When Alix Earle, a 22-year-old college student from Miami, posted her first "get ready with me" video on TikTok in December 2022, little did she know that her authentic, unfiltered content would catapult her to overnight stardom and redefine the influencer landscape.

Hers, and countless viral sensations like her,  is a story on a trendline of influence that begins with celebrities and ends with everyday people gaining momentary, monumental, influence over what we buy and where we buy it.

With this change we’re witnessing  two momentous shifts in our world: 1) that cultural significance is aligned with the speed of commercial influence which is attainable by everyday people, and 2) the archetypes of influence have extended beyond monocultural to multiplayer.

In The Beginning, There Was Celebrity: The Celebrity Era (c. 1990-2000)

In the early days of influencer marketing, traditional celebrities were the undisputed kings and queens of influence. These iconic figures, with their larger-than-life personas and global recognition, held sway over the masses through their appearances in movies, television shows, and magazines.

Celebrities earned their fame from recognizable achievements, and that fame was what made them celebrities.

Let’s draw definitional distinctions: Celebrity is a famous person, especially in entertainment or sport. Fame is the state of being known or talked about by many people, especially on account of notable achievements.

The excellence that made them famous also earned them a following and a power to influence in a major way. People listened because those with platforms ‘earned’ the right to speak directly into their ears.

Oprah Winfrey became a household name in the 1980s during the daytime talk show era where her signature interview style became a cultural touchstone, shaping public opinion and sparking nationwide conversations. But it was her direct engagement in commerce with the Book Club segment where Oprah began to exercise her power, turning obscure titles into bestsellers overnight. 

Michael Jordan's partnership with Nike to create the Air Jordan line of sneakers revolutionized sports marketing, transcending basketball to become a global fashion phenomenon. The allure of Jordan's brand extended far beyond the basketball court, embodying the aspirational lifestyle of success and excellence.

These celebrities represented more than just individuals; they embodied lifestyles and aspirations. Their endorsements signaled prestige, credibility, and desirability, driving consumer behavior and brand perceptions on a massive, monocultural, scale. They were, and are, aspirational figures whose lifestyles and endorsements symbolized success and status.

With social media, celebrity—and fame—changed. Fame or notoriety can be attained in more ways, with more diverse and niche audiences. No longer reserved for athletes or stars seen on TV or the big screen, it could be achieved through new means, sometimes overnight.

The Nobody Turned Somebody: Enter the Blogosphere (c. 2000 - 2012)

Unlike the polished images of the celebrity, bloggers were often ordinary people talking about their ordinary lives.  This enabled anyone with WiFi and a camera phone to reach millions of readers.

The blog phenomenon took off with mommyblogs, a genre of blogging that chronicled everyday experiences from the lens of, well, moms. From breastfeeding to diaper research to toddler birthday party gift ideas—this style of blogging became the only place where moms could connect and talk to each other. “Honestly, I had a lot of illusions about motherhood,” said Eden Marriott Kennedy, founder of Fussy.org, who was 37 when she had her first child. 

In 2005, it was reported 8,500 people were writing blogs about their families and their children. Eventually, brands started to notice and that’s when things escalated.  Moms were not only building community, they were booking deals with major brands through digital ad placements, and building revenue channels through newly-created affiliate platforms.

The modern platforms that enable TikTok-scale commercial influence today have a direct lineage with this era of influence, and are still in-use today: CJ (commission junction) and ShareASale, to name a few.

And then the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008 hit. As the implications of the GFC loomed, visual-first platforms such as Tumblr, Instagram, and Pinterest emerged, allowing a more fashion-forward lifestyle ‘blogger’ to take center-stage.

Ex-Teen Vogue Editor Eva Chen and Leandra Medine of Man Repeller became prominent figures as the aesthetic of street style photography, a la Scott Schuman of the Satorliast and Phil Oh of The Street Pepper, romanticized the life of the everyday blogger. The vibrant, editorial photography combined with their casual, effortless writing resonated with audiences - gaining thousands of new followers everyday.

This time, brands weren’t seeking partnerships; there was an opportunity to turn the everyday, editorial  lifestyle blogger into an influential business with existing fans and customers.

In 2010, former beauty editor Emily Weiss, launched Into the Gloss, a blog with beautiful visuals that became the trusted source for beauty enthusiasts. Weiss used her platform to engage directly with her audience, gathering insights that would later inform her skincare brand in 2014: Glossier

The Celebrity Disruptors: The Fenty Effect and the Kardashian Economy (c. 2009 - 2017)

As the DTC model surged in popularity, celebrities astutely recognized its transformative potential. No longer confined to traditional endorsement deals, they seized the opportunity to harness their personal brands to create and own their products, redefining what it means to be a “celebrity.” Social media played an instrumental role in this evolution. 

Twitter, despite its launch in 2006, only gained significant traction by 2009. This platform democratized the interaction between celebrities and their fans, offering a level of immediacy and intimacy previously unattainable.

It allowed celebrities to share real-time personal updates, engage directly with followers, and even engage in playful banter. This direct engagement fostered a sense of community, eventually becoming the cornerstone of the most potent marketing growth strategies. Twitter’s format, favoring brief and frequent updates, was ideal for celebrities and lifestyle influencers to maintain a constant public presence while staying connected with their audience. 

Social media facilitated a direct dialogue that laid the groundwork for celebrity-led DTC brands. Figures like Kim Kardashian and Rihanna weren’t merely selling products; they were cultivating worlds built around their personal brands. By addressing the needs and desires of often overlooked communities, they built loyal followers setting new standards for inclusivity. 

Kim Kardashian, frequently criticized for her curvy figure, identified a cap in the market for tasteful, suitable undergarments. Rihanna, on the other hand, challenged the beauty industry to innovate by launching a makeup brand with 40 different shades, addressing the frustration and exclusion felt by many women forced to mix multiple foundation shades. 

By listening to the emotional pain points of their audience, both celebrities created brands that felt more like inclusive spaces, fostering personal investment in their success. This marked a departure from the traditional celebrity roles, where partnerships with mission-aligned brands were the norm. Instead, these new archetypes understood that no one could do it better, with the added benefit of having equity in their businesses. 

The success of these celebrity disruptors also highlighted the critical importance of authenticity in marketing and advertising. Consumers, increasingly skeptical of traditional advertising, began to trust only those brands that felt genuine and well, real. The hero campaigns for both Fenty Beauty and SKIMS, featured models of all shapes, sizes, and hues, amplifying the voices of their authentic consumers. Micro-influencers emerged as powerful brand ambassadors, driving high engagement from their niche audiences, further solidifying this paradigm of commerce. 

Blink and You’ll Miss It: The Overnight ‘Mega’ Influencer (c. 2018-2024)

With the advent of social media platforms like TikTok, a new breed of influencers has emerged: the overnight mega influencers. These individuals achieve instant fame and influence, propelled by viral content and algorithmic serendipity.

Take, for example, Alix Earle, whose comedic sketches and relatable anecdotes resonated with millions of viewers virtually overnight. With a magnetic personality and a new era girl next door vibe, Earle skyrocketed to social media stardom, amassing a devoted following and attracting brand partnerships in record time. Her GRWM starkly contrasted the polished content brands were churning out, but her devoted following meant her product recommendations would result in an instant sales spike or even sell out. While we know TikTok Shop was already in the works when Alix was ascending, we imagine she made the entire corporation more confident in their future social commerce play.

Pictured: the transformation of Alix Earle (via Alix Earle on TikTok)

Similarly, Reesa Teesa, known for her captivating WHO THE FUCK DID I MARRY serial  became an overnight sensation on TikTok, captivating audiences with her brutal honesty and more importantly, her vulnerability. Beyond this, she inspired a whole new genre of creators, the cultural commentators, and we saw a new economy emerge around her, from the ground up. The woman built a decentralized brand overnight. What does this mean for her future? Will she follow in the footsteps of Earle or something else? Regardless, when we saw her at SXSW earlier this year swarmed by fangirls and bois while quietly eating her lunch, we took it as a sign to watch her space  closely.

The humanness of these two sparked a new era in similar scale to what reality tv was when it first came out: raw, flawed, but real. Perhaps they needed to fill the void reality tv left when it stopped being remotely realistic. Regardless, they filled a major craving people may not have even known they had. These overnight mega influencers represent a departure from the traditional trajectory of fame, where years of hard work and perseverance were typically required to achieve recognition. Instead, they embody the democratization of influence in the digital age, where virality can catapult unknown individuals to celebrity status in a matter of days.

Pictured: ReesaTeesa on TikTok

Still, there’s a problem.  With fame often fleeting and attention spans fleeting, maintaining relevance and authenticity in the fast-paced world of social media can be a daunting task. Brands must carefully vet potential partners and cultivate genuine relationships with influencers who align with their values and resonate with their target audience. Especially since you never know who could become the next overnight sensation. Or are we confident that this era is over?

Welcome to the Farmers Market: The Jane Doe on TikTok Shop, (c. 2022-Present)

In contrast to the celebrity-driven paradigm of influence, the rise of TikTok has ushered in a new era characterized by authenticity, relatability, and grassroots influence. Here, everyday individuals, colloquially referred to as "Jane Does," have emerged as influential figures whose unfiltered, genuine content resonates with audiences on a personal level.

Media theorist Henry Jenkins has argued that, when the barrier of entry is sufficiently low that anyone who desires to participate, can; we will see the rise of participatory culture. TikTok  has democratized commerce, allowing everyday consumers to actively engage with and influence brands, obliterating the lines between creators and consumers.

TikTok creators with niche audiences, such as small-business owners, educators, and hobbyists, have garnered loyal followings by sharing their passions, expertise, and everyday experiences. These micro-influencers embody the democratization of influence, where anyone with a smartphone and a compelling story can become a cultural tastemaker.

One notable example is the TikTok Shop trend, where users showcase their favorite products, DIY hacks, and shopping hauls, offering authentic recommendations and reviews to their followers who can then buy, on the spot right there. 

"At TikTok Shop, we've seen how micro-influencers, such as small-business owners and hobbyists, can wield significant sway over consumer purchasing decisions,” says a source who works closely with TTS but prefers to remain anonymous. “Their content, perceived as genuine and trustworthy, resonates deeply with audiences seeking relatable and authentic recommendations. And this results in a ‘see it, like it, buy it’ effect where the customer can immediately transact in the moment.”

The emergence of the Jane Doe on TikTok Shop reflects a broader shift towards community-driven influence, where authenticity and relatability are valued over traditional notions of celebrity status. People just wanna buy from the farmers market. 

 As brands attempt to navigate this tectonic shift, partnering with micro-influencers who ‘authentically’ align with their values and resonate with their target audience can be a powerful strategy for driving engagement and fostering brand loyalty.

So what? 

The evolution of influencer archetypes, from traditional celebrities to everyday individuals, reflects a fundamental shift from a monocultural landscape, where a select few held sway over the masses, to a multiplayer environment, where diverse voices and niche communities shape the narrative and drive consumer behavior.

The evolution of influence reflects broader shifts in consumer behavior and cultural dynamics. From traditional celebrities to everyday individuals, each archetype offers unique insights into the power of influence in shaping brand perceptions and consumer decisions. As brands continue to navigate the ever-changing influencer landscape, understanding these archetypes can provide valuable insights for developing effective marketing strategies in the digital age.