Search for Olivia Yallop on Instagram, and you'll only find a hashtag with less than 100 posts associated with it. No account, no digital footprint. It seems strange, for an author of a book about the multimillion dollar online influencer industry, who even gave it a red-hot go at becoming a social media star herself at one point.
Having read the discoveries Yallop made in researching and writing Break the Internet, however, I can understand why she might have chosen to scour social media of her presence. From behind-the-scenes insights into influencer brand parties, to going "undercover" in the world of algorithm gaming, to getting inside a TikTok "hype house" and seeing the impacts of round-the-clock content creation on the minds of online celebrities, it's a jungle behind our screens.
Yallop is the ideal tour guide for this journey, having worked for an influencer marketing agency herself. Her workplace acts as the connection point between brands, the social media stars they want to leverage, and the audiences of millions of ordinary people who give them their power. Because ultimately, that's what an influencer is - just a person who has managed to convince considerable numbers of other people that their opinion matters. The direct line of communication between influencers and their audiences on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube has taken the power out of the hands of the media industry that previously dictated the flow of information, and put it into the hands of individuals who need no further credentials than their follower numbers.
Whilst it would be easy to naively assume this has had a democratising effect on celebrity culture, Yallop's attempts to create internet fame for herself show that it's harder than it might appear. Worse, it's largely arbitrary as to who gets to be famous and who doesn't, because there are so many random factors involved in what makes a post go viral.
Yallop manages to weave together an analysis of the history of social media and influence, with interviews and deep dives into various aspects of the industry in a compelling read that is informative, pacey and highly readable.
The overwhelming feeling after finishing this book is that our brains truly are at risk of rotting from the amount of junk content being created for our insatiable appetites that demand new things to look at constantly. I felt like instantly deleting all of my social media accounts at once. But then, I also felt the desire to take a photo of the book cover and put it on my Instagram stories to show people that I'd been reading. I'll leave you to guess which impulse won out.
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