A recent news item about an Instagram influencer’s failure made me think of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, published before social media even existed, in 2000.
Arii, an 18 year-old Instagram influencer with 2.6 million followers, was not able to sell even 36 t-shirts of her new clothing line. The news of her failure went viral and produced some reactions including those questioning whether the Instagram influencer bubble was bursting. A sign of the times, some said, and the end of the influencer culture in general, some predicted. This made me think of The Tipping Point.
Gladwell mentions three types of people necessary for the tipping point to occur:
The Connectors: those who know everybody; the networkers with large social circles; the social glue
The Mavens: those who possess information and expertise, and seek to share it; the data banks; the ones “in the know”
The Salesmen: the persuasive and charismatic types who often rely on “soft” influence to sell
Given these three necessary categories of people for a tipping point to occur, which one do the Instagram influencers fall under?
Is an influencer a connector? While followers might know an influencer (or at least the brand they portray), she does not really know her followers. Arii was certain a good portion of her 2.6 million followers would buy her clothes, yet they didn’t.
Is she a maven? While she might be in the know about other products, creating her own is a whole different ballgame. The Instagram influencers don’t become influencers based on the expertise they have or profess. They become influencers wearing brands or using products to influence other people’s decisions, so they can have followers. However, in this case the followers did not decide to buy under the influence of Arii.
Is she a salesman? Influencers want to believe that they are persuasive and charismatic as salesmen, and maybe they are for other products. But as Arii found out, she wasn’t for her own.
It seems the influencer doesn’t fit nicely in any of these categories for a phenomenon to take off. Maybe that explains why tipping points are not predictable in the influencer era. Or maybe the influencers have to go to back to playing one the three roles that Gladwell described, the roles social groups expect of them. We are about to find out.
Maria F. Trujillo, Ph.D.
Maria F. Trujillo, Ph.D., is the faculty director of the Technology Management and Systems Engineering Management master’s programs at Georgetown University. She has always been part of the innovation and growth of the entities she has been affiliated with. She was also known as the "Internet Girl" when she connected Colombia to the internet in 1995.