As online fame fragments, ‘nimcels’ represent a growing faction of the attention economy
“Anytime Sioux Falls or even just South Dakota in general comes up in my daily life I immediately go ‘omg that’s Bryce Wollmann’s territory,’ ” tweeted Joey Culoper, a musician and poet from Memphis, who is a fan of Wollmann. “Like, in my mind, Bryce just sits on a throne somewhere up there and rules the whole place.”
Wollmann is not an influencer or professional content creator: He is a niche internet micro celebrity, or “nimcel.” Niche internet micro celebrities are people online who are known to a small but often dedicated group and they represent a growing variant of the attention economy. Online fame is a consequence for a niche internet micro celebrity, never the goal. They rarely make money from their social accounts, choosing instead to post for the fun of it. The term is often used in a tongue-in-cheek way.
TikTok and YouTube stars chasing fame in Hollywood or joining content houses are not niche internet micro celebrities. But a meme account admin, hyper local Twitter personality, founder of a popular Discord server or random guy who has gone viral for being repeatedly featured on a popular Instagram account would be.
“If you’re a niche internet micro celebrity, you’re more of an everyday person who has a little bit of a following,” Wollmann said. “I’m just being myself and catering to what I think is funny or cool, and a small group of people also think it’s funny. I don’t feel like I have to be selling a product or pushing something.”
The term niche internet micro celebrity first emerged on Instagram meme pages last spring. Since then, it has seeped into broader culture as an effective shorthand for describing a new type of online fame or notoriety and signifying a shift in how people think about internet-driven influence.
“If the internet was high school, these are the most notable kids in class,” said Ena Da, a Brooklyn-based niche internet micro celebrity who goes by @Park_Slope_Arsonist and is known for her humorous meme edits on Instagram.
While influencers use their online followings to make money, “for a niche internet micro celebrity, the goal is purely to entertain, versus an influencer,” said Da. “I think this term emerged to distinguish people doing a similar thing to influencers, but for completely different motivations. Being a niche internet micro celebrity feels less capitalist, less ‘I’m a brand.’ ”
When Lauren Schiller, 25, and Angela Ruis, 27, two digital creators in Los Angeles, decided to launch their online clothing brand OGBFF last year, their first collection included a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “niche internet micro celebrity.” “Especially on apps like TikTok, everyone is a celebrity in their own right,” said Schiller. “The way we vlog our lives and act like influencers online, as if our audience is dying to see our new lip liner routine or whatever.”
Schiller and Ruis said there was a crucial, carefree element to becoming a niche internet micro celebrity. “Niche internet micro celebrities don’t use a ring light and probably don’t wipe off their camera before recording,” said Ruis. “Their curation of their content isn’t as intense.”
For years people have struggled to label those who wield attention on the internet. Throughout the aughts, individuals with fandoms on platforms like Myspace or Tumblr were called everything from “fameballs” to “CeWebritys” to “internet stars.” Next New Networks, an early YouTube multi channel network, first pioneered the term “creator” as shorthand for the burgeoning class of people finding fame and making a living off YouTube, which the company had previously called “partners.”
“These people were more than on-screen talent,” Tim Shey, co-founder of Next New Networks told the Atlantic. “They could write, edit, produce, do community management and were entrepreneurs.”
Because the term “creator” was so synonymous with YouTube, for years people still didn’t know what to call those who were gaining attention on other apps. Platform-specific names like “vine star,” “tumblr famous” or “bloglebrity” took hold temporarily, but when marketing dollars began to flood the industry in the mid-2010s, marketing execs ushered in a term from their own world: influencer.
The term influencer was platform-agnostic and described the growing and amorphous power that came with online fame. In 2020, when Silicon Valley finally began to take the online creator industry seriously, things flipped again, and the term influencer was replaced with its progenitor: creator.
As the pandemic pushed more people to socialize digitally, a greater number of online personalities rose to prominence. The rise of TikTok, which often skyrockets previously unknown people to notoriety, compounded the shift, giving birth to the niche internet micro celebrity.
“Fame is niche now,” said Evan Britton, founder and CEO of Famous Birthdays, a database of well-known people on the internet. Fame has a different definition now than it did pre-internet, he argued. “It’s more community-specific. I don’t think [niche internet micro celebrities] see themselves as famous or as a VidCon star, but in their niche community they would be.”
The death of internet monoculture and rise of the niche internet micro celebrity could be seen at this year’s VidCon, an annual convention for online video stars. While it was once possible to gather all of the internet’s top personalities into a single convention, the landscape is now too wide and disjointed. At VidCon, with audiences split among an ever-growing pool of millions of content creators, some of the creators found the lines of fans wanting to greet them unexpectedly short.
Alyssa McDevitt, 25, a software engineer in New York, became a niche internet micro celebrity by briefly moderating a meme group on Facebook for young people in tech. People began to know her, and she developed a cult following for her witty comments and replies in the group. “I don’t think I realized I became a niche internet micro celebrity until I started going out and doing basic things,” she said. “If I was in a relatively larger city or a hackathon people would come up to me like, ‘Omg! you’re Alyssa!’ They’d ask for selfies and I’d embrace it, like, ‘Yeah I’m Alyssa.’ ”
Niche internet micro celebrities can be born on any platform, and even through specific features on those platforms. TikTok and Instagram mint them most regularly, but they also emerge consistently on YouTube, Twitter or Twitch.
There are upsides and downsides to becoming a nimcel. Some use their micro fame to launch careers as full-fledged influencers. Others build out their connections and parlay their notoriety into a new job opportunity or for local perks. Wollmann has garnered 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 in between a private citizen and a full-blown influencer, you get to appreciate both those things,” McDevitt said. “You’re well-liked and certain people know you and people are nice to you, but you aren’t invited to the more glitzy and glamorous things like the Met ball.”
Mackenzie Thomas, 23, a niche internet micro celebrity in Los Angeles known for her fashion aesthetic, said there are downsides to this particular type of notoriety. “There’s no glamour to the niche,” she said. “We all work s— jobs or are unemployed. I make $3 a month from TikTok.”
George: she said she’s a “niche internet micro celebrity”
Jerry: so that’s… what, her job? the internet?
George: no that’s the whole thing Jerry – she doesn’t have a job
— eric curtin (@_ericcurtin) August 5, 2022
The lack of money and access unites the niche internet micro celebrity landscape. “They’re not rich, and probably it’s not their main gig,” said Alex Peter, 30, a lawyer who has become a niche internet micro celebrity in New York.
While being a niche internet micro celebrity doesn’t come with all the trappings of influencer-dom, the term fits the way many people online like to be described.
“I would consider myself a niche internet micro celebrity,” said Da. “It’s the perfect amount of self-deprecation but also a great self identifier,” said Thomas. “It’s the best umbrella term for what so many people do on the internet. There’s an edginess to it. It’s a title you can give someone who has a cultural impact on a small subsection of people who are more internet-literate and more online.”
Many niche internet micro celebrities said that to embody the term you have to have lore and a backstory that followers can reference, whether it’s moments you’ve gone viral or a library of iconic posts. “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 were insane if you mentioned it as some sort of cultural reference point.”
However, if you try too hard or become too popular, you’re no longer a nimcel. “Anyone who creates content with the intent to blow up and become mainstream,” Thomas said, “are not niche internet micro celebrities.”
For the time being Wollmann and his niche internet micro celebrity peers are comfortable operating below the surface of mainstream fame, able to have fun online in a way that only one with a smaller audience can.
“Sometimes I get in the mood like, what if I expand my brand more, and grow beyond being a niche internet micro celebrity into a full-blown influencer,” said McDevitt. “Then I see some of the stuff they have to deal with, with stalking and harassment and I’m kind of grateful I’m at this moderate level.”
“It’s fun to be a part of this wave,” said Peter. “Whatever it is, I think some people think it’s the decline of society, and maybe they’re right. But, it’s interesting.”