More Than Just a Fad: The Power of the Cultural Influencer

March 14, 2019 Lucy Odigie-Turley

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

There are few topics in the current era that have garnered as much universal glee as the recent Netflix and Hulu Fyre Festival documentaries. The footage of gaggles of wealthy festival-goers stranded on an island, fighting over cheese sandwiches, brought much-needed relief at a time when there is often not much to laugh about.

To say that the Fyre Festival failed to live up to its “Woodstock for Millennials” ideal is a delicious understatement. But beyond birthing a catalogue of new and hilarious memes, the failure of the Fyre Festival points to an important cultural phenomenon: The widespread desire for people to feel a part of a defining cultural moment – or better yet, rub shoulders with so-called cultural influencers themselves.

In recent years our relationship with, access to, and definition of what constitutes a cultural influencer has dramatically shifted, as social media channels have expanded people’s capacity to create and distribute content. Few individuals over the age of 25 are likely to have heard of many of the “influencers” featured in the Fyre Festival documentaries, yet these new age content creators boast tens of thousands, if not millions, of followers. And while the chaos of the Fyre Festival may signal for some the shallowness of emergent influencer culture, recent years have also given way to a rising tide of high-profile individuals who are using their visibility to engage with critical social issues.

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The role of popular culture on social and political discourse has become more evident in recent years, as the boundaries between entertainment and politics become increasingly blurred. We are seeing what will likely be looked upon as a renaissance of artistic expression from communities of color, LGBTQ people, and other traditionally-excluded communities. Movies and television shows like Black Panther, Atlanta, Insecure, Jane the Virgin, Fresh Off the Boat, and Crazy Rich Asians are just some of the recent projects pushing the boundaries of representation.

Alongside content creation, this era has also witnessed a reemergence of the athlete-activists not seen since the Muhammad Ali era. From Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and NBA coach Greg Popovich, athletes and other entertainers are using their platforms and reach to ignite open conversations about many of the critical issues facing society.

That many of those individuals are people of color should not be overlooked. As seen in the recent controversies surrounding elected officials wearing blackface, the United States has a long and sordid history of attempting to turn Black Americans and other communities of color into sources of amusement for white consumers. But what happens when our favorite entertainers chose to be more than just pieces of entertainment? What happens when they refuse to simply shut up and dribble?

We tackle these questions head on in the latest installment of our Power of POP series, The Case of the Cultural Influencer, in which we explore the central role entertainers and other high-profile figures now play, and the growing intersection between popular entertainment and social justice.

Our findings paint a vivid picture of the critical role cultural influencers and those that work alongside them are playing in reshaping the conversation around critical social issues. For example, our analysis of the still very much-ongoing Me Too movement found that following Alyssa Milano’s groundbreaking tweet on October 15, 2017, online references to gendered violence saw a dramatic spike in engagement.

And, as of September 30, 2018, more than 27 million online posts with specific references to the Me Too movement have been generated. Similar widespread impacts on social media and news media engagement were found in our analysis of Colin Kaepernick’s Take a Knee protest and Jimmy Kimmel’s engagement with the healthcare debate.

In addition, our report offers practical tips for those seeking to better understand and leverage the power of influencers, including developing a strategy that accounts for the authenticity of an influencers voice, as well as the need to work closely with influencers to adopt tactics that are easily replicable by a large audience. 

While the long-term impact of cultural influencer led advocacy remains to be seen, it is clear that individuals with the reach and audience hold significant power to shape and shift public discourse.