By the time you learn about Klossy, a dozen more “instfluencers” will have pop up to make her even harder to tell apart.
But there is a key element that makes Karlie Kloss, her full name, stand above. Rather than focusing only on clothes or drinks, she promotes a coding bootcamp for girls ages 13 to 18. Social media feeds of the internet famous have become lifestyle catalogues. Most have now wised up to sprinkle a manicured dose of humanity. Kloss’ is no exception. In her case, positive values include programming skills. Posts have diverse groups of young girls and examples of succesful startups led by them. The messages also include aspects of mindfulness and the importance of physical activity.
Influencer marketing has exploded in the past few years. The ability to develop more direct relationships with personalities recreates intimacy. Many influencers have been active for years now, since they were teens themselves, with online audiences growing alongside. Today, companies of all walks of life are pouring money on influencers, in what will amount to an estimated $6.5 billion in 2019 spending.
Instfluencers, EduTubers, and Influencer Marketing
These terms refer to only the latest format of practices that have been with us since the dawn of time. Ancient Greek athletes earned praise and gifts as they lived. As people look up to them, businesses looked for their endorsement.
The differences between them and the Insta-famous or YouTubers are obvious. But the implications are less clear-cut. Evidently, the internet makes them easier to influence farther and wider than ever. It also puts a more insidious eye on almost every aspect of their life. A minor misstep can turn into a scandal, threatening fame and success in an instant. Keeping a more or less clean record is all it takes to keep a steady stream of sponsors coming, provided they are both lucky and savvy enough to remain relevant. As time goes by, thought, audiences wise up. Authenticity becomes essential. Sensationalism, often the work of media outlets, creates conflict, almost always ephemerally. Critics and “trolls” evanesce while long-time followers remain loyal.
Influencer learning: Easier shared than done
All the above applies for learning. Education products and solutions need a message that is promotional. But they also need a focus on earnest attitude. There is minimal effort behind sporting a piece of clothing or jewelry. Advocating for the use of a learning product demands a special kind of authenticity.
This is a double-edged sword in education. An influencer who’s shown their work perfecting a skill is a more trustworthy advocate. Depending on the subject, however, it can be too tempting to fake the effort, but all too easy to detect. In fact, evidence is only starting to show the extent in which attitudes, authentic ones above all, influence and sustain learning outcomes.
Which brings us to the original point: Influencing is by no means a new concept. But social media is a medium with unexpected ramifications. We fail to anticipate them in part because we don’t really know much about learning in the first place. But we know increasingly more about influence and persuasion. It is common knowledge that persuasion follows a process that begins with awareness and ends in an action-based goal. We realize that to date, the most powerful approach known to refine the process is storytelling.
Not all science lovers are useful teachers
Learning influencers serve different purposes. Therefore it could be helpful to think of them as part of one of two categories:
“Advocate” influencers enjoy promoting scientific values and important scientific causes. They might be scientist themselves, but their online presence does not reflect their everyday scientific activity. I cannot think of a better example of a candidate for best learning influencer ever than Carl Sagan.
“Hard-science” influencers do handle more complex on abstract topics. They usually take the time to explain concepts and make use of animations and other visual resources.
Generally speaking, learning influencers on former camp are more active on Instagram or Twitter, while YouTube is more apt for the former. There is a broad variety of quality and production values in both cases. It is also worth noting that not every educational content found on YouTube or social media deems the author or speaker an influencer. The definition can be fuzzy, but the commonality seems to be an alignment between a personal brand and a subject. Increasingly so, one or many sponsors are a common feature.
The ingredients of persuasion at work in influencer learning
Herein lies the true power of real people sharing their lives online on a near daily basis. It matches the key components of effective persuasion, listed below. We add learning considerations to each one:
With little effort, the influencer talks and shows slices of their lives through behavioral patterns that become recognizable and expected.
Many influencers have found “tricks” to make themselves memorable. They have recurring themes or catchphrases, or content publishing schedules, often matched with topics or formats.
Social media works as an evidence repository, and it is common for users or the creators themselves to look back at their content from years ago. Furthermore, being witness of every new update as soon as possible is a bonding mechanism, fostering a sense of community and belonging.
Learning influencers can leverage their skill acquisition records with “throwbacks” to their own old content, but there is a catch. While viewers admire progress, they may not care much for amateur attempts. There are ways to overcome this. Many do so, for example, by adding self-deprecating comedy or combining many messages and values.
Rapport (Positive association)
Provided the message is “positive” —as in commonly accepted by current social norms— the influencer can be a reference in conversations, media or even academic settings.
This element is perhaps one of the easiest to accomplish as a learning influencer. Social media is largely considered a leisure activity. Learning new facts while getting entertained is a rare luxury.
Sense of scarcity (‘FOMO‘)
By way of their unique personal journeys, influencers constantly strive to reinvent themselves, to sustain their idea of irreplaceability. There is also the social aspect: Once the influencer reaches a critical mass, social pressure feeds the psychological need to be “on the loop.”
While it is becoming increasingly difficult for new influencers to stand out, learning influencers can still fill many subject matter voids.
The mechanics of “going viral” are not yet fully understood. This, among other things, reinforces the idea that the influencer is by all means a lucky individual. This all but demand certain benign attitudes on the part of the influencer, such as humility and generosity.
Being a learning influencer is seen by many as a reciprocal activity by itself, especially if it is not their only occupation or main source of income. (Let alone when there is no money involved.) But educator influencers seem particularly sensitive to social or environmental issues, and often take time to bring awareness to important issues. It’s not uncommon for them to be the face of advocacy campaigns.
The influencer must reinforce the idea that they are an “integral reference.” They can remain an authority on their field (or lifestyle), but being exemplary in one more dimension reinforces the others.
Learning influencers can be particularly hard-pressed when it comes to being able to demonstrate their proficiency. While amateurs could begin their online careers at any point, most successful learning influencers already have a sound background in their subject.
Influencer learning: Best and worst practices
- Understand that influence works in ripples. Messages take time to spread, they compound and bounce. It can be chaotic (not necessarily a bad thing) and unpredictable.
- Feel free to use a piece of content by a learning influencer in your own learning, but if you do not know much about them, make a proper disclaimer.
- If you want to partner with an influencer, vet thoroughly. The actual level of detail in your background check is up to you and how sensitive are you to internet reactions.
- Be aware that some of the content by a learning influencer, or parts of it may include promotional content.
- Understand the type of influencer supporting your learning, and its limitations. There is a point after which more “awareness” or advocacy is just procrastination.
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