It started with a tweet about Trump. Muthoni, a retail worker in Ontario, tweeted her observation — that it was truly hilarious that TikTok could ban Donald Trump before he banned it — just a few days after the insurrection at the US Capitol, when seemingly every social media site was blocking the then-president.
Within a few hours, the tweet had gone viral, circulating on Reddit and climbing to upward of 100,000 “Likes.” Then something else happened: Brands started offering her money to promote their products. Companies that sold tea tree oil face masks, vibrators, workout programs, fluffy pillows, reversible cushions shaped like octopuses, and a night light that supposedly made your room look like an ocean or outer space all DMed her with offers to post the link underneath her viral tweet, each offering between $40 and $50.
“It was pretty cool! I think I made around $140 altogether,” she tells me. “It wasn’t a tweet I thought much about, let alone expected it to blow up, so I didn’t care much about what others thought about me posting promotions.”
What was once the province of tweets that said something to the effect of “Wow, this blew up!” or “While you’re here, follow me on Instagram!” or the classic, “Anyway, here’s my Soundcloud” is now a space largely devoted to selling cheap products. It’s become one of those weird quirks of being online over the past year or so, a sort of annoying but also sort of endearing novelty, allowing us to collectively ask questions like, “Who the hell is buying this stuff?”
Since social media has existed, people have found ways to profit from it. The earliest and most fervent adopters ascended to become what would be later called influencers, while platforms eventually discovered that if they wanted people to stay there and build audiences, they had to foster an environment where moneymaking was possible. As the tide rises and more people than ever have built minor or midsize followings, the line between influencer and regular person continues to blur. So if there’s so much money in influencing, why shouldn’t regular folks make some of it, too?
Muthoni, who is being referred to by her first name only to protect her privacy, is just one of the increasingly large number of people who have gone viral and been immediately inundated with DMs to PayPal them to add a link in a follow-up to their tweets. (There’s a YouTube version of this, too, when you add a bunch of links to products that pop up on a video with a ton of views.) As you might have guessed, most of the companies that choose to market this way aren’t exactly the most legitimate; Muthoni says she was already worried about accidentally promoting a scam when she decided to return the money to one company because they seemed to use deceptive advertising.
And their practices aren’t always clear: The ocean galaxy light, for instance, costs $50 from the aptly named OceanGalaxyLight, but nearly identical versions are available for less than half that on AliExpress. The company could theoretically be a dropshipping operation, or buying cheap products from online marketplaces and repackaging them (OceanGalaxyLight did not respond to a request for comment).
It’s a practice — one that I’m (lovingly) going to refer to as “clout mining” — that’s become so standard that one OceanGalaxyLight employee told Bloomberg his job used to involve him looking around for viral tweets in which to embed his links, and now Twitter users know to come to him. A single link, he said, typically results in three or four orders, and last July the company made around $7,000 to $8,000 from Twitter alone.
Overall, clout mining might seem like a pretty symbiotic relationship — the company gets cheap advertising, you get a couple bucks — until you dig into how much money is potentially left on the table. It’s difficult to gauge what social media impressions are worth, exactly, but anyone with knowledge of the field will tell you that $50 for a post is far too little. Joe Gagliese, co-founder and CEO of the influencer marketing and management company Viral Nation, has seen it a million times: “In the grand scheme of things, that’s not going to retire anybody. It’s just a cutesy little way to benefit from the viral spike.”
Twitter isn’t where the real money is, though. That remains in visual-first (and brand-friendlier) platforms like Instagram and TikTok. On TikTok, whose algorithm has an unparalleled ability to make videos from random accounts with few followers go viral overnight, countless people have experienced the thrill (and the terror) of waking up to a million views or more. It’s a common joke on the app to feel as though once you’ve had a single viral hit, it’s time to move to Los Angeles.
As often as brands reach out to the creators of viral videos, so too do the growing number of talent and influencer management companies. At best, hiring a manager will help guide people to a legitimate and lucrative career and avoid being taken advantage of by brands, and at worst, it could mean being taken advantage of by the managers themselves.
“It’s become a little bit predatory,” Gagliese says. “I met an influencer through our talent agency who was on a 70/30 management company deal, with the management company taking 70 [percent]. They think, ‘Holy shit, I’m gonna make, like, $10,000 and I haven’t made $10,000 in the last six months.’” Rates vary, but influencer managers across the board generally agree that 10 percent or lower is a fair commission.
“The worst mistake I see influencers make when they get that viral bump is they start taking on any offer that they’re given,” Gagliese says. “They go from having something so valuable, then all of a sudden, they’re doing deals with Fashion Nova, with flat tummy teas, teeth whitening, all these shitty deals that are 500 bucks, 1,000 bucks, 2,000 bucks.” Greedy managers can sometimes also encourage aspiring influencers to take those smaller deals because ultimately they, too, are hoping to cash out quickly.
These days, Gagliese fields 25 to 50 emails every day from content creators who’ve gone viral hoping for representation. “The rate at which people are going viral is changed. The industry is becoming so big that now these little viral sensations happen all the time.”
Attempting to turn one-hit wonders into viable careers is the bread and butter for some management companies. Gina Rodriguez, the founder of the production and management company Gitoni, has over the course of her career worked with some of the tabloids’ favorite targets, from Stormy Daniels to “Octomom,” but these days she’s more focused on social media soon-to-be stars. “If it’s done correctly, they could make anywhere from $300,000 to a million dollars in a very short period of time — like, three to six months,” Rodriguez says. “When this happens, every company wants to be a part of it and ride the viral wave.”
Her two biggest TikTok hits so far have included Nathan Apodaca, the skateboarder who sipped Ocean Spray to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” and Tessica Brown, the woman whose journey to remove the Gorilla Glue from her hair made national headlines. Apodaca, Rodriguez says, has made close to $1 million from sponsorship deals and merch since his viral video in late September. Brown’s fame is more recent, but Rodriguez says they’re currently working on a line of lashes, as well as a glue removal product with the doctor who performed her surgery, and are discussing a potential TV show centered on Brown’s extended family in Louisiana. The strategy isn’t dissimilar to the way reality TV stars have learned that the real money comes not from being on the show but from the businesses they launch after stardom.
As more people say they want to become professional influencers and are succeeding at it, the general populace has become more educated on the business aspect of the profession (people might buy flat tummy teas, but does anyone really think that’s how Kylie Jenner stays thin?). Yet it’s still easy for folks who stumble upon overnight fame to be exploited since, more often than not, they have zero background in the business. There is, as of yet, no standardization of influencer rates for affiliate links and sponsored posts, and the grounds are even blurrier for minors given the lack of influencer-specific child labor laws.
While making a few hundred bucks off of a viral video might be nice, the real American dream is turning that into a few million. Of course, that isn’t likely to be the case for most. Muthoni, whose Trump tweet went viral, said it was her first time posting affiliate links, but “I wouldn’t mind doing more in the future. Getting money from something I don’t at all consider [labor] definitely helps life at home.”
Someone pay me to advertise galaxy lights, goddammit!— Eliza Skinner (@elizaskinner) February 16, 2021
As Heather Schwedel wrote for Slate in 2018, before TikTok existed in the US and nobody was paying for viral tweets, “Users are increasingly frustrated there’s not more, or really any, money in going viral.” For the most part, that’s still true, but it’s changing as social media sites compete against newer platforms like OnlyFans, Discord, Substack, or Clubhouse for attention. To do so, they’re experimenting with new ways of keeping them there: Twitter, for instance, is launching a “super follow” feature in which people can subscribe to an individual user’s paywalled tweets for $4.99 per month; TikTok pays its users based on viewership using money from its Creator Fund (creators must go through an approval process). The livestreaming world has also long encouraged “tipping” influencers, as a way to “wrest back some of the power from the platforms” as Cornell communications professor Brooke Erin Duffy recently told my colleague Terry Nguyen.
But for better or for worse, making money off virality is still largely in the hands of the creators to make happen. That people should profit from their own online content seems to have become a more widely expressed idea these days thanks to a greater understanding of how internet companies profit off us. People already add their Venmo or PayPal to their social media bios; they make public their Amazon Wish Lists. Rather than viewing this as a harbinger of a dystopian future where every human interaction is subject to monetization, perhaps it’s instead a signal to the handful of companies that control the internet: When we say “fuck you, pay me,” we actually mean it.