The Psychology Behind Influencers’ Popularity

Tik Tok changed everything. It became supremely popular when everyone was stuck inside for a couple months in 2020. Those who jumped on the wave early now have millions of followers, brand deals, and even their own TV shows (@charlidamelio). Tik Tok is its very own unique social media world, and I am obviously a fan of it because I talk about it on here so much. I have posted my fair share of videos, but I don’t have the time, energy, resources, or lifestyle to make a living off of it like influencers do. Influencers have mastered social media in an unprecedented way.

So how do influencers gain a following?

Tik Tok allows you to represent yourself as a brand, and you need to figure out your product. Do you do GRWM (get ready with me) videos and gain a following for your own personal makeup routine? Are you a hilarious storyteller that entertains your followers? Do you dance or sing? Any and all of these have an audience on Tik Tok. The trick is posting consistently enough to gain a following.

How Influencers Influence

To be clear, there’s a difference between being an influencer and being an Internet personality. Influencers are those who get sent products by companies to sell to their audiences. Just having a following on Tik Tok can be for a number of reasons, as I mentioned before. The influencer uses social media as their job.

Alix Earle, for example, is a senior at U Miami who has just recently blown up (i.e. went viral and gained a massive following). She posts outfits, makeup routines, travel videos, etc. She has brand deals because of her ability to reach a wide audience who trusts her. A makeup product commercial cannot be fully trusted – are they using photoshop? (Definitely.) But on Tik Tok, you watch her use the product in real-time and hear her seemingly truthful testimony. The message is: use this product; you’ll look like me. It’s a perfect opportunity for traditionally pretty people to sell themselves.

Pretty Privilege determines who Influences

I love listening to podcasts, and as you know, one of my favorites is PlanBri Uncut. In a recent episode, Bri and Grace discussed how influencers have to be pretty. For the most part, you cannot be an influencer if you are not traditionally attractive. Influencing is an exclusive club because the product is not the mascara or clothes you’re selling; it’s yourself.

The Psychology of Influencers

The rise of influencers intrigued my psychology-minded brain. What makes someone popular? We studied this very topic in my adolescent psychology class this semester. One specific article that we read looked at the nuances of popularity in middle and high school through two lenses: who has the most influence and who is the most likable (Pinsker, 2019). Friendship does not determine popularity, though, according to Dr. Mitch Prinstein, a psychology professor at UNC. He says that popularity is reputation-based, not relationship-based. Reputation-based popularity is determined mostly by aggressiveness and physical attractiveness, which makes sense to me.

Having an influence on peers cannot be accessed by everyone. It has to be this exclusive club that others want to be a part of. To keep an air of exclusivity, one needs to be aggressive. The definition of aggression that I am considering is not physical aggressiveness, but rather social. Being able to keep people out in order to maintain higher status is seen in many stories of adolescence, from The Breakfast Club to Mean Girls (albeit the most basic portrayals of adolescents in existence).

It is not surprising that influencers would thrive off of reputation-based popularity. Consider cancel culture: it is still very real because word travels so quickly on the internet. If we do not trust the influencer, we won’t trust their opinions. However, likability must play a role in influencers’ popularity, despite reputation. Even with threats of being canceled, some of the biggest influencers have been able to bounce back, given their massive following. Look into Mikayla’s #mascaragate for an example of this.

Side note: Popularity is not an exclusively adolescent experience. It lasts into adulthood, and the long-term effects of popularity in teen years have been studied. Our experiences in adolescence shape our adulthood, after all.


So, that brings us back to influencers, who are typically young adults. (Alix Earle is my age!) Influencers have what their audience wants: social status and beauty. Sending the message do what I do and you’ll have what I have is how influencers maintain their role, just like our popular peers in middle and high school. Their positions are built upon likability and trust, which present supporting evidence for both relationship- and reputation-based popularity.

I have so much more to say on this topic, but I’ll save that for future posts. Let me know what you think in the comments!



References: Pinsker, J. (2019, August 8). 'Popular' kids aren't that special. The Atlantic. 
Cover photo from InStyle

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