End The Influencers
It appears the Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg is at it once more. Over the weekend, the popular live-streamer casually dropped the n-word while playing PUBG, and naturally, it did not go unnoticed by the Internet At Large. I was only made vaguely aware of it through reactions of the people I follow and had to look up the specifics this morning, but this post had already been knocking around in my head before the details were made clear. Clearer, I should say.
The video games industry likes chasing shinies and the somewhat recent adoption of the term “influencers” is the latest example. Like so many things these days the term “influencers” has no specific meaning, but we know it when we see it: a person, usually a young, attractive person, using his or her own know-how and personality, employs technological tools available to them in this day and age to garner a large following of other apparently like minded people who tune in to watch, listen, or read what they have to say and what they do. People tend to like these people because they appear personable, and are either good at what they do or are so comically bad at what they do that they’re actually good at what they do (welcome to Irony 2017). Companies like these people because with the right partnership details, they can gain access to a potential pool of thousands to millions of new or existing customers through hip, non-traditional channels.
It seems to me, though, that this non-traditional marketing scheme is just a minefield of bad decisions for game companies. When they contract these kids to promote their products, they’re applying the old world constraints (i.e. threats to the partner’s livelihood by pulling sponsorship) to new world players (i.e. people whose audience is loyal to them, not the company). Unless there’s actual legal action that a company can leverage to decimate the content creator, it doesn’t seem to me that losing sponsorship is going to affect mega-streamers like Kjellberg in the slightest. In fact, I don’t think Kjellberg’s antics are going to have much of an effect on his viewership. On top of that, the younger these partners are the less…let’s say “refined”…they potentially are. When pre-teens are making extremely popular Minecraft videos, then any company willing to go after anyone carting around significant viewership is probably going to willfully overlook the fact that these partners aren’t going to understand how to behave in the best interest of the company that’s sponsoring them (which has got to be a concern for the company, even when it’s not for the kid).
I think we instinctively know the dance that companies engage in when they partner with these “influencers”. First, they’re excited to announce the partnership, because it’s a message to the existing audience that they’re “cool by association” if their celebrity is willing to endorse their product. Things might go well forever — there are legions of straight-up legitimate content creators out there who people love for all the right reasons, don’t get me wrong — but when they fall apart, they fall apart in spectacular fashion. Kjellberg had partnerships with Disney and YouTube until his anti-Semetic “comedy” garnered widespread attention. People who were quick to claim that they never cared about him suddenly had an opinion on Kjellberg (as is the way of the Internet), yet he kept on trucking. In light of his recent public debacle, we’re getting reports that other companies are put up DMCA take-down notices of his playthroughs of their games, leading me to wonder why they didn’t do that during his first public firestorm. But once again, he’ll be extremely popular; in fact, there are already cases of people saying that his behavior is “typical gamer behavior”, and while it might not be your behavior, nor is it my behavior, it must be someone‘s behavior because millions of people still don’t see enough of a problem with him to abandon him. Do the math. The sad and pathetic math.
Personally, I think it’s about time companies started examining their attachment to “influencers”. It’s a stupid concept, anyway, and it’s leading to a culture where if you’re not someone you’re no one. I and others have talked about Fortnite‘s “Streamer Missions” as a mechanism which withholds gameplay perks from those who can’t or doesn’t want to participate in streaming culture, and on some levels it’s creating an environment where those who are “useful” to the companies are elevated and expect that everyone else is just a wallet that opens on the “influencer’s” command. If companies want to continue to take their chances that their latest wunderkind isn’t going to burn their brand down through association, that’s their business, I suppose. As someone who’d been gaming for over 30 years now, I’m old-school enough to prefer a company that’s interested in fostering its own community through, you know, not hiding behind shitty kids just to get easy access to a ready-made army of consumers. I just don’t get the feeling that companies are all that into my and my demographic, though.