“Any time Sioux Falls, or even just South Dakota in general, pops up in my day-to-day life, I immediately think ‘omg, this is Bryce Wollmann’s territory.'” tweeted Joey Culoper, a Memphis musician and poet who is a fan of Wollmann. “To me, Bryce just sits on a throne somewhere up there and rules the whole place.”
Wollmann isn’t an influencer or a professional content creator: he’s a niche internet microcelebrity, or “Nimcel.” Niche internet microstars are people on the internet known to a small but often engaged group, and they represent a growing flavor of the attention economy. Online fame is a consequence for a niche internet microcelebrity, never the goal. They rarely make money from their social accounts and instead post for fun. The term is often used in a tongue-in-cheek way.
TikTok and YouTube stars chasing Hollywood fame or joining content houses are not niche internet microstars. But a meme account admin, a hyperlocal Twitter personality, the founder of a popular Discord server, or some random guy who went viral for being repeatedly featured on a popular Instagram account, that would be.
“If you’re a niche internet microstar, you’re more of an ordinary person who has a small following,” Wollmann said. “I’m just being myself and going about what I find funny or cool, and a small group of people find it funny too. I don’t feel like I have to sell a product or push anything.”
The term “niche internet microcelebrity” first appeared on Instagram meme pages last spring. It has since permeated broader culture as an effective shorthand to describe a new kind of online fame or notoriety and to indicate a shift in how people think about internet-driven influence.
“If the internet was high school, they would be the most notable kids in the class,” said Ena Da, a Brooklyn Nimcel known by @Park_Slope_Arsonist and known for her humorous meme edits on Instagram.
While influencers use their online followers to make money, “the goal for a niche internet microstar is purely to entertain, as opposed to an influencer,” Da said. “I think this term came about to differentiate people who are doing something similar to influencers, but for completely different motivations. Being a niche internet microstar feels less capitalist, less “I’m a brand”. ”
When Lauren Schiller, 25, and Angela Ruis, 27, two digital creatives from Los Angeles, decided last year to launch their online clothing brand OGBFF, their first collection featured a T-shirt that read “niche internet micro-celebrity”. “Especially with apps like TikTok, everyone is a celebrity in their own right,” says Schiller. “The way we vlog our lives and act like influencers online, like our audience is dying to see our new lip liner routine or whatever.”
Schiller and Ruis said there’s a crucial, carefree element to becoming a niche internet microstar. “Niche internet microstars don’t use a ring light and probably don’t wipe their cameras before taking a picture,” Ruis said. “Their curating of their content isn’t that intense.”
For years, people have struggled to label those who draw attention online. Over time, people with fan bases have been called everything from “fameballs” to “cewebritys” to “internet stars” on platforms like Myspace or Tumblr. Next New Networks, an early YouTube multi-channel network, introduced the term “creator” as shorthand for the emerging class of people who found fame and made a living off YouTube, whom the company had previously called “partners.”
“These guys were more than just screen talent,” Tim Shey, co-founder of Next New Networks, told The Atlantic. “They could write, edit, produce, do community management, and were entrepreneurs.”
For years, because the term “creator” was so synonymous with YouTube, people didn’t know what to call those who took notice of other apps. Platform-specific names like “Vine Star,” “Tumblr Famous,” or “Bloglebrity” temporarily caught on, but as marketing dollars began to flood the industry in the mid-2010s, marketing execs introduced an industry term: influencer.
The term influencer was platform agnostic and described the growing and amorphous power that came with online fame. In 2020, when Silicon Valley was finally starting to take the online creator industry seriously, things turned around again and the term influencer was replaced with its ancestor: creator.
As the pandemic prompted more people to socialize digitally, a greater number of online personalities became more relevant. The rise of TikTok, which often skyrockets previously unknown people, amplified the shift and birthed the niche internet microcelebrity.
“Fame is a niche now,” said Evan Britton, founder and CEO of Famous Birthdays, an online celebrity database. Fame has a different definition today than it did before the internet, he argued. “It’s more community specific. I do not think so [niche internet micro celebrities] see themselves as famous or as a vidcon star, but in their niche community they would be.”
The death of the internet monoculture and the rise of the niche internet microcelebrity were on display at this year’s VidCon, an annual conference for online video stars. While it used to be possible to gather all of the internet’s top content creators and personalities into a single convention, the landscape is now too vast and disjointed. At VidCon, where the audience was divided among an ever-growing pool of millions of content creators, many of the creators found the queues of fans looking to greet them unexpectedly short.
Alyssa McDevitt, 25, a software engineer in New York, became a niche Internet microcelebrity by briefly hosting a meme group on Facebook for young engineers. People started to know her and she developed a cult following for her witty comments and replies in the group. “I didn’t think I realized I was becoming a niche internet microcelebrity until I started going out and doing basic things,” she said. “If I was in a relatively bigger city or at a hackathon, people would come up to me and say, ‘omg! you are Alyssa!’ They asked for selfies and I greeted them with “Yes, I’m Alyssa”. ”
Niche internet microstars can be born on any platform and even through specific features on those platforms. TikTok and Instagram are the most common, but they also appear regularly on YouTube, Twitter or Twitch.
There are pros and cons to becoming a Nimcel. Some use their micro-fame to launch careers as full-fledged influencers. Others expand their connections and leverage their exposure for a new job opportunity or local perks. Wollmann has been collecting free drinks, and the mayor of Sioux Falls even declared him the “unofficial mayor” at a Dave & Buster’s last month.
“You’re kind of a mix of a private person and a full-fledged influencer, you learn to appreciate both,” McDevitt said. “You’re very popular and certain people know you and people are nice to you, but you don’t get invited to the more glitzy and glamorous things like the Met Ball.”
Mackenzie Thomas, 23, a Nimcel in Los Angeles known for her fashion aesthetic, said that particular kind of fame comes with downsides. “There’s no glamor in the niche,” she said. “We all work in S—jobs or are unemployed. I make $3 a month on TikTok.”
George: She said she was a ‘niche internet micro-celebrity’
Jerry: So this is… what, your job? the Internet?
George: No, that’s all, Jerry – she doesn’t have a job
— Eric Curtin (@_ericcurtin) August 5, 2022
The lack of money and access unifies the niche landscape of internet microstars. “They’re not rich, and it probably isn’t their main occupation,” said Alex Peter, 30, a lawyer who’s become a niche Internet microcelebrity in New York.
While a niche internet microstar doesn’t come with all the trappings of influencer dominance, the term fits how many people on the internet like to describe it.
“I would describe myself as a niche internet microcelebrity,” Da said. “It’s the perfect amount of self-mockery, but also a great self-identifier,” Thomas said. “It’s the best umbrella term for what so many people do on the internet. There’s a certain edginess to it, it’s a title to give to someone who has a cultural impact on a small subset of people who are more internet savvy and more online.”
Many niche internet microstars have said that to embody the term, you have to have lore and a backstory that followers can relate to, whether it’s moments where you went viral or one Library with iconic contributions. “There has to be a subculture associated with the person,” said Peter, “a running gag or inside joke among followers that the vast majority of people would have no idea about and would think you crazy if you did.” as a kind of cultural reference point.”
However, if you try too hard or become too popular, you are no longer a Nimcel. “Anyone who creates content with the intention of exploding and going mainstream,” Thomas said, “is not a niche internet microstar.”
For now, Wollmann and his niche internet microstar colleagues are operating comfortably below the surface of mainstream fame and are able to have fun online in a way only someone with a smaller audience can. “Sometimes I’m in the mood, what if I continue to build my brand and evolve from a niche internet microcelebrity to a full blown influencer,” McDevitt said. “Then I see some of the things that they have to deal with, with stalking and harassment, and I’m kind of grateful that I’m at that moderate level.”
“It’s fun to be part of this wave,” said Peter. “Whatever it is, I think some people think it’s the downfall of society, and maybe they’re right. But it’s interesting.”