Today’s influencer economy can be explained by a 19th century economic theory

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At the end of the 19th century, American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen said that people take their cues about what to consume from the social class immediately above their own. They want things just beyond their reach.

A new paper in the journal Communication, Culture and Critique shows how this theory explains some dynamics of the influencer economy and the rules that govern Instagram. In it, researchers Emily Hund and Lee McGuigan at the University of Pennsylvania investigate the mechanics of “a shoppable life.” The term describes the contemporary phenomenon of influencers marketing their lifestyles, then selling aspects of it, like the beauty products they use or elements of their home’s decor, through nearly seamless technological infrastructure, and the finding that more and more commercial opportunities rise with the way people present themselves and interact with each other.

One influencer told the researchers that a favorite part of her job is getting freebies, like a new set of furniture, from brands that want to be promoted in her channels. “They’re things that I love and never could have afforded on my own, and it’s going to bring a lot of value to the blog, so I’m excited about those just for that reason.”

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