Generation #Ad

Drew Minh
23 min readSep 15, 2018


Social media allows us to monetize anything. But should we?

Warning: the video below contains explicit content.

The video starts with a close-up shot of a woman’s bare torso. She’s in the passenger seat of a moving car, being filmed by the driver. As she faces the back seat, screaming and moaning, it soon becomes apparent she’s about to give birth. The driver (male voice) says:

“Can you wait like two minutes?”

She sputters out something unintelligible. More screams and moans.

“Hold on, hold on… she’s coming out?”

It’s hard to understand the woman in between her heavy breathing and cursing, but she seems to be asking him to pull over.

He keeps filming her and keeps driving. A baby plops out on the front seat, covered in creamy white vernix and amniotic fluid.

“Oh my god, we just delivered a baby in the car!”

The camera lingers on the panting mother, still hunched over, cradling the newborn, then pans to the back seat.

“That’s crazy, isn’t it guys?”

Three kids — none of them over four or five years old — stare back, wide-eyed.

The question the driver posed, however, wasn’t really for them. It was for his social media audience.

This video was posted on social media with follow-up messages asking viewers to subscribe to his channels, along with promo codes for a clothing line, and a tongue-in-cheek (but not quite) message to @Nissan, asking for a bigger car.

After an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! he got his wish — but instead of a Nissan he got a Chrysler.

It’s not just The Fine$$er. We’re all seduced by the allure of social media fame where view counts, likes and engagements reign supreme. How did we get to the point where the once-sacred act of childbirth has become a transactional event?

The answer is multi-layered, and has as much to do with our natural voyeuristic and narcissistic tendencies, as it does with a core monetization scheme at the heart social media. This article aims to show how we got to the point where nothing is off limits for our digital selves, and everything has potential monetary value.

Incentivized by possible brand partnerships, a chunk of an ad revenue stream, and the “dopamine hits” of social media validation, aspiring influencers, as we will see, will do anything for the views.

Beware the Kinder Man

It was a faceless man with a strange accent who first made me aware — and wary — of this new breed of influencer. He was hypnotizing my daughter with chocolate eggs. I called him the Kinder Man. All he did was open Kinder Surprise Eggs in video after crappily-produced video. Children — it turns out — are absolutely mesmerized by this low budget and easy-to-churn-out content. Kinder Man, for all I know, is paid by Ferrero, the manufacturer of Kinder Surprise Eggs. Or, at the very least, he’s tolerated since he’s been operating for years without his channel getting flagged by their lawyers.

One thing is certain: The original Kinder Man and his copycats are generating millions of views for Youtube and a steady stream of ad revenue.

One of many copycat Kinder influencer videos on the web. Screenshot: americatvLETSPLAY

YouTube is a cornucopia of eye candy for children. Its Mountain View engineers have perfected algorithms that feed our compulsive viewing tendencies. In this regard, it’s something akin to mental crack for children, whose obsessive-compulsive behavior, and inability to query things for themselves, means they end up watching the same videos over and over.

Beholden to the bottom line, YouTube enables an ad network on their platform that any user with enough views can tap into. Pre, mid and post-roll video — little 15 to 30 second ads — are injected into the video stream. The video creator receives 70% of the revenue generated by these ads, while the rest goes to Google, YouTube’s parent company. The machine-optimized algorithms seek and prioritize what they know will engage the most viewers. It becomes a perfect feedback loop of hypnotized children, machine-driven ad serving efficiency, and content creators who have found a niche with ridiculously high return on investment.

Influencers may be legitimate original creators, producing comedy content, DIY tutorials, lecture series and beauty instructionals. More often than not, as is the case with the Kinder Man, they’re part of a large network of people looking to shortcut themselves to an easy cash grab.

Inside the ad machine

Two years after Youtube influencers first popped on my radar, I began working as a digital strategist in an ad agency. More and more companies were asking about influencers and MCN’s (Multi Channel Networks, which are basically talent agencies for social media influencers). MCN’s had been visiting me at the agency and plying me with meals and cocktails, hoping to land a contract with me. I was invited to converted hangars in Playa Vista, where sound stages had been constructed for some of the world’s top influencers. I also met with Silicon Valley start-ups purporting to have technology allowing them scrape millions of influencer profiles and buy advertising against them with guaranteed ad impressions and audiences.

Vlogger/Gamer SSSniperWolf

I was soon sucked into the world of Twitch video game streamers, Vine sketch comedy, and pop culture commentators on YouTube. The format is deceptively simple: super cuts, Adderall-fueled logorrhea, shoutouts and cameos by other influencers. The “simple” part is key, as I was about to find out from an account executive who invited me out to drinks, celebrating a campaign we had just completed. My third pint of craft beer arrived next to a tray of artisanal sliders.

“You see them?” he said, pointing to a couterie of women in their early twenties. “All influencers. I’ve worked with about half of them” he continued, after returning the wave of a Harley-Quinn lookalike.

The young women were soon joined by another group, whom my account executive and his assistant also recognized. As his assistant sauntered over to chat with the influencers, leaving us to talk numbers and bigger campaigns down the road, the account exec said to me, “They all come here, to Hollywood.”

“Weird,” I said. “Can’t they run their channels from anywhere?”

“You still have to network, and one shout out on a major influencer’s channel can grow your channel exponentially. A bump from a major influencer can increase video views and ad revenue to life-changing sums, overnight.”

He went on to explain how he had left behind a career in the gossip magazines — the old school types that covered movie and television stars — and moved into this world of influencers, because that was where the entire industry was heading.

“The kids coming to Hollywood ten, twenty, thirty years ago, would have arrived on a Greyhound bus, bought a week’s rent at a motel off of Sunset, and immediately started doing auditions. That still exists, but compared to the return on investment for being an influencer, it doesn’t make much sense anymore.”

Consider the following, for an actor in LA. They can spend years going to auditions, sometimes waiting for a critical period in spring every year when networks are casting for television pilots. The competition is fierce, the wait between auditions and callbacks is long, and there’s obviously never any guarantee that you, no matter how attractive or talented you are, will ever land a role if the next person in line has an inside connection.

You could also spend about five minutes setting up a YouTube channel and start creating content with an iPhone.

With the right mix of novelty and “authenticity” — meaning their content shouldn’t appear overproduced — they could amass large followings in months. And with the right network of influencers, they could be well on their way to making a living from exclusive sponsorships and ad revenue, just as long as they keep churning out content. Millennials and the generations coming after them don’t care as much about those old cinema idols — the Tom Cruises and Nicole Kidmans and Jennifer Anistons. They care more about gaming sensation PewDiePie and beauty vlogger Bethany Mota. Would-be stars now want to be influencers, and they can be seen all over Tinseltown in pods — networking, guest-starring and tagging each other in a deluge of content.

Exclusive Instagram mural for influencers. Credit: Vice/ Justin Caffier

Near the top of the social hierarchy in this country’s large urban centers is the influencer. Whether an Instagram Foodie or “Yelp Elite” member, or a fitness guru or a comedian, their endorsement of a product or locale can mean an immediate boon to revenue. It’s no wonder brands are ready to pay eye-popping sums for their support. I only have to walk down the street to the Petersen Museum in central Los Angeles, to see proof of this, where they allow people with verified check marks on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram free access to the museum. An “Instagrammable” graffiti mural in June of this year was off limits to all but those with an audience of over twenty-thousand, or with a verified check mark. I have had colleagues at work who were self-confessed “Yelp Shills”, who dined for free regularly, in exchange for positive restaurant reviews. When such importance is placed on one’s social media cache, and the material rewards are so immediate, shared instantaneously to millions of envious fans, it’s no wonder many see this as a logical (and easy) way to make a living. The market economy we live in, riding on the backbone of ad tech, feeds this behavior through algorithms that determine popularity.

Advertisers love influencers for the simple fact that they’re cost effective, and while there are plenty of ways to game the system as an influencer — as I’ll show later in this article — when one does the media math, investing in someone like The Rock, who is hybrid movie star and social media influencer, is a relative bargain. He purportedly earns a million dollars per post just to promote his own movies. That’s an insane amount, you might think. But, if I were to use his Instagram channel with 110 million followers as an example, that translates — in quick and dirty media math, if we’re assuming 50% of his audience saw the post — to about an $18 CPM. That means $18 per thousand impressions. This is calculated by dividing the total cost by impressions, and multiplying by a thousand.

Again, the number of impressions is probably much, much higher when you factor in the content type (such as video, which engages more) and the fact that it’s The Rock. His engagement rates are through the roof, exponentially increasing the amount of unique people who will see his posts. His engaged followers will expose the ad to their friends, and their friends will expose it to their friends, and so on.

Compare that to traditional advertising, where a spot on national broadcast television costs an advertiser an average of $25 per thousand impressions. And, that’s assuming people are watching the ad, not skipping or muting it. Or, advertising during a tentpole event like the Superbowl, which costs over $100 dollars per thousand impressions. Even pre-roll (the ads you see before your video on YouTube) — on the low end will cost you roughly $8 CPM, but you’re likely to run against poor quality content. You have to pony up from $20-$25 per thousand impressions to run on premium YouTube channels. All this is to say, that with a premium influencer like The Rock, you get a celebrity endorsement, and a super-sized audience on steroids — a massive audience that is actively engaging with your ad, on the phone right in front of their faces.

Follow the #ad money

Trump’s election shined a spotlight on something that had already been brewing, and increasingly problematic, for years. One can point to the old adage of “no free lunch” in the case of “free” internet services like Facebook and YouTube. The sole purpose, it turns out, after much head-scratching by the average consumer, has been to mine our personal data and sell it to advertisers.

“Free” makes the barrier to entry very low, and this allowed services like MySpace and later YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to experience exponential growth in a short period of time. Often times it took a catalyst, like Twitter’s quick adoption by tech influencers at 2007’s SXSW, or Facebook’s quick adoption after it opened to the wide public, offering a clean user experience instead of the bloated mess that MySpace had become.

To take Facebook as an example, the play back in the early days was to scale the audience as quickly as possible. This facilitated ways for people across the globe to communicate. Not that it hadn’t been attempted before, but Facebook simplified the process, and became, after a few years, the de facto social network. What differentiated it from other social networks, and has since made it so valuable, was that one’s profile was linked to a real identity. Once Facebook achieved scale, they were able to sell their goldmine of consumer data.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

In spring 2018, Zuckerberg sat before a congressional committee who questioned him for two days about his company’s ties with Cambridge Analytica. With the firehose of data streaming through its networks, Facebook had lost control of its precious commodity, relinquishing the reigns via lax regulations on developers who were contributing content to its networks. It was the same laissez faire attitude that allowed them to scale their audience in the first years of their existence. Anecdotally, in my experience in the digital marketing industry, there has never been a single campaign that didn’t use some form of paid media on Facebook and Instagram. Simply, it’s because the sheer scale and targetability of their audiences make them the most valuable channels out there.

Concerns about invasions of privacy and the spread of misinformation have been voiced for years by technologists, and only now with Trump’s election has awareness reached critical mass levels. It’s all rooted in the advertising model. Facebook, Twitter and Google are advertising powerhouses the likes of which we’ve never seen in media. They’re a marketer’s dream — a treasure trove of one-to-one data that’s alarmingly personal. One can target, if one’s savvy enough, specific sexual preferences, ethnic identities, household incomes and political persuasions down to the household level.

It’s within this ecosystem of hyper-targeted data that the influencer plays. He or she relies on the efficacy of this data machine for their ad revenue. The more they learn to game the system, the more they stand to gain. If a certain Disney IP is trending, you can be sure an army of influencers are out there ready to pivot their content factories on a moment’s notice to take advantage of it. Whether it’s the cinnamon or Tide Pod challenge, eating corn off a power drill, or any number of flashes in the internet pan, there will inevitably be copycats and reaction videos that are optimized to surface as suggested content.

Money for nothin’ and swag for free

It’s no surprise people have been turning to aspirations of influencer fame as a viable end in itself. The rise of this transactional mindset is directly correlated to the advent of the modern ad tech industry. Gaining followers for views has become an end in itself — and some influencers even content themselves with fake followers, choosing to live with the lie, or hoping to bootstrap an audience of real followers. I’ll expose how this works later in this article.

Screenshot: Foodstagrammer alifewortheating

Let’s take a look at “micro-influencers”, like Instagram Foodies (aka “Foodstagrammers”) and fitness models. Their feeds are populated by pics of Jimmy Choo gear and trendy cocktail spots, offering the masses who follow them a glimpse into a world of hedonistic excess. An extension of the American dream, they’re offering a portal to possibilities, material possessions and gluttonous delights that their audiences imagine having one day for themselves. Behind the carefully curated feeds are posed photos and transactional agreements. Some might get a free coffee here or there, some might get a free trip to Puerto Vallarta, some might get free memberships to the trendiest boutique cross-fit gyms in Soho and Weho. It all depends on what their numbers look like on the ‘Gram.

Apps like INTO have emerged for this new class of influencer, whose full-time job is taking appealing pictures of vegan ramen bowls and French toast. Touted as an “exclusive influencer community”, micro-influencers in this category act as the middle ground between the aspiring influencers and the celebrity influencers. In order to join a community like INTO, one has to be vetted and approved — the criteria being “signed with a top talent or model agency”, or being a self-managed and successful social media persona. The threshold for followers is unclear, but one can be sure it’s in the upper five figure range. A restaurant, for example, might organize a meal in which they, or a PR firm, invite the Yelp Elite Squad and Foodstagrammers who will generate buzz for them by posting positive reviews and pictures across their channels. These elite micro-influencers are either comped or paid a small fee for their laudatory social posts. Just like any animal hierarchy, these influencers have their own clingers and parasites, ready to feed on the scraps they leave in their wake. Known as “re-Grammers”, these micro-micro influencers earn income by re-posting content on their own channels, cluttering social media feeds with duplicate content.

Back in the day, say until about 2005, a food critic like Ruth Reichl or Jonathan Gold could make or break a restaurant with a single review. In the mid-oughts, when blogging started gaining credibility, writers for relatively obscure websites started to shift the balance of power. Since blogging’s popularity has been surpassed by social media, the power is now in the hands of influencers. One picture and a hashtag from an elite influencer can launch a restaurant, shop, gym or makeup line to instant success. Why would these companies reach out to anyone else, when, within minutes, with the right moneyball of influencers, they could reach thousands of hyper-targeted people on social networks?

Apex influencers

The goal of aspiring influencers is to reach the level of celebrity influencer — the kind that are snatched up for exclusive contracts with Hollywood talent agencies. Not only are they comped free trips and meals, they’re also paid to shill products. Jenny McCarthy purportedly makes around $3,500 per post. Scott Disick, famous for being Kourtney Kardashian’s ex, got exposed for posting about a tea brand and getting paid a reported $20,000 dollars for it. These fees might seem exorbitant, but — as in the Dwayne Johnson example I gave above — the media math dollars make sense for brands when compared to the old way of advertising on billboards, print and television.

The power an influencer wields is also intoxicating and seductive. Last year — possibly inadvertently — Kylie Jenner tweeted negatively about Snapchat — saying she was growing bored with the platform — and within minutes she had drained $1.3 billion dollars out of the social media company’s stock valuation. She may be the youngest of the Kardashian clan, but with her empire of social followers, it’s estimated she makes in the range of $400,000 dollars per sponsored post. The power she has to negatively or positively influence market value and opinion is unprecedented.

Recently, Facebook announced new changes in its algorithms due, in part, to the fake news abuse on its networks. They announced their intention to prioritize “meaningful interactions” — authentic conversations between real people. This represents another push towards influencer marketing, further pushing them to top of our social hierarchy. 75% of brands use influencer marketing according to the ANA (Association of National Advertisers) in a recent report. That number is going to keep growing. With such value and power placed in the hands of social media users, “fake influence” is also an issue.

Industrialized clout

In January, 2018, the New York Times reported on a “Follower Factory”run by a company called Devumi. For a fee, the company sells followers and post engagement to celebrities, businesses and politicians. They run an estimated 3.5 million bot accounts that create a veneer of influence for whomever is willing to pay the price. Over 200,000 customers have used their service, including actors like John Leguzamo, models like Kathy Ireland, business icons like Michael Dell and sports personalities like Ray Lewis. TED speakers, pastors — even members of Twitter’s own board have used its services.

Screenshot: NYT, The Follower Factory

Why would anybody do this, even if they weren’t getting paid or comped for each of their posts? It partly has to do with vanity numbers. It’s also part of the “fake it ’til you make it” mentality. It takes time to uncover fraud, investigate social media followers, and a six or seven figure following on Twitter or Instagram will make you attractive to potential sponsors, or give you leverage when negotiating speaking fees. The payoff makes the purchase of fake followers extremely tempting. You might haul off enough cash in the interim — or might have enough powerful people who have vouched for you — that you’re protected once the fraud is revealed.

Fraud-spotting has created an industry all its own in advertising. In digital campaigns — when running banner ads or pre-roll — there’s always the option to use a third-party fraud detection service to determine if your ad is being seen by a real person or a bot. They detect network anomalies, percentage viewed, in the case of video, or percentage on screen, in the case of banner ads. These fraud detection services, of course, charge a premium on top of your ad spend.

Anti-fraud for influencers is also a thing. One company, Sway Ops, discovered that on a single day over fifty percent of engagements on posts hashtagged #ad or #sponsored were fake. An engagement is a term that marketers in the digital industry use to refer to likes, comments, views or any other kind of interaction users have with posts. According to Sway Ops’ criteria for bot spotting, over forty percent of total comments made on sponsored posts, each day, are fake.

What is a bot? Ever see those sketchy, obviously-copied avatars on Twitter; those accounts with zero posts on Instagram; those comments that all sound like variations of the same thing, with minor tweaks — or, sometimes no changes at all, literally the same comment posted across dozens of accounts? Companies have automated ways to spot these accounts, but most people just won’t spend the time to investigate. They’ll see the volume of “engagement” and be spurred into participating. It’s exactly what the advertisers and influencers are banking on. It’s like the “full restaurant” effect, where potential patrons will pass up a restaurant that’s empty, but enter the exact same one if it’s full.

Like never before, we’re exposed to the opulence and leisure of a select few on social media. Influencers convey a life that’s barely out of reach, just a click and a filter away. Perhaps a hashtag, or harnessing a rising trend, is all it takes to break through, achieve that massive rise in user growth, and that corresponding cash flow due to sponsorships and ad revenue. Influencers, under the gun to produce a steady stream of content to sustain their lavish lifestyles, keep having to up the ante.

It’s just a prank, bro

Logan Paul

Logan Paul recently paid a visit to Japan’s Aokigahara forest, a sombre, dark zone known for its many suicides. It’s hard to believe he didn’t know what he was about to encounter because much-viewed documentaries — like one Vice made recently — had already circulated. In his video of the suicide forest, Logan — wearing a childish, fluffy green barnstormer hat — and his entourage, encounters a real suicide victim hanging from a tree. He jokingly asks, “Bro, did we just find a dead body in the suicide forest?”

Logan told Business Insider that his biggest aspiration in the world was to be the “Dr. Dre of social media […] the biggest entertainer in the world.” He had — at the time of the suicide forest video — fifteen million followers on YouTube. Those millions of obsessive followers translate into views and ad revenue for each outrageous stunt he pulls, only incentivizing his behavior more. After a public outcry, he eventually pulled the video down, made a public apology, and resumed posting a couple weeks later. He has 17 million YouTube followers now.

Jake Paul fans outside his Hollywood home. Credit: SAF/All Access/Splash News

His brother, Jake Paul, known for the iTunes hit, “It’s Everyday Bro”, is also a major influencer, and a local menace in West Hollywood, where last year he turned the neighborhood into what some called a “living hell”. To feed his insatiable need to generate content, he invited fellow influencers — part of a crew who shared, commented and shouted out his videos in return for the same favor — over to his mansion where they did stunts like burning furniture in the backyard, with flames reaching as high as the roof. Neighbors, understandably freaked out, called the authorities. News trucks and firefighters arrived to find an insouciant Jake Paul in front of his house greeting crowds of mostly teenage girls cheering him on — he then bolted and climbed on top of a KTLA news van. All caught on camera, further boosting his cache, and ultimately driving more viewership on his channels.

Jake Paul on top of a news van. Credit: KTLA

One of the pioneers of the new generation of influencers is PewDiePie, who made his name by posting videos of himself gaming and making humorous commentary. Way back in 2014, his channel had a staggering 4.1 billion hits, and had 33 million subscribers. Today he’s still the king, with over 64 million YouTube subscribers. He recently ran into trouble when he made an off-color joke which was meant to show how easily people can be manipulated to do stupid things for money on the internet. He may have been self-aware when doing it, but the irony was lost on most of his viewers and many advertisers when his prank — which consisted of paying two Indian freelancers a small fee to hold up a sign and chant “Death to all Jews” — was viewed as anti-Semitic.

Screenshot: PewDiePie’s infamous stunt

One of the most egregious examples of influencer abuse was the Fyre Island affair in May 2017, a poorly planned festival in the Bahamas, which left hundreds of kids “stranded and hungry” when they arrived to a venue with half-built tents, soggy sliced-bread sandwiches, and purported muggers, thieves and feral dogs. They had paid upwards of $12,000 a piece to go to what promised to be a highly Instagrammable, star-studded festival, and had been swayed by the name recognition of co-promoter Ja Rule and supermodel influencers like Bella Hadid, Chanel Iman and Emily Ratajkowksi, who had been promoting the festival on their channels. Kendal Jenner also promoted it, making $250,000 for a post. None of these influencers were there, conveniently, for what could have been the Millennial version of Lord of the Flies, and have since deleted their Fyre Island posts.

Kendal Jenner’s promotional post for the Fyre Island Festival

Shangri La La Land

Of course, the “exotic” has always sparked our imaginations. My parent’s subscription to National Geographic always conjured the exotic and mysterious, and piqued my curiosity and desire to travel. Now, with Instagram and YouTube, “travel porn” is no longer National Geographic’s domain. Thousands of accounts are dedicated to pictures and videos of tropical exotica and dramatic landscapes, in places that seem almost accessible. “If virtual nobodies, influencers who have risen to the top of the heap in mere months, can do it, why not me?” many followers might ask. Just ten to fifteen years ago the kind of lifestyle some of these influencers are living would have been impossible to conceive of — except if you were Hollywood elite, having your exploits complicitly documented in tabloids in order to cultivate allure. Now, cutting out the middle man, aspiring influencers can curate their own versions of the exotic tabloid spread.

The dark side, of course, is the constant need to generate content, driving niche influencers to more extreme acts in order to generate more views. Two travel vloggers from High on Life / SundayFundayz — who made news last year after violating rules in Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring, spending a week in jail — died after being swept off a waterfall in Squamish, British Columbia. Known for filming exploits in picture-perfect locations around the world, including previous waterfall jumps, they died while attempting to save a friend who had slipped and fell into the falls’ strong currents.

Katarina Zarutskie posing for an Instgram pic. IG: katarinazarutskie

Last July, Katarina Zarutskie, a model from Houston and aspiring influencer, was bitten by a shark while swimming in the Bahamas. She was attacked while filming an Instagram story as she floated in her bikini amid a swarm of nurse sharks. She says, “I’m lucky to have my hand.” — and has since gained over ten thousand ‘Gram followers.

There’s a whole class of Instagram influencers — as rumors around town would have it — who are undercover escorts for wealthy elites. Some of them are C and D-level movie actresses, others are swimsuit models, others have gained their own large following on social by posting pics in suggestive clothing, in luxury vacation spots around the world. La Cote d’Azure, Martinique, Antigua. A conspicuous amount of them pose for pictures in the United Arab Emirates, where their princely sponsors allegedly lavish them with gifts in return for company. Their marketing platform is on social, their followers see the charmed life they lead, the luxury goods they’re flaunting after their trips. Due to the demographic of their following, they also make ideal influencers for the male-dominated target audiences of some liquor brands or automotive companies (that’s just me putting my marketing cap on).

Melina Roberge aka “Cocaine Babe” and friend

Yet another case — and just one of the latest among many that appear each week — is that of Melina Roberge, an Instagram influencer from Canada, who was also known as “Cocaine Babe”. She followed a similar template. Stylish, teasing photos aboard yachts floating in crystal blue waters helped build her brand and fuel her lifestyle. Addicted to more than just follower counts and the luxurious lifestyle she curated on her social feeds, she got busted for attempting to smuggle — along with her self-named “sugar-daddy” — $21 million dollars worth of cocaine into Australia.

When Audrina Patrige, in 2015, announced her pregnancy in a post on Instagram, holding up a Clearblue pregnancy test device, and hashtagging the sponsor in her post, a mild outrage spread across the internet. Three years later, Khloe Kardashian is hosting and posting her baby shower, sponsored by Amazon. She’ll be monetizing her children, like 3-year old twin sister influencers Mila and Emma Stauffer, who’ve already inked deals with Walmart and Macy’s. When, they’re older they’ll be on the route to riches via the next hot social media platform. They’ll be able to monetize their pets as well. My daughter follows hamster influencers. I worked with Doug the Pug, for a large entertainment studio. Doug’s 3.5 million followers allow him to charge more for a single post than some people make on minimum wage in a year. Who wouldn’t want to be an influencer?

Make a billion dollars with this one weird trick


This past July, Kylie Jenner graced the cover of Forbes. The publication describes her as a self-made billionaire at the age of twenty. Nevermind that she was born into wealth, was part of an already infamous socialite clan, and starred on reality television at the age of ten. Her life has taken on Truman Show-esque proportions, and the influence that she wields over one of advertising’s most prized demographics is staggering.

Bizarre sub-genres of influencer videos — like women eating fresh seafood (just YouTube it) — engender a philosophy that literally anything you do should have a monetary value. It will be hard to convince anyone growing up under the influence of social media’s ad tech model to do anything else. We naturally choose the path of least resistance, and it seems so easy when anybody can create their own personal TV channel on social media. It’s as easy as showing some cleavage, playing dumb bro pranks, or hopping on a 24-hour trending hashtag. You can be the envy of your friends and followers, and have massive global influence — for the ephemeral lifecycle of a social media post.

For many people, this is “making it” in this world. Unless these companies fundamentally change their ad technology, we’re going to see entire swaths of society who are going to live and die by the “like”.

I am a digital strategist living in Los Angeles. I also write fiction, and my book NEON EMPIRE is coming out in early 2019 from Rare Bird Books/CCB. It’s a near-future thriller about influencers and ad technology gone awry. I have previous fiction bylines in 3AM Magazine, Word Riot, Litro and others. You can find me on Twitter @drewminh and



Drew Minh

Author of NEON EMPIRE, a near-future thriller about influencers, coming out in September 2019 (CCB/Rare Bird Books)