Date of Award

2019

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Communication

First Advisor

Joseph . Turow

Abstract

The most buzzed-about figure in twenty-first century marketing thus far has been the “digital influencer,” industry vernacular for the bloggers, Instagrammers, Pinners, and other social media users who—against the backdrop of widespread economic and professional instability—deliver curated content to audiences on social media and earn income by collaborating with major brands. Driving the rise of this phenomenon have been (1) individuals who want to be recognized as persuasive online (2) advertisers who increasingly direct their budgets to social media, where influencers’ “authentic,” personality-inflected content has proven potent for selling product (3) social media

companies whose tools and rules both advance and encumber these activities and (4) marketing agencies and other marketing-related entities, such as talent agencies and trend forecasters, that build metrics platforms to measure influence, select influencers for advertising campaigns, negotiate deals between influencers and retail brands, and espouse the many benefits of expressing oneself “authentically” online in tandem with corporate sponsors. The precipitous development of an industry around these activities has, since the late 2000s, propelled billions of dollars into the social media economy and helped instigate a chain of events that have and continue to fundamentally change the production of culture. Drawing on 28 in-depth interviews, an analysis of more than 2000 press articles, and participant observation at industry events, this dissertation examines how the above stakeholders construct and negotiate the meaning, value, and practical use of digital influence as they reimagine it as a commodity for the social media age—a commodity whose value shifts in accordance with ever-changing industrial rubrics for cultivating and evaluating authenticity. The dissertation also provides necessary historical-cultural context to the rise of the influencer industry, elucidating its complex roots that predate the digital era. Throughout, I show how in an era where authenticity is increasingly elusive, and trust’s and influence’s meanings as cultural ideals and functions as social

processes are muddied, the influencer industry struggles to pin these concepts down, stabilize and define them, and make money off of these definitions. To this end, the actors involved in the influencer system work together in a variety of ways both intentional and unintentional, with social, industrial, and cultural consequences. These consequences include who can succeed, the shape of technological innovation and regulation, and products themselves. The study offers theoretical and methodological provocations to scholars of influence and authenticity to consider these concepts’ industrially constructed, contextually dependent nature. It also sheds light on practical issues impacted by social- and data-driven consumerism.

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