As a journalist I'm often confused – and even somewhat disgruntled – by the sway and appeal of influencers.
Be it someone who's found fame on YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat or Instagram, it’s always been a bit perplexing to me and hard to understand the attention they command – from lay followers and well-heeled brands. It's no longer unusual for an event, product launch, restaurant opening or even the somewhat ironically termed "press" trip to have more influencers in attendance than mainstream journalists.
One way to tell the difference? The number of selfies the former take.
Or so I firmly believed before boarding a yacht chock-full of social media influencers, who were invited – and even brought in from the UK and farther afield – to celebrate the return of the NBA Games in Abu Dhabi.
I had no idea this was going to be the case when I received an invitation to attend with a plus-one. As a fan of the sport, I couldn’t say no.
Upon boarding the large boat docked on Yas Bay waterfront, my friend and I were asked to take off our shoes and put on disposable NBA-branded slippers before entering – an early sign of what was to come, as I set sail into a world with which I was entirely unfamiliar.
After being greeted with welcome drinks, we made our way through the lower level of the yacht. Immediately, my friend spotted an influencer who (upon last checking) has more than six million followers on Instagram.
The person was wearing their trademark dark sunglasses, plus chain necklaces and a white T-shirt – nothing unusual except for the shades, given it was 9pm. While I had no reaction to this person because I didn’t know who they were, my friend – also a journalist – was impressed and familiar enough to take a photo with them.
As more people boarded, it dawned upon us we were among only a few journalists on a boat filled mostly with celebrities – from the world of sport, pop culture and social media alike.
Upstairs, we came upon former NBA players and a former Manchester United football star who had his own private security guard with him. Also hanging about was a member of an uber-popular 2000s boy band, who was getting small bites from the snack area.
I won’t lie, it was an intimidating experience. While I have interviewed actors, musicians and athletes in my career, to be around them in such a casual setting felt a little strange.
While my friend and I initially joked about just how out of place we felt, when we started talking to the others around us, it was not only easy, but also entertaining, informative and memorable.
Perhaps asking if someone is famous or what they are famous for isn’t the most gracious way to approach them, but it is a good conversation starter, and on the boat that night, the answer was more likely yes than no.
We met mostly influencers from the UK (although there were some regional ones, too) who had been invited to check out Abu Dhabi as well as attend the NBA Games. Although they all had different ranges of followers on different platforms – some with more a million – everyone who chatted to us had something in common: they were nice and surprisingly down to earth.
I chatted with one influencer, who is known for his amusing content, about what it would take for me to become a so-called "cat influencer". He was very sincere in offering tips on how to work towards that goal and even inspirational at times, when he spoke about his own early days on social media and working hard to find and hold on to his audience.
We met another influencer who was very friendly with an infectious smile. It felt like catching up with an old friend. He modestly, and not insincerely, claimed not to be famous, but said that his friend, who appeared on a season of Love Island and had more than a million followers, was "the real famous one”. He helped build up our confidence for the night saying it didn't matter that we didn't have a huge social media following, instead calling us the "real influencers".
The boat ride was about three hours long and, for a little bit, we got to experience what it is like to be in the influencer-sphere. While we didn’t have our phones out as much or take nearly as many selfies, we did genuinely have a good time.
I may never fully understand the appeal of influencers, but I left the yacht with a new takeaway, one that aligns with the objectivity journalists ought to show: maybe they're not so bad, after all.