Why Kids Online Are Chasing ‘Clout’

How did a word once reserved for union bosses get co-opted by anybody with a viral tweet?

A woman in "clout goggles" (white sunglasses) hits a punching bag.
Bettman / Getty / The Atlantic

“Let’s talk about the internet,” the YouTube celebrity Drew Gooden begins, flatly, in an 11-minute commentary video titled “Arrested for Clout.”

“Remember, like, 1,000 years ago when they invented the internet and everyone was like, ‘This is awesome. The world is changed and nothing but good will come from this’?” asks Gooden, who became famous because of a passably funny Vine in 2016. “And now people just use the internet to get really famous for doing dumb shit? Yeah, I remember that too.” As the video goes on, he becomes upset with people who are so desperate for “clout” that they participate in a viral prank—in this case, licking ice-cream cartons and putting them back in freezers at bodegas and Targets. Gooden singles out one teenage-looking boy for particular critique, noting that he didn’t even put the lid back on the ice cream, and that he is wearing striped pants Gooden finds extremely ugly, and that his boots are also ugly, and that, worst of all, he didn’t even succeed at getting attention. “If he considers the clout he received to be worth spending the day in the police station, he probably got a lot of followers, right?” Gooden asks, preparing us to look, together, at the boy’s Twitter account. “Like, 100,000 or 200,000?” He teases, and we wait. The boy has 8,000 followers, Gooden reveals. Gross!

Gooden, whose video has an elaborate, self-produced Squarespace ad spliced into the middle of it, would never commit a crime for such low returns. “What would you do for clout?” his video asks implicitly, assuming that it’s a question you have thought about and could answer.

The meaning of clout is porous, but the word is everywhere. As of this writing, 1.8 million Instagram posts have been tagged #clout. On TikTok, videos tagged #clout have been viewed 1.5 billion times. (Other popular tags include #cloutchaser, a derogatory term for someone who wants clout too badly, and #cloutcheck, a tag that precedes a boast about owning something expensive or knowing somebody famous.) A whole category of self-help books is dedicated to acquiring and wielding clout; examples include Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content and Clout: Finding and Using Power at Work and Clout: Discover and Unleash Your God-Given Influence.

In the 2019 Cardi B and Offset single “Clout,” the chorus of which is “They do anything for clout (anything),” repeated seven times, the pair put a funny, elder scold’s emphasis on clout-chasing “blogs,” as well as “the IG disease” and “weirdo[s]” who “talk crazy on tweets.” There are at least half a dozen other notable “Clout” anthems, released separately and at basically the same time. These songs flip and flop on what clout is and what it’s good for: Young Thug’s 2018 “Gain Clout” is very specifically about murdering people, while Denzel Curry’s “Clout Cobain,” released the same year, is about crying. Ty Dolla $ign’s 2018 “Clout” is about sex, and Lil Uzi Vert’s 2017 “Clout” is about sex.

When my college-age sisters talk about their friends accruing dozens of Snapchat streaks “for clout,” they’re joking, but they’re not joking—the words come out in the same intonation as when they remark that someone dyes their hair—as if to say people simply do things for clout. They simply buy food with money. They simply breathe.

The word clout originates in Old English, and once meant “a lump of something” or “a patch of cloth” used to mend a hole. Later, it was more like rag—used to refer to handkerchiefs or early sanitary napkins. It wasn’t until the 14th century that it shifted to mean some kind of punch or blow or beating, and it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century in America that it came to refer to political influence.

Clout had particular significance in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, when the Daily News political reporter Mike Royko used it to criticize murky dealings in local government. In a 1973 column, “What Clout Is and Isn’t,” he gave half a dozen examples of the word in use, including “Nah, I don’t need a building permit—I got clout in City Hall” and “My tax bill this year is $1.50 ... I got clout in the assessor’s office.” Summing things up, he asked, “Get the idea? Clout is used to circumvent the law, not to enforce it. It is used to bend the rules, not follow them.”

The word was then used by Chicago drill rappers in the 1990s, often in reference to the particular political climate of their home city. In the past decade, it’s shown up in all kinds of rap music and in the tangential world of online menswear discussions, championed by the Complex blog Four Pins and its semi-anonymous Twitter account (popular for years after the site itself stopped publishing).

Garage called 2017 “The Year of Clout” on this basis, defining the word as a type of “flippant, nerdy one-upmanship,” expressed best in “memes, tweets, and Instagram captions.” The article put a particular emphasis on “clout goggles,” the much-hyped remakes of Kurt Cobain’s famous white sunglasses, worn by Wiz Khalifa in 2014, then Lil Yachty in 2016, and then resurrected by the designer Christian Roth in 2017. The glasses eventually made their way to Acne Studios and Urban Outfitters, and onto the face of every buzzy young rapper you can name, plus Harry Styles.

Now multiple branding and marketing agencies have taken the word clout as part of their name. The Brooklyn-based production studio Pomp & Clout chose the name because of the “arrogance and swagger it suggested.” Creative director Aaron Vinton says the name was chosen during a free-association doodling exercise (and emailed me the original doodle), and that it predated the company’s involvement in rap videos by a decade.

The “traditional meaning to us is ‘power and influence,’” Ryan Staake, the owner, says, “but in modern times it’s evolved into ‘digital cultural currency.’”

On Twitter, clout has its most specific definition: It often literally mean “retweets,” which can result in new followers. That usage is particularly common in the vernacular of Stan Twitter, where fans accuse one another of using their idols for personal gain. Or they request clout, in the form of retweets, in exchange for some fannish service—making a “cute” Tumblr layout or sharing a good image set. It seems as though it should go without saying that if you like someone’s content, you’ll retweet it, but saying it doesn’t hurt.

Frank requests are usually rewarded, or at least tolerated: “I stood on the toilet for this, gimme clout,” a young woman captioned a recent selfie, in which she’s straining to tilt her face into the natural light of a bathroom window. Pretending a post isn’t for clout (or posting something that someone else doesn’t like and can easily dismiss as “clout-chasing”) is what gets a negative response. All sorts of things can be done “just for clout” in the eyes of a doubting audience: having a boyfriend, joking about self-harm, purporting to understand the term queer-baiting, pretending to be “poor,” claiming that getting a tattoo doesn’t hurt very much, disrespecting Drake, attending a funeral, eating sushi, criticizing Aquarians.

Among the adults that I asked for definitions of clout, most said “social capital,” a term that was coined by the famed French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in 1986. In his landmark essay “The Forms of Capital,” he outlined three categories of capital: economic, cultural, and social. Economic capital is the most tangible, referring to property, money, and other assets. Cultural capital includes all kinds of knowledge-based markers of societal advantage, such as degrees from prestigious universities, the ability to discuss fine arts, a mastery of language—the means of fitting in with the elite. Social capital refers to the value of one’s network, quantified by how much a person’s family, friends, and acquaintances can help them gain access to other forms of capital.

“The volume of the social capital possessed by a given agent thus depends on the size of the network of connections he can effectively mobilize,” Bourdieu wrote. “And on the volume of the capital possessed in his own right by each of those to whom he is connected.”

Social capital is what the much-maligned company Klout set out to measure at the dawn of social media, not so long ago.

Klout launched in 2008, assigning people “scores” based on how influential their Twitter accounts were, then their Twitter accounts and their Facebook accounts, and then also their Flickr and Blogger and Tumblr and WordPress and Last.fm accounts too. When I asked Klout founder Joe Fernandez to define clout, he said, “I think it’s that people listen to you, and people care. That you can, you know, move markets.”

The software attracted $40 million of venture capital in its first four years and sold for $200 million in 2014. Klout made money by helping brands arrange “Klout for Perks” campaigns, which involved sending free products to people with high Klout scores, in hopes that they would post something nice about them. A good Klout score translated into better hotel rooms and discounts on luxury websites and second-round job interviews and a low-boiling panic. What if a low score could ruin your life? And what if the guys who made this app were fools, and everyone claimed to not be taking their version of reality at face value, except everyone actually was?

If this system sounds familiar to you, that’s because Klout created it and now it is The System.

“People took it super personally,” Fernandez said, remembering how furious Klout users became over the slightest tweak of the algorithm. “I think there was something about having a picture of your face with a score next to it that excited some kind of primal instinct. People were so into building the score up that when it went down it was a personal reflection, and for some reason it was even more real to people than if you Googled your name and it fell a couple spots in the ranking.”

There were dozens of anti-Klout think pieces in the site’s early years, decrying it as poorly functioning and borderline inhumane. “The people who checked Klout the most were the journalists writing articles about ‘Hey Klout is really dumb; influence doesn’t matter,’” Fernandez said. “They were signing in every day to check their scores.”

But the people who loved Klout the most were just joking: the eight friends who made up Yung Klout Gang, a collective of internet cool kids who did nothing much but party and tweet in San Francisco, and adopted the name just because it was funny.

“We put it in our bios and it was like a sorority,” founding member Lina Abascal (then a DJ, now a journalist) says. “Let’s say you came across a conversation that was funny between two people and you see they both have #YKG in their bio, and it’s like, what’s that? And I think it sent people down a wormhole. We just really felt, God, I love my friends—we’re so fun; we’re so funny. If people knew, they would want to be our friends too.”

And people did. The group got famous enough to have fan pages on Twitter and Tumblr, and to be called into the MTV office to discuss a reality show (it didn’t work because they were too nice, Abascal says). Been Trill, the streetwear brand founded by Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston, made Yung Klout Gang T-shirts. (YKG did not get a cut of the profits.)

“We would do things like host parties, and get no money, but free alcohol to have our name on the flyer,” Abascal remembers. “We were young and didn’t care. It was really a bizarre moment. We were essentially doing nothing. There was no music, there was no product, no regular event, no media content that we were creating. It wasn’t a podcast or a blog or anything. It was just friends partying and creating fake hype about their regular lives. Hence, clout.”

Now Yung Klout Gang has been replaced: The even younger Clout Gang, a group of YouTubers including FaZe Banks, Alissa Violet, RiceGum, Carrington Durham, and Sommer Ray, announced their affiliation with one another by tweeting out “#cloutgang” at the exact same time in August 2017. They’re even more famous, with individual followings in the millions, and they’re a much better business proposition, formed at a time when nobody influences for free. They live in a mansion, sell their own merch, run ads for major brands (and purported scams), and have estimated net worths in the millions.

Greg Selkoe, the president of the esports team FaZe Clan, with which Clout Gang is affiliated, studied cultural anthropology as an undergraduate and then got a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Cultural shifts, he says, are what get him out of bed in the morning. His definition of clout pre-internet is “the ability to influence, and to do things that others can’t do because of your reputation, money, or power.” Today it’s more simple: Clout is the ability to “get your message across and have it resonate,” and it can be measured in dollars.

“We embody the modern definition of clout,” he says, referring to FaZe Clan. “We have a number of members who have more followers than Tom Brady.” And while NFL fans might remember being high-school football stars while they sit in the bleachers, FaZe Clan fans can all see themselves ascending from their bedrooms one day to game with the best. “That’s why it works.”

When I texted my teenage sister for a definition of clout, she offered the synonyms hype, attention, and fame. Then she clarified: “usually short term.”

Social capital isn’t permanent or indestructible, but it is persistent—certainly not something that typically vanishes within hours and has to be built back up with a fresh stunt or a daily request.

“There was a temporal element to the way we thought about” Klout, Fernandez said. “Your score refreshed every day. People would always check their Klout scores on their birthdays, when their friends were posting on their Facebook walls or whatever.”

In 2019, he argued, “the world needs something like Klout more than ever.” Dynamic, possibly dangerous personalities accrue influence so quickly in today’s algorithms that an objective tool for measuring their impact is more or less essential for preserving democracy. That said, dozens of companies will help brands figure out how influential a person with a large Instagram following or YouTube subscriber base actually is, each using a different proprietary stew of metrics and boasting the truest sense of what’s “real.” Klout was just an ugly prototype with a bad name.

Every time the commercial internet tilts toward capitalist dystopia, there is, of course, still a fistful of reasons to feel okay. In “GOING TO THE CLOUT HOUSE | HE CAME OUT!,” a moving five-minute video made by a lesser-known teenage vlogger and his young sister (they both have spitty orthodontia and encyclopedic knowledge of more famous YouTube personalities), a member of the YouTube group Clout Gang briefly comes out of an enormous house in Los Angeles to accept a Postmates order, sending the video’s host into hysterics. He and his sister yell in shock, trying to explain the momentousness of the moment to some other random teenagers standing nearby (who do not care), then loiter in the presence of clout for several more minutes, pretending to shoot hoops in the Clout Gang’s basketball hoop, without a basketball, and wondering which other members are home. The sister, accepting a dare to walk into the garage, one-ups her brother to his delight by flossing for several seconds in front of it. “Oh no! Nooo!” he yell-laughs into the camera. They have so much fun! Arguably, more fun than they would have had if they actually had clout themselves—a lack that doesn’t seem to particularly bother them. It certainly doesn’t interfere with their day.

Clout is a winking approximation of a key Marxist concept. When kids who believe themselves to be on top of the world use the term, they tip their hand, exposing their deep-seated knowledge of how temporary it all is, and how zero-sum.  

Eulogizing Bourdieu in 2002, the American sociologist Craig Calhoun obliquely apologized for this country’s resistance to many of Bourdieu’s most significant ideas—we do not like to believe in “class”—and complimented his critique of neoliberalism and of “the American model” of it in particular. As an intellectual born into poverty, able to change the course of his life only because of state-funded institutions and a society that prioritized the arts, society itself among them, Bourdieu was repulsed by America’s obsession with a weak, poorly funded state; its devotion to “the spirit of capitalism” and individualism; and its neo-Darwinism, crudely masked with its ethos of self-help and work ethic.

Bourdieu was a rugby player, and often used the game as a metaphor. “When [he] spoke of playing, he spoke of putting oneself on the line,” Calhoun wrote. “Social life is like this, Bourdieu suggested, except that the stakes are bigger. Not just is it always a struggle; it requires constant improvisation.”