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The REAL “Influence” Synonym, Explained in Happy Place Pics

“Do you consider yourself an ‘Influencer?'”

My former student, Savannah, popped this awkward question as we swung open the doors to “Happy Place,” the surreal pop-up photography playground that zinged into Boston this month. Oh my! My mind raced through each synonym for influencer: trendsetter, leader, motivator, inspirer, evangelist, Instagrammer, content creator… yikes.

Rubber ducky walls and yellow bathtub with balls at Happy Place
Where can you play in a rubber ducky room?

“Um…” I stalled, grappling for an appropriately inspiring answer and influence synonym to explain why I had been invited to tour and photograph the space, and allowed to bring guests with me. (I’d brought Savannah, plus my friend Rusha, as they have the most luminous smiles around, and would perfectly complement a photo shoot about happiness.).

Depending which synonym one uses for the word “influence” or “influencer,” the label is either a wonderful thing… or hubristic and horrid! What does it mean, anyway? Allow this English teacher to walk you through it, accompanied by psychedelic images from our Happy Place tour.

Jumping for joy at the photo playground pop-up of Happy Place!
Jumping for joy at the photo playground pop-up of Happy Place!

Power and Clout: Positive “Influence” Synonyms

Ultimately, a synonym for influence is power. Influence can be wielded in a soft or hard way, but if you’re actually an “influencer” in the functional sense, you demonstrate power to lead others to do or think something.

Parents, friends, and teachers are our most fundamental influencers, though when we visualize “influence,” our minds tend to first flit to celebrities, ads, and social media stars.

Happy Place: Sitting on a giant red lips couch with lipstick kisses on the wall.
Me sitting on a giant red lips couch…

Who Actually Shapes Us?

It would be fascinating to calculate an accurate pie chart of which percentage of you was actually shaped by whom. My guess is that parents or guardians would make up the most sizable chunk, with friends close behind, then teachers, colleagues, and various other humans. (Of course, experiences and genetic predispositions play major roles, but let’s focus for this experiment on people-type influence.)

In this pie chart of actual influencers in life, I’d guess that only a teensy, tiny sliver at the bottom would be the slice representing the impact of celebrity or self-declared “influencers” on who we are and what we do.

This is a reassuring thought to remember when pondering the concept! While it may be fun to dabble in the online world of social media influence, being a public school teacher gets the job done darn deeper, eh?

Influencer synonym question, and a color pop of delight in the Happy Place candy room!
A color pop of delight in the Happy Place candy room.

Domination and Pressure: Bad “Influence” Synonyms

So where does influence and influencing become nasty? There’s an obvious response, but there also exists a subtle and insidious answer to this. For the obvious: We all know of the classic “bad influence” archetype: the person who pressures us to do unwise, unhealthy, or naughty things.

We also know of the term “under the influence,” which often refers to inebriation or brainwashing to the extent that our minds aren’t working logically. Being under the influence leads to choices that are… insert “Thpppttt” tongue raspberry here.

I loved playing in the sparkly confetti, and it matched my dress!
I loved playing in the sparkly rainbow confetti, and it matched my dress!

Negative Influence by Ignorance

Beyond the obvious forms of bad influences, what are the subtle other ways to see a sad synonym for “influence?” First, there is the person who has power and influence who thinks they are using it for good, but actually misses key information about why what they’re advocating for is destructive.

A classic example in the travel influencer world is around using children from a different country and culture as photography props.

Picking up a random child of another skin tone for a picture opportunity may be seen by the photo creator as advocating global harmony and togetherness, but often these moments are captured without the consent of the child or their parent or guardian. The message this unwittingly sends is that people who look different than us can be treated as inanimate accessories. 

Upside down room optical illusion at Happy Place on an influencer tour
Whoa! How did Rusha stick to the ceiling? Hehe…

Consent and Compensation in Photography

Further, it is often not communicated to the children or their families that profit may arise from such images — though not every unknowing model ends up on a billboard without their knowledge! — and that the models will receive no compensation for lending their faces and bodies to art.

Note: All models in this here photo shoot consented to be pictured, and received admission into Happy Place, plus high-resolution images for their own use. Ethics and fairness are very much on my mind here, after a decade of thinking this through… though I certainly have made mistakes in the past.

As with all mistakes, what there is to do after an influencer of any size has messed up, is to apologize, clean up messes from the impact as best as possible, and proactively alter behavior for the better.

Good times never seemed so good wall sign at Happy Place Boston
“Good times never seemed so good!”

Also Bad: Influencer-Audience Disconnect

Another reason why “influencer” has gained a negative connotation is an increasing awareness of the disconnect that exists between goo-gobs of supposed or self-declared influencers and their audiences.

In one clump, we have social media stars with millions of followers who have actually bought a fake audience. It’s fairly easy nowadays to pay certain people money to magically get tons of new followers and likes, but it is highly inadvisable for all the reasons listed here

Unicorn at Happy Place Boston influencer tour
Posing with the unicorn by creating a horn with my arm…

Yelling When No One Wants to Listen

The other form of audience-“influencer” disconnect is when something thinks they are an influencer (in the sense that people are listening to and acting on what they have to say), but they actually shouting too loudly and too frequently into a cyber-pool of people who have their hands clapped over their ears and eyes because they are sick of that noise.

I plead guilty to this one more frequently than I’d like, simply because I think that women in particular tend to err too often on the side of NOT tooting our own horn and sharing our own work and ideas enough. It’s a fine balance to embrace the power and joy of our voices, yet honor what audiences truly desire.

Disco ball walls make you feel like a celebrity.
Disco ball walls make you feel like a celebrity.

Why Diversity is Key to Actual Influence

This brings us to the central question of WHO has been anointed as an “influencer” so far. Why is diversity important? Many ad agencies and influencer marketing groups have missed a ginormous fact: Though young, thin, white women are often featured most prominently in photos aiming to influence spending habits, that is not what actually resonates with the real-world audience!

Not only is it disrespectful to ignore that audiences are diverse and want to be represented, heard, and connected with, but it is financially foolish! As this article from The Atlantic details, Black consumers are on track to have a buying power of $1.4 TRILLION by 2020. Companies continuing to hire only White influencers makes no sense — nor cents.

6-foot-tall stiletto heel: The best influence synonym is not what you think! Explore positive and negative at a wild Boston influencer marketing tour of "Happy Place" pop-up photo spot, along with a discussion of whether picture playgrounds are worth it!
Ever sat inside a 6-foot-tall stiletto heel?

Age and Influence: Older vs. Younger

We’ve discussed the importance of racial diversity in actually reaching an audience, but what about age representation? The numbers are clear: Older people have far more money and power than those in their 20s, so why only embrace influencers who are young?

This is particularly fresh on my mind because of the recent passing of Evelyn Hannon, the vivacious 79-year-old founder of the original women’s travel blog, Journeywoman, with whom I had the honor of traveling through Turkey.

Glowing with her bright red glasses, warm heart, and zest for tracking down a “cutie of the day” around the world (producing hilarious and joyful selfies), Evelyn had a profound and wide-reaching impact on so many of us. Because of her, countless women have explored our globe. May Evelyn’s memory be an everlasting reminder that people of all ages have power.

Shiny XO kiss letters in the smooch-adorned room.
Shiny XO kiss letters in the smooch-adorned room.

We Can Influence Who Has Influence!

Given these realities of who true influencers are, and how influence operates at its best, what can WE do to shift both dialogue and actions in this sphere? A whole lot! Though not all of us are technically influencer marketing agencies, nor crowned influencers… we actually are

As parents, we are an influencers every second, and we choose which additional forces shape our children. Consider adding children’s books from even wider voices through the Diverse Book Finder. (Fabulous for teachers, too!) If you’re around Boston, attend the wonderful anti-racist workshops from Wee the People… and so on.

The iconic Happy Place bouncy rainbow.
The iconic Happy Place bouncy rainbow.

Who Are the People You Are Selecting?

Beyond parenting and teaching and into the broader world, keep looking at who we pick to listen to, and whose voices we amplify… and why. Expanding the pool of people who are chosen as “influencers” is not just a sweet thing to do — it makes logical and financial sense, and benefits us all.

I’ve been invited to hundreds of influencer events around the world in my decade in this business (yes, I admit I AM in that liminal space between influencer and not-influencer), and only recently is it sliiiightly starting to stop being just a room full of fellow White women

My sincere hope is that some PR companies and marketing agencies see this and understand why influencer diversity — in all its forms — helps everyone! Feel free to reach out if you want tips on new voices to hire, because there are plenty out there.

HAPPY sign and influence synonym at Boston Happy Place photo pop-up installation
Savannah has such a happy smile to go with the HAPPY sign!

Hey, What is “Happy Place” Like?!

Oh, you weren’t looking for an essay about influence and its synonyms and implications?! You were just wondering whether pop-up photography playgrounds like Happy Place are worth it? Whoopsie. Well there’s an easy answer.

Savannah, Rusha (plus her awesome son), and I had a wonderful time touring the space. Say what you will about artificial photo background installations that encourage ridiculous poses and movement breaks like the ones we are showing off here — touring it was truly a laughter-filled morning that yielded some of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken. (That one of Savannah with the gum-ball machines is perfection!)

If you’re into campy, wild picture playgrounds, you’ll rock this one out. If you prefer slower strolls and deeper installations with less of an emphasis on the photos yielded, and more on thoughtful modern art, I highly recommend MASS MoCA as an alternative. (It’s a three hour drive west of Boston, but makes for a full day of delight.) Let there be more color and art all over! 

A mother's love is GOOD!
A mother’s love is GOOD!

Shout-Out to These Boston Models

Didn’t Savannah and Rusha do an AMAZING job modeling for my camera??? They’re not just beautiful faces and incandescent smiles, though… Check out their backgrounds.

Rusha is a brilliant graphic designer specializing in branding for startup companies. If you’re seeking visual artistry for your business, she’s your gal, so reach out!

Savannah was a student in my English class back in 2009 (before I left the United States to start traveling and blogging). We’ve kept in touch over the past decade, and now she’s a fully-formed and fabulous human… not to mention a creative Boston artist and fashionista!

Savannah is getting increasingly into the modeling and influencing scene, so consider inviting her to your next event to experience her social media coverage. She’s a delight to work with. I mean — who else could pull of this hilarious cookie influencer pose?

Cookie Room with wallpaper and life sized chocolate chip at Happy Place influencer tour
Did someone say Cookie Room??

So, What IS the Best “Influence” Synonym?

Back to the deep thoughts, since this art installation is ephemeral, but the question of influencing is not. Here is my synonym selection: Though “Power” is an effective definition for “Influence,” my personal favorite influence synonym or definition (which works either as a synonym for “bad influence” or synonym for “good influence” — and any combination in between) would be: “Sway.”

Why? Given all we’ve discussed, it’s clear that true influencing is a dance. A dance goes back, forth, up, and down, and is always in flux — and this brings to mind the balletic sway of human hips!

A true influencer can gently take the hands of an audience through connection, then sashay them in a happy direction… sometimes with a jolly twirl and dip along the way, but always safe and kind, as a good dance partner should be. Sway away, positive influencers — sway away!

Shiny heart sculpture with mirror at Happy Place Boston influence synonym search
There’s a heart in my belly!

So what do YOU think about influencing and its synonyms? What about pop-up photography playgrounds? Do share!


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Kathryn Dickson

Wednesday 15th of May 2019

Lillie, this was an incredibly thoughtful piece and I like your take on it and the idea of "influence". My kids ask about the word all the time and what is it really? Are we travelling somewhere for good instagram pictures for my feed or to actually experience the destination?

Lillie Marshall

Wednesday 15th of May 2019

Thanks so much for taking the time to leave this comment, Kathryn! You bring up such an interesting point about how we talk to children about this, and what it means to truly experience something.


Monday 13th of May 2019

Love this thoughtful and conscientious look at the meaning of "influencers," and how it can be a force for good. And it looks like you had a blast at the Happy Place!

Lillie Marshall

Monday 13th of May 2019

Yay! Yes indeed, and thanks!

Savannah Williams

Saturday 11th of May 2019


This article was well worth the wait. Thank you so much for using your platform to talk about the importance of diversity in these spaces! I can’t wait to share this article with my followers, friends and family!

Lillie Marshall

Monday 13th of May 2019

Thank YOU for being such a wonderful model and person!

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