Do Influencers Actually Influence Anything?

They've been called debutants and "It" girls. Today the term is influencer. But what they have to do with actual influence is up for debate.

If Oscar Wilde were alive today, he would likely be a star in the Twitterverse, with as many followers as Katy Perry (102 million) or Barack Obama (92 million). Long before anyone else, Wilde understood not only that accomplishment alone was not enough to secure celebrity, but that if you were shrewd about self-promotion you could make a name for yourself before you had accomplished anything at all.

“Somehow or other I’ll be famous,” he vowed when he was still an Oxford undergraduate, “and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.”

Whether they know it or not, the young women today who use social media to mint their own renown are following the blueprint Wilde created. In his twenties, before he had published a single play, he went on a lecture tour of the U.S. to boost his image, circulating thousands of dandyish portraits of himself to whet the curiosity of the audience he hoped to win, and garnering invitations to the salons of New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious. —Oscar Wilde

It worked. The year of his American invasion, 1882, he got more press than Queen Victoria and returned to England a commercial and cultural success. Within a decade he had written his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the plays Salomé, Lady Windermere's Fan, and The Importance of Being Earnest.

And to think he did it all without a single Instagram post! Self-promotion is much, much easier today than it was a century ago, but lasting impact requires more than a savvily styled photo share. Or does it?

Modern Swan Danielle Bernstein taking a selfie.

An influencer, in case you’re fuzzy on the term, is defined in the dictionary (the Cambridge Business English Dictionary, that is; Webster’s has not yet given the new meaning a nod) as “a person or group that has the ability to influence the behavior or opinions of others” and “whose effect on the purchase decision is in some way significant or authoritative.”


In other words, someone whose tastes are thought to be 1) widely known and shared, 2) contagious, and 3) bankable. In the last year or two, marketers dazzled by the commercial potential of these self-styled tastemakers have raced to cash in on their cachet, making influencer-peddling a bustling industry.

Not so long ago, it was influence that compelled the public’s fascination. For a woman to stand apart from her peers and earn their attention and respect, she had to make extraordinary efforts and show exceptional ability and resolve.

And even then recognition could be slow in coming. Joan of Arc commanded armies, Jane Austen wrote masterpieces, Eleanor Roosevelt fought for social reform, Katharine Hepburn won four Oscars for Best Actress over a seven-decade career, and Clare Boothe Luce wrote the hit play The Women, ran for Congress (and won), and was ambassador to Italy.

Kendall Jenner

These influential women used their energies to make a positive and lasting impact on others, and though their images and reputations often have been enlisted by authors, advertisers, and moviemakers to court public interest, they were recognized not primarily for how they looked or what they wore but for what they did. Happily, women who exert this kind of influence—shaping and enriching society through their gifts, their vision, and their tenacity—still exist.

Only three years ago a teenage girl named Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize for fiercely defending the right of all children—boys and girls alike—to an education, after Taliban gunmen shot her in the head for the crime of going to school while female. Time named Malala one of the most influential teens in the world three years running—including 2015, when Kylie and Kendall Jenner (with 200 million Instagram followers between them) landed beside her on Time’s list. (Honors that year also went to rock-climbing prodigy Ashima Shiraishi and presidential daughter Malia Obama.)


Malala Yousafzai

Lately a battle has begun brewing between the upstart influencers and those who exert influence of the more durable kind, and early signs hint that old-style influence will prevail. This spring the tech entrepreneur Billy McFarland and the rapper Ja Rule discovered the limits of digital magic when they summoned social media fans to a spectacularly botched “luxury” music weekend in the Bahamas called the Fyre Festival ($1,200 base rate), which had been intended to magnify the allure of McFarland’s Fyre music booking app.

The men hired Instagram icons Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Emily Ratajkowski to promote the festival, hoping their super-influencer glamour would cast fairy dust over the proceedings. But they failed to lay in the haute cuisine, deluxe accommodations, and basic infrastructure they had promised to the crowds they lured to the mega-selfie island opportunity.

Joan of Arc might have been able to erect an encampment in time, but Kendall Jenner? Not so much. The ensorcelled visitors snapped out of their spell and retreated to the mainland in high dudgeon; more than six lawsuits have arisen in their wake, including a class action seeking more than $100 million in damages.

There’s no crime in being popular; the world will always take a keen interest in beautiful and charismatic young women, and the power of female magnetism predates the internet. But the Fyre Festival showed the limits of the transferability of popularity. The swans we admire most care less for the fleeting lift of online “likes”; they look to legacy. They choose not merely to glide but to kick up a purposeful stir and leave a wake behind them.

This story appeared in the September 2017 issue of Town & Country U.S.

This story originally appeared on
Minor edits have been made by the editors

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Liesl Schillinger
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