Recently I spent an hour staring at an unruly mop of teenage hair on my computer. The owner was an 18-year-old Canadian called Josh Richards. That name probably means nothing to you if, like me, you are a staid member of Generation X. But if you belong to Gen Z, born between the mid-1990s and about 2010, you might squeal in delight — as one of my daughters did.
The reason is that over the past two years Richards has become one of the most successful “influencers” on TikTok, the platform where people post short videos of themselves, often dancing or lip-syncing. He has garnered 1.3 billion likes for his videos and 21 million followers. Richards is often shirtless in his TikToks and frequently accompanied by a posse of fellow influencers, known as the “Sway House”, who have been living together in Los Angeles.
Then, last month, Richards and other influencers announced they were leaving TikTok to join a similar platform called Triller, where Richards will be “chief strategy officer” with a large equity stake — never mind that he has just left high school (he tells me he has no plans to go to college at present).
No, this news was not as big as other recent TikTok headlines, namely that President Donald Trump has tried to shut the app out of the US because of “national security” concerns relating to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance — or that Microsoft has been in talks to buy TikTok’s US, Canadian and Australasian businesses. But what Richards and TikTok teach us about power and information is worth heeding.
When I was a teenager in 1980s Britain, a “star” was somebody who was packaged by powerful corporate interests and presented to me in a one-directional manner, usually on a television show such as Top of the Pops. Information and celebrity flowed vertically down to me. Advertising was attached to this, on TV and radio and in print, in a relatively obvious fashion.
Today, however, celebrities build their fan bases more horizontally, by appealing to a crowd, interacting with them and persuading them to enlist their friends to spread ideas and brands. Richards, for example, says he started posting videos at 13, largely on his own, and while he is now “managed” by a professional crew, he knows he cannot build momentum unless he finds a way to constantly grab his audience’s attention in an interactive manner. “You have to surprise them,” he says.
Today’s influencers, in other words, are a little like the wandering minstrels of medieval Europe: unless they can constantly delight and read their crowd and echo their mood, their influence and fame will quickly die. So will their revenues: instead of endorsing top-down advertisements, the influencers monetise their fame partly through product placements.
Richards, for example, has promoted musicians and brands such as sportswear maker Reebok and shoe company Crocs. The agency that represents Richards told CNBC that influencers make “anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 a post” depending on how many followers they have, and thus how much horizontal influence they have on the crowd.
This is striking. But an even more interesting question is what it might mean for politics. One figure who has cropped up in this strange new landscape is Brock Pierce, a former child actor who apparently made a fortune in cryptocurrency. Last month he told me he had long been a mentor of Richards and the TikTok crowd; he is now running as an independent presidential candidate, on a libertarian, digitally focused ticket.
His candidacy is a long shot, but he clearly hopes Triller’s audience — with 250 million app downloads so far, versus TikTok’s two billion — can help his campaign, insofar as they are of voting age, and that he can build a bigger web of influence himself. The influencers are circumspect: Richards (and the managers of Triller) tell me they want to stay apolitical in the 2020 elections and be “friends with everyone”, including TikTok.
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But the key point is that Pierce, and everyone else, knows that if anyone can harness this Gen Z crowd, through whatever app they are using, they could wield a powerful political weapon. Indeed, TikTok has already been deployed: in mid-June, TikTokers said they had requested huge numbers of tickets for a Trump rally in Oklahoma, only to not turn up, leaving the venue largely empty. TikTok has also played a key role in spreading the messages of the Black Lives Matter protests.
So will the TikTok crowd turn more political ahead of the 2020 race, or be manipulated by outside interests? Or will they migrate to Triller? Could Instagram’s new platform, Reels — intended to compete with TikTok — disrupt this instead? Or might this whole phenomenon just disappear as fast as it emerged? It is hard to predict right now.
One thing is clear: Gen X leaders at the top of corporate and political hierarchies are going to find it hard to read, let alone control, these new influencer channels; hierarchical orders do not work well in this horizontal network world. So even if you have never heard of Richards, Pierce or the Sway House, watch what they do next and ponder what it means to live in a time of horizontal influence. The answer is as discomforting for Gen X as watching Richards’ 15-second videos.
Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her at email@example.com. Gillian Tett will be appearing at this year’s FT Weekend Festival, online September 3-5. For passes and programme, go to ftweekendfestival.com
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