The influencer economy: online ranking systems are a purveyor of inequality

To the victor the spoils. 

This well-known phrase might be thought to relate to the recent Olympics. Except that it is not a really accurate description of the Games themselves.

True, the gold medallist gains more kudos than the silver or bronze. But at future athletics meets, for example, all three can expect an increase in the amounts of monies the organisers will offer to tempt them to appear. The winner does not sweep the board.

The American media downplay the distinctions even more. Their medal tables are based upon a simple count of all three, rather than ranking countries by the number of golds.  

As it happens, the United States topped the table on both ways of counting. This was thanks to a surge in golds on the very last day, America having trailed China on golds almost throughout the competition.

Rewards are typically much more concentrated on the internet. There are of course many more “players” in any particular market on the web than there are runners in an Olympic final. But even so, an overwhelming proportion of total sales goes to a very small number of participants.

A fascinating illustration was recently provided in an article in the Guardian newspaper about the Only Fans website.

Amongst a few bands and comedians here and there, the site is dominated by women (though there do seem to be a few men) posting photos of themselves in various stages of undress to which only subscribers to the offer of any given individual get access.

During the pandemic, demand for the service seems to have boomed. In November 2019 there were an estimated 7.5 million subscribers worldwide. A year later, the number had swelled more than ten-fold to 85 million.

Ranking systems pervade the internet. Only Fans is no exception, and direct feedback is given by customers on the perceived merits of the suppliers.

This has led to a gross inequality of outcomes in the rewards of the providers. The principle of feedback means that even if one supplier has gained only a slight advantage over another, customers become much more likely to choose the one which is ahead.

As the Guardian puts it “established influencers and celebrities can make incredible money”. But at least 98 per cent of those offering services barely, and indeed often do not, make enough money to live on.

The Google search algorithm gives rise to a very similar outcome. Well over 90 per cent of all clicks are on the first three sites which come up, with at least 60 per cent being on the first, even if the query generates hundreds of thousands of potential sites.

It is a delicious irony that the medium of the internet, beloved of the liberal left, is a major driver of inequality.

Paul Ormerod
As published in City AM Wednesday 13th August 2021
Image: Pxfuel

Share this post



t: +44 020 8878 6333

Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.