Influencer is a platform-agnostic term. It describes anyone who leverages social media to grow a following and exerts influence over that following in order to make money. An influencer might be the teenager who blows up on Instagram for viral makeup tutorials and starts selling beauty products via sponsored posts. Or the stay-at-home mom turned fashion vlogger who uses her following on YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest to shill her custom-clothing line. Or the middle-aged chef whose homemade cooking videos generate thousands of views on Instagram and Twitter and who uses that audience to promote his own cookbook.
Very quickly, a hierarchy developed. Influencers, because they came later, were stereotyped as less worthy than traditional YouTube creators, a class of people who had already spent years establishing themselves and whose existence and worth had been validated by YouTube itself, a much larger social network than Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest.
Even today, the people who shy away from the term influencer mostly do so, they say, because they find the term a bit cringeworthy. It’s new, and still carries a stigma the way YouTube star used to. “Influencer is a slur old people use like a pejorative term,” says Chris Stokel-Walker, the author of the book YouTubers. The word influencer is also inherently tied to business and monetizing, especially through branded content.
“The word influencer means someone who is building a platform with the intention of being used by brands for marketing purposes,” says Natasha Hynes, a YouTuber who calls herself a creator. A creator, she argues, is in it for the self-expression. But, she adds, “I don’t think the claim that most women don’t identify as creators is factual.”
In fact, “many of YouTube’s early innovators were women and people of color,” Shey says. “The term creator was all about recognizing their unique skill sets as directors, writers, performers, editors, and communicators.”
The current distinction between creators and influencers has much more to do with what platform a person gains her fame on than her gender. For instance, Roshan Eshwave Uelese, a YouTuber, says she refers to herself as a creator because it’s a more accurate description of what she does: produce YouTube videos. “I don’t really think it necessarily has anything to do with gender," says Brittany Sumner, a YouTuber who also calls herself a creator rather than an influencer. “Typically I see influencers on platforms like Twitter and Instagram, places that have heavy ties with brands and marketing … Creator seems to be reserved for content creators on YouTube.”
Young women such as Elle Mills, Liza Koshy, and Sara Dietschy, all of whom have gained followings on YouTube in recent years, identify as creators. But top women with followings on Instagram such as Julia Engel and Huda Kattan identify as influencers. Funnily enough, Instagram recently announced that high-profile influencers on its platform will soon be given special access to advanced features called Creator Accounts. The company wants to “create this space where we can now start to specialize the experience for the needs of creators,” Ashley Yuki, an Instagram product manager, said at the time.