Forget Influencers — The Future is Curators
And the difference is authenticity
For most of modern society’s short history, information and media have been controlled by gatekeepers — organizations which chose what to publish, produce, and distribute. They were gatekeepers because they had invested the immense amount of capital needed to create the means of production and distribution to reach the public. Without working with a gatekeeper, there was no way to get your news, information, content, or entertainment out to the masses. These gatekeepers therefore became default curators for their audiences, deciding (by what they chose to produce and distribute) everything that their audience would consume. In this world, there was a finite amount of content any one person could access, so they relied on the biggest gatekeepers (newspapers, radio stations, and broadcast TV) to curate their media diet.
The gatekeepers are now gone. The internet has unlocked instant worldwide content distribution, while software and technology have enabled anyone with a computer to create music, video, blogs, books, thought-pieces, and even video games.
There’s more TV, music, movies, books, blogs, video games, and accessible information than ever before— and most of it is available instantly, globally. Some of this is “professionally produced,” while a lot of it remains amateur. At the same time, we have access to almost all of it! How does one possibly find the content best suited to their tastes across billions of options?
The problem with influencers
Almost as quickly as social media emerged, “influencers” were born. Influencers, to put it simply, were people who took advantage of the size of their social media followings to profit themselves, usually by promoting particular brands, products, or content. This became known as “influencer marketing.”
The problem was that most influencers weren’t authentic. They spent countless hours (and dollars) cultivating a particular image of their lifestyle, selling it as a dream that anyone could achieve! It was the American Dream on steroids — anyone can achieve wealth, happiness, and their dream lifestyle — just look at me and my world travels and goat yoga!
Of course, they didn’t tell you that they were paying to rent the grounded jet for their photoshoots.
What has become more and more clear to the non-influencer social media user is that things aren’t what they seemed. Influencers aren’t out to “influence” their “followers” in a positive way — they’re looking to “influence” them to purchase material goods from brands that are willing to pay them enough to advertise. Influencers are more concerned with their image than their followers’ well-being. In this way, the size of their following is more important than their message or actual influence on their audience.
Influencers gain status by depicting a perfect lifestyle — not by the quality or sincerity of their recommendations or endorsements. The ultimate metaphor of the influencer business model was that of Fyre Festival — Influencers were paid handsomely to shoot a promo video attracting thousands of regular (albeit very wealthy) individuals to spend thousands of dollars for a completely different experience.
The promise of curators
So what’s the difference between an influencer and a curator? I think there are at least a few.
To start, curators are individuals who find, organize, and share their favorite content and products in an authentic way — not because they’re being paid to shill a certain product.
Curators are first and foremost unbiased, unaffiliated, and authentic in their recommendations. They share the content, stories, and products that they are personally interested in — not just shit that they’re paid to promote. In this sense, curators can be cross-institutional: they can recommend shows on HBO, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. They recommend articles from NYTimes, WSJ, and the Chicago Tribune.
The best curator for any particular consumer is another individual, not a company or brand (for instance, Vulture). Taste-making businesses must cater to a wider swath of consumers, while individual curators have the freedom to recommend only the content that they personally enjoy. Although their recommendations may engender fewer followers, individual curators can afford (and in fact prosper) being particularly selective.
Often, the most popular curators have built an audience on one predominant channel. Unlike Influencers — which have primarily built their audiences on Instagram — popular curators exist in a number of mediums and platforms, from Twitter, podcasts, Medium, YouTube, and newsletters.
Curators who reach a certain level of popularity don’t monetize through selling their audiences’ attention to advertisers (Influencers’ primary business model)— instead they utilize platforms like Patreon, Substack, or direct donations to empower their most dedicated followers to pay them directly for their curation and taste-making abilities.
The bottom line in the difference between influencers and curators is that curators are genuine. And we’re attracted to that.
Before the internet, the curators that we knew personally were our friends and family. They recommended their favorite content and products over the water cooler, or through word-of-mouth. Today, curation is word-of-mouth from one-to-many instead of one-to-one. In this sense, curators could be our close friends or complete strangers — anyone who regularly shares their genuinely favorite content or products online.
Today, curators are spread across a variety of social media platforms. From Twitter, to YouTube, LinkedIn, newsletters, and podcasts — there’s undoubtedly room for a curation platform, in which the individuals that you’re interested in can list their favorite books, thinkers, articles, music, and more.
The bottom line, though, is that the gatekeepers have changed, and consumers are increasingly interested in following curators over influencers.