Influencer Inflation

How social mimicry is turning us all into faux influencers.

Seriously — can we all be influencers?

Most of us are familiar with Dunbar’s number, the idea that we tend to organise ourselves in relatively stable group sizes based on our cognitive limits. With the digital space as backdrop, these limits are giving us subtle clues as to how online word-of-mouth and communities scale.

But there’s another side to these cognitive limits:

Who gets to have 150 reciprocal relationships?

Online influencers are typically successful by being consistently authentic, unique, evolving, and over-the-top entertaining at the same time. While this is both daunting and taxing on most influencers, their reward is that they become an integral part of many people’s daily lives.

But an online influencer cannot sustain thousands or even millions of simultaneous relationships, obviously. So, for apparent reasons, all of these relationships are one-sided relationships.

Put in other words:

We allow influencers to become a part of our Dunbar (“150”) tribes, but influencers surely aren’t making us part of theirs.

The direct result of our limited mental bandwidth, we, the audience, are putting ourselves in a spiral of self-induced social isolation — while influencers are ever so eager to fill that growing void in our chests.

A typical objection is that it’s been this way for a long time — at least for longer than there’s been online influencers around. Celebrities has been a natural part of human culture for centuries. Thanks to today’s algorithms, there’s just more of them to choose from.

Due to shifts like the industrial revolution, our natural tribes have shrunk and, courtesy of the mass media, been replaced with a wide variety of celebrities. In the digital space, we’re allowed to get in more close and personal, but the general idea is still the same.

However, we’re seeing an additional indirect effect that seems to be rather novel — even for these shifting times:

Social media users without an actual audience are starting to mimic influencer mannerisms on their own “platforms”.

Ordinary social media users seems to be adopting a tonality in which they’re addressing an audience of thousands and thousands of people. Without actually having an … audience.

This indirect effect of social mimicry1 is fully understandable. As we replace reciprocal relationships with one-sided ones, we become increasingly susceptible to influencer behaviours and mannerisms. And since we typically have full access to the exact same publishing platforms, we take note of what seems to be working.

But there’s also something inherently sad about this indirect effect. We all prefer to be seen, acknowledged, loved — even hated and loathed — as opposed to being subject to what many of us fear socially the most — oblivion.

“People want to be loved; failing that admired; failing that feared; failing that hated and despised. They want to evoke some sort of sentiment. The soul shudders before oblivion and seeks connection at any price.”

— Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941), Swedish author

With fewer and fewer reciprocal relationships, it’s reasonable to think that many people are experiencing a feeling of not being acknowledged by the outside world, while at the same time being bombarded by influencer content showing off just how many people care about everything they do or say.

In this brave new world, having thousands of people engage in your choice of breakfast cereals becomes the ultimate flex in a society otherwise starved of acknowledgment.

As a PR professional and a human being, I feel for us all. Having advised hundreds of brands, I know that the most common PR problem of all isn’t having bad PR — it’s having no PR at all.

And it seems like the very real problem of having “no PR” has shifted over to emerge as a very real existential crisis for all of us now.

In the midst of all of this, I would be amiss if I didn’t also highlighted this “crisis of human interaction” as a massive PR opportunity. Online audiences aren’t thirsty for more content, not really. They’re thirsting for being seen, being heard, being acknowledged.

There are exciting PR opportunities in marketing-that-doesn’t-scale (non-automated 1-to-1) and in allowing customers to be influencers themselves — if only just for a little while.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)


  1. See also Social Mirror Theory (SMT): “[It] states that people are not capable of self-reflection without taking into consideration a peer’s interpretation of the experience. In other words, people define and resolve their internal musings through other’s viewpoint.”


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Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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