Politicians, actors, and musicians all seem to possess a rare gift — to hold the spotlight by maintaining a certain level of mass appeal while dazzling us with their talents. So it’s no real surprise that Ellen DeGeneres, while hosting the Academy Awards, became the most retweeted person ever (surpassing President Barack Obama) thanks to her celebrity-filled selfie. But an entire generation of nobodies has emerged as legit stars and are influencing the lives of millions in unprecedented ways. Just don’t bank on knowing their names.
Thanks to social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr, they’ve become our 21st-century pop culture gurus. At the age of 25, Tyler Oakley represents this new crop of savvy users who moved beyond the one-hit wonder world of the viral Internet (like Chris Crocker, the “Leave Britney Alone” guy) into the marketable world of sustainable online personality. As creators or curators of what’s cool in the larger world of pop culture and politics, Oakley and others are not just memes — they are shaping them as well.
Oakley started making YouTube videos as a college freshman, and quickly built a brand around his boyish appeal and ability to keep a pulse on what’s relevant to his followers. With more than 2 million Twitter followers, he exceeds larger celebrity brands like RuPaul (456K) and Andy Cohen (1.34M) and sits closely behind MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow (2.84M). Now, personalities like Lindsay Lohan tweet at him for publicity and relevance. (Hey, someone has to be interested in her latest comeback.) And he can unite his army of followers behind a certain issue or cause because he has a vested interest.
Anthony Quintal (a.k.a. Lohanthony) has amassed more than 41 million views on YouTube, at age 14; T. Kyle MacMahon has built a Tumblr brand around making animated GIFs of reality TV shows; and Ryan James Yezak — who brands himself as a content creator — regularly produces popular parodies of singers like Katy Perry that would make a pop star proud. It’s not all just what goes pop, however; most of these Internet power brokers wield their influence to issues close to their hearts. Persuade them to start a Twitter frenzy, and suddenly something goes from a blip to a sensation. How soon before they topple the stars themselves and become our cultural barometers is anyone’s guess.
Image credits: Jason Merritt/Getty Images (Oakley). Instagram (Macmahon). Jason Kempin/Getty Images (Yezak). Kevin Winter/Getty Images (Quintal)