we imagine. Which leads to the following note.
Increasing blur between “Culture” & “Internet Culture”
Most observers believe we have at least two selves, one inhabiting the “real world,” the other a digital one, both in turn giving rise to two different cultures. Lorenz suggests there is today less of a distinction between “culture” and “Internet culture.” The line is blurred as to be almost indistinguishable, so that culture = internet culture = culture.
Increasing Move Towards Visual Communication
An increasing move to communicate visually has brought visuals like memes to the forefront. Memes have become the message and have dramatically increased in importance. The rising availability of tools to express oneself visually such as Instagram, Snap and Tik Tok accelerate this trend. For many young people Instagram is not only a photo sharing app but a place where they can express their identity and hang out with friends. Tik Tok has become comparable to a Twitter or mini YouTube.
Lorenz gives examples of people coming together over inane visuals: for example people filming themselves sleeping or a live stream of an inanimate object. The chat around the livestream and the visuals forms a community.
Difficulty of Influencer Business and Its Growing Power
Lorenz emphasized the difficulty of becoming a top-notch influencer. A serious business and those most successful put in the hours, effort and work others eschew. In line with the increasing power of the online world, influencers are also growing in power and prestige.
In the past, young people may have dreamed of playing in the NBA or of becoming a famous musician or actor, but nowadays many kids aspire to be influencers in social media in their own right, seeking autonomy more than fame, of making a living in line with their interests, setting their own hours, having flexibility. Compared to most entry-level jobs today these ideas are a dream.
Many businesses have arisen to assist the influencer economy. From brand managers, thumbnail optimizers, and site designers, and all help fuel influencer work, extending their power even more.
Making Money As An Influencer
(multiple income streams and creativity as keys)
Most influencers have a mix of income streams. While some make money through brand deals, posting sponsored content all day, this is usually not the primary focus, though many people outside the influencer world see it as this. The reality is if an influencer did nothing but post branded content most of their followers would likely flee.
Some YouTubers charge for pre-roll ads on their channels. But one of the largest sources of revenue has become merchandise. For example, David Dobrik, one of the largest YouTubers in the world with 17 million followers makes almost no money with YouTube but rather through his clothing line called “ClickBait.” Julia Engel of “Gal Meets Glam” developed a niche based on Southern U.S. fashion and lifestyle, branching into home décor, travel and beauty.
Some influencers license their names.
As a general rule, influencers are reluctant to rely on ad dollars that could disappear tomorrow. So they set up Patreon accounts, launch a podcast, and newsletters with exclusive photos and specials.
A rising source of money is so-called “Close Friends Content,” a feature on Instagram that allows posting of content that only select people can view. For example, an influencer can charge $5 a month for special content not available to the public. This stream of posts, closed behind a paywall, is a valuable income stream for some influencers.
There are other ways to monetize followers. For example charging fans for a shoutout. Say someone wants an influencer to shout their name out, that’s $15 or whatever. Before the website “Cameo,” which provides a centralized place for people to request celebrities give a birthday message or shout out to a friend became popular, Instagram influencers were already charging fans to do the same.
Cooperation with other influencers = Jet fuel
Collaborate and grow has become a mantra for those in the know. Influencers team with other influencers to fuel each other. Many people underestimate the effects of collaboration. Finding other like-minded people to share and collaborate with makes content sticky and engaging. For example, influencer Anne has influencer Joe appear in her video and one of her viewers is not such a big fan of Joe but maybe now they’ll follow Joe because he is in her video. Influencers who help others build in turn see other influencers help them build. A powerful symbiosis.
Hype Houses and Content Houses where creators live together is an extreme example of infuencer collaboration. Lorenz’s article on the Hype House is here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/03/style/hype-house-los-angeles-tik-tok.html
The “Hype House” in Los Angeles. Photo credit: The New York Times
Influencers often use minimal technology
Influencer technology is often minimal. Lorenz commented that during a visit to the The Hype House in Los Angeles, she saw influencers in residence use a plastic water bottle and a toilet paper roll as their stand to film videos. Lorenz claims this is common throughout the community: technology is less involved than one would think. She guesses audiences like a more raw and authentic look. For some YouTube videos she might see the occasional professional camera set-up but she have never seen anything approaching the levels of TV camera production. Carl Kruse Comment: My personal observation is that power has devolved. You no longer need massive capital, equipment and expertise to attract a large audience and influence.
Teenage bedrooms as business headquarters
Another example cited by Lorenz was 15-year-old Rowan Winch, whose bedroom became headquarters for a successful venture running various meme accounts. His parents didn’t even know how much money he was making because he kept it all in Paypal accounts, where funds don’t necessarily need to be transferred to actual bank accounts. Lorenz wrote an article on Rowan Winch, which is located here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/29/style/the-clout.html
Rowan Winch. Photo credit: The New York Times
Meme accounts leading to actual businesses
Lorenz talked about kids growing meme accounts and then starting drop shopping businesses using the meme accounts to promote those businesses.
Many meme influencers are growing digital brands without using their own faces and managing companies from their bedrooms (technically some of this might violate the terms of service of many online platforms yet the practice is commonplace).
Expertise through trial and error and chutzpah
Lorenz mentions that teenagers are becoming more savvy with branding, e-commerce and digital marketing mostly through experimentation and trial and error in the attention economy. Even if they make constant mistakes, get banned or blocked for a violation of some TOS here or there, they acquire vital expertise and piggy-back on this knowledge to move forward.
One example that Lorenz gives of growing expertise involve giveaways. For example, influencers sell spots in which someone must follow say a certain 70 accounts to participate and then charge those 70 accounts to be part of it. The kids running this come to understand through analysis how many followers each account can expect and based on that how much to charge.
Contacting Taylor Lorenz
The NYT journalist says she gets hundreds of messages a day from people looking for fame and notoriety, such as the girl who licked a toilet seat during the Corona virus pandemic. People seem to do anything for fame and notoriety, she notes.
In spite of the large influx of messages, Taylor Lorenz says she welcomes good Direct Messages (DMs).
And that’s it. I enjoyed the interview and congratulate Pomp for bringing good discussions to the fore. I encourage everyone to check out his YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCevXpeL8cNyAnww-NqJ4m2w