‘Amassing the middle class of famous people can give you more reach than Kim Kardashian’ – Alain Sylvain

The growth of platforms such as Instagram have created a new ‘middle class’ of famous people online, according to Sylvain Labs founder Alain Sylvain. One year on from the release of the company’s ‘Instafame’ documentary, we caught up with Sylvain to discuss how social media is changing human connection, and how brands can tap into that.

What were the motivations behind ‘Instafame’?

A team in the company noticed this trend of young boys – 15 to 18 year olds – with hundreds of thousands of followers, in some cases millions of followers. And basically they didn’t really do anything specific that you could point to. Thousands and thousands of likes were being generated for cute boys just looking at the camera kind of sheepishly. We found this massive amount of adoration for boys – it was really just boys we saw this happening with. We wondered what impact does that have on the kids’ self perception and personal development, because that sort of feedback loop, where everything you put out into the world is rewarded with affection, must have some sort of impact.

We’re amateur psychologists but we know it’s important to go through childhood with moments of ups and moments of downs. You know, moments of feeling isolation helps to form our fuller social consciousness and when your social life exists online and so much of their life is praised, what does that do? That’s the fundamental question that drove the documentary, so we interviewed psychologists and experts on fame and we followed Shawn Megira, a 15-year-old with 81,000 Instagram followers at the time.

Why are people becoming famous overnight for doing normal things on social media?

In terms of social development it’s important to form bonds over common interests, so girls will like the same guy not because of the guy but because it forms bonds between girls. I don’t think it’s genuine fame, because it’s really about connected bonding ­– it’s a sense of belonging among the people. The threshold is also incredibly low and I think that really lends itself to the ease with which young kids can become famous.

How do you see that developing with brands?

I think there is a ‘middle class’ of fame now, people who are not like you and me who have a few hundred followers, for example, or Kim Kardashian with millions of followers. There’s this kind of middle class that has 100k followers or so, and that middle class is growing tremendously. The one question we have at Sylvain Labs is, if you could amass all these kind of middle class famous people, could they give you more reach than Kim Kardashian, a true superstar, could? And that, I think, is an opportunity for brands. Some are already doing that.

I still think there’s a way to go for brands to truly understand how to tap into audiences. I think the challenge for brands is to become more fluent and familiar with the codes of that sort of communication. There’s a secret language, a secret understanding between these people, that brands can’t fake.

Do you feel that young people are losing out on real connections because of social media?

I think they’re losing out on some sort of social connection but I also believe they’re gaining a different sort of social understanding that, pre-social media, didn’t exist. They’re losing some of those tactile social connections, but they’re gaining more because they’re gaining a window to the lives of more people through their mobile devices. They’re gaining a sense of empathy sooner and I think it’s a different sort of social intelligence, forming connections with people that they normally wouldn’t connect with.

Katie McQuater

As magazine editor at The Drum, I edit the monthly print edition of the magazine as well as commissioning and writing features for the publication.

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