Judgement Call

Cull the best and the worst of these bloggers’ buzz and decide for yourself about a product.

illustration by Dreamstime

Ever heard of a digital influencer?

Until recently, I hadn’t heard the term, although I have probably encountered more than a few of them.

A digital influencer has nothing to do with obscene gestures. According to The Wall Street Journal, my bible for all things trendy that can make big money, it’s a social-media term to describe fashion bloggers with a voice and large following.

Clout, in other words. Clout that can sell clothes, shoes, and other merchandise or tout hotels, restaurants, and destinations.

I have been called a reporter, freelancer, writer, projects editor, columnist, and some other things but never a digital influencer.

Digital influencers enjoy free trips, free products, free clothes, and access to the fashion set for using words like “fabulous” and “awesome” and “love it!”. In return, their corporate partners get buzz, buyers, and hits on their websites. The tit-for-tat may or may not be disclosed.

It’s a modern version of a game as old as the payola scandal that rewarded deejays and radio stations for playing certain records in the 1950s and resulted in a congressional investigation and public hearings in 1959.

They nearly derailed the career of popular music icon Dick Clark and the future of the show he hosted, American Bandstand. Clark was the Ryan Seacrest of his day and the closest thing to The Voice and American Idol before they came along.

Anonymous digital influencers are part of our daily life. I am a sucker for the “reviews” on hotel websites, even though I know some of them are planted by hired help, fired employees, competitors, or people with an ax to grind.

We have all seen something like this: “This overpriced $200-a-night tourist trap was filthy, the towels were thin as tissue, the free breakfast was awful, the beds worse, and the front-desk staff was on crack.”

And this: “Never have I enjoyed a more enjoyable stay for $45, from the gracious check-in to the downy soft sheets to the delicious pre-cooked scrambled eggs in those perfect little circles.”

Filter out the best and the worst, and you make a judgment.

When in doubt about a movie, I always read what the bylined reviewers of The Memphis Flyer have to say about it, then I check Rotten Tomatoes or Mr. Cranky to see if the anonymous herd has a consensus. There is strength in numbers, and less chance to rig the ratings.

Same goes for the dozens of newspaper stories and opinion columns I read every day at work. I’ll usually read a sample of the comments too, although most of them are anonymous and some are obviously from “sock puppets” trying to flatter themselves, their boss, or their cause. Digital influencers, at least in the minds of some people, played a role in the merger of the city and county school systems and subsequent move to set up municipal school systems. Members of the Shelby County Commission asked their attorneys to compel disclosure of commenters’ names before thinking better of the idea.

You would never buy or own a stock if you believed all of the hot gossip from anonymous short-sellers on message boards. Here’s “memphisbike” on FedEx on Yahoo in September: “Earnings expectations are too high. Look for serious fall when earnings announced. No upside with this melt up.” And Yahoo commenter “edado” on AutoZone, “Triple whammy for AZO, stock looking very tired, Timber!!!! Watch out below!”

For digital influencers, there is no middle ground, no on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand. The goal is to get clicks, likes, followers, and views that can be measured and counted in real time. Celebrities and exaggerated opinions get traffic, which translates to value, which keeps the cycle going.

Amazing to think that deejays were once hauled before Congress for playing somebody’s records. They were radio influencers, and they got paid for it. Big deal? Not any more.


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