If we’ve learned anything from the Dress That Broke the Internet, first posted to Tumblr by a 21-year-old singer from Scotland, it’s that anyone with a web connection can start a global conversation. Yes, it helps to be famous in real life. But the rise of social networks has leveled the playing field, allowing unknowns to command audiences rivaling those of real-world leaders, even if by accident. Who rises above the rest? To determine the unranked list, we analyzed social-media followings, site traffic, overall ability to drive news, and more.
Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg (a.k.a. PewDiePie)
Never mind Fox or AMC. With 35 million subscribers (and nearly 8 billion total views), this Swedish gamer’s YouTube channel broadcasts some of the most-watched programs in pop culture, which just so happen to be…clips of himself playing video games, with charismatic narration. Early on in his rise to fame, Kjellberg upset some fans by making rape jokes. But the 25-year-old later apologized, and has since gone on to give indie game-makers invaluable exposure and commandeer his “Bro Army” to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities like Save the Children. —Sarah Begley
Like many pop stars, the 25-year old “Blank Space” singer has millions of followers across social media. But Swift stands out for how—and how much—she truly engages with them. In the past year alone, she has commented on a fan’s Instagram to comfort her from bullying, made a breakup playlist for a brokenhearted fan on Tumblr, and hosted a bunch of 1989 listening parties specifically for people she found online. Naturally, all of this wit and warmth makes news, giving Swift an invaluable amount of free publicity.—Daniel D’Addario
A hero to some and a criminal to others, the Jester is one of a growing army of anonymous cyberwarriors, or “hacktivists,” who push the boundaries of the law in the name of their causes. In his case, that means targeting terrorists and hate groups. Since he assumed his persona five years ago, the Jester says he’s taken down more than 180 websites, including some associated with ISIS, and played virtual pranks on groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, which is known for anti-gay rhetoric. (Although all of this is technically illegal, the Jester has never been prosecuted.) Of course, it’s impossible to verify such claims with certainty. But if true, they make him one of the most powerful stand-alone hackers in the world.—Haley Sweetland Edwards
If you’re a teenager or you’re on Vine, the social media platform that loops six-second videos, you’ve almost definitely heard of Nash Grier. But for the uninitiated: The 17-year-old commands more than 11 million followers on Vine (more than any other user), where his comedic clips have logged some 2 billion views. All of which has made Grier a generational celebrity, replete with a movie contract, appearances on Good Morning America, endorsement deals with Sonic and Virgin Mobile, and the occasional controversy (such as when he used a gay slur in a now-deleted video). In October, Grier was named one of Time’s most influential teens of 2014.—Sarah Begley
It's easy to cite facts about the President's virtual influence: he's the most-liked world leader on Facebook; the most-followed world leader on Twitter; and he did the most-trafficked "Ask Me Anything" in Reddit history. But more impressively, Obama is able to meme himself to push an agenda. Last month, for example, he mugged for BuzzFeed cameras with a selfie stick—among other props—to remind millennials to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act; within days, the video had been viewed more than 50 million times.—Olivia B. Waxman
She may tout millions of fans in real life, but Kardashian, 34, truly stands out on Instagram. There, she has perfected the art of the selfie: some with famous friends, some in luxurious bathrooms, and all to the delight of her 27 million followers. Long a performer in a reality TV show produced and edited by others, Kardashian also deftly uses Twitter to define and defend her own narrative (“Her eyes were closed and I was feeling my look! Can I live?!?” she sniped after being criticized for cropping her daughter out of a selfie), and of course to promote her various business ventures.—Daniel D’Addario
The 35-year-old blogger has parlayed her design expertise into an “Oh Joy!” lifestyle empire, spanning Pinterest (where she touts a record 13 million followers), YouTube (where she posts DIY design tutorials), Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and yes, even old-fashioned books. More recently, the L.A. resident has started to produce products with brands such as Land of Nod and Target, where many items from her party décor line quickly sold out. In May, she'll release a line of patterned Band-Aids for Johnson & Johnson.—S.B.
Alongside Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, writer and activist Janet Mock is one of the most visible transgender women in America, and she uses her social media platform to educate others about trans issues. Most famously, she took to Twitter to criticize Piers Morgan after his talk-show “sensationaliz[ed]” her life by describing her as “formerly a man” and “a boy until age 18.” (Mock says she has always identified as female.) But the author of Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More routinely sheds light on other issues affecting her community, such as the plights of CeCe McDonald and Monica Jones and the disproportionate violence transgender women face.—Nolan Feeney
The music industry's first major social-media success story hasn't released an album in three years. But he still routinely makes headlines, thanks largely to his 23 million Instagram followers (a shot of ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez was rumored to have crashed the app’s servers); 78 million Facebook fans (an apology for his recent erratic behavior went viral); and 61 million Twitter followers (after he revealed his Calvin Klein campaign, it sparked memes, a Saturday Night Live parody and a back-and-forth debate about whether he had been, ahem, digitally enhanced). Next up: his own social network? In 2013 Bieber led a $1.1 million seed investment into Shots, a selfies-only Instagram alternative.—N.F.
The writer (and former TIME contributor) is the Internet’s leading intellectual when it comes to talking about the intersection of race, politics and culture. His 2014 June cover story for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” broke the magazine’s single-day online traffic record and stirred debate in conservative and liberal publications alike. Meanwhile, his regular readers, nicknamed the Horde, have helped produce what's been called the “best comment section on the Internet.”—N.F.
The 29-year-old YouTube personality started making videos in 2007 to cure spells of boredom while housesitting, but she’s since proved that building a media empire doesn’t require a traditional media background. More than 2 million people subscribe to her YouTube show it’sGrace, which features improvised musings about everything from pop culture to near gastrointestinal disasters. That loyal following paved the way for a book (Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to Be a Grown-Up was a New York Times best-seller), corporate sponsorships (including Windows Phone and Ford Fiesta) and acting roles (she executive produced and starred in the digital feature film Camp Takota). Now, Helbig is poised to become a mainstream star: Her upcoming E! talk show premieres in April.—N.F.
Vani Hari (a.k.a. Food Babe)
The former management consultant, 35, commands an army of amateur nutritionists who look to her blog, Food Babe, to see which “unsafe” ingredients they should protest next. She bills herself as an investigator, posting exposés under headlines like “General Mills or Generally Toxic?” Those tactics may sound crass, but they’re remarkably effective. Last year, for example, Hari demanded that Subway stop using azodicarbonamide, a dough conditioner she branded the “yoga mat” ingredient. Within a day, her petition had 50,000 signatures; shortly thereafter, the sandwich chain jettisoned the compound. She’s also successfully targeted Kraft and Anheuser-Busch, among others. Hari’s critics say she’s underqualified and irresponsibly alarmist in her attempt to build her brand. (The yoga-mat compound was ruled safe by the FDA.) But her audience doesn’t seem to mind: Food Babe logged a record 54 million visits last year, and Hari’s first book, The Food Babe Way, is in stores now.—Mandy Oaklander
When Beyoncé dropped her 2013 self-titled album with no warning online, the 33-year-old pop star created a new model for releasing records (hers sold close to a million copies within a week) and inspired the likes of Drake and Azealia Banks to do the same. But her influence extends well beyond the music business: she’s mastered a kind of visual PR on her Instagram account, where the notoriously private star will post happy family photos whenever rumors of marital strife swirl—a way to dismiss gossip without saying a word. It’s that combination of rare, highly calculated intimacy and a notoriously perfectionist work ethic that drove her “7/11” video, which features Beyoncé dancing around hotels in a sweatshirt and underpants, to reach 160 million views on YouTube. Her fans, known as the Beyhive, are also one of the most active and loyal communities on the web: their vigilant dedication helped inspire a Saturday Night Live skit, "The Beygency," about what happens when you say something bad about Queen Bey.—N.F.
In 2008, the 42-year-old actress attempted to rebrand herself as a lifestyle guru with Goop, a website and newsletter meant to cover Paltrow’s favorite fashions, recipes, hotels and more. That risk paid off: Goop now touts some a reported one million subscribers, giving Paltrow the power to drive sales with a single recommendation and the platform to control her own public relations. In 2014 , for example, she used GOOP to announce her “conscious uncoupling” from husband Chris Martin, and the term immediately started trending on Facebook and Twitter. No wonder other celebrities, such as Blake Lively and Jessica Alba, have tried to follow in Paltrow’s footsteps.—D.D.
The self-consciously wacky YouTube star has converted nearly 6.5 million subscribers not just into followers on Tumblr or podcast subscribers (though he has plenty of both) but into real-world success. This year alone, he interviewed Michelle Obama and his reporting on the Grammys red carpet appeared on CBS.com. He’s also become a leading LGBT activist, raising money for the Trevor Project and speaking out on behalf of gay youth.—D.D.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
The embattled Argentinian president, 62, may well be Twitter's most candid—and controversial—politician. Last month, for example, she made global headlines for joking about Chinese accents with her 3.6 million Twitter followers, and in one of her most shared tweets, she declared that the Mother of Dragons was her favorite character in the HBO series Game of Thrones. Sometimes, however, it's what she doesn't say that stokes debate. As thousands of people gathered in Buenos Aires earlier this year to mourn the mysterious death of a high-profile prosecutor, her Twitter feed was conspicuously off-topic: “In the Chinese horoscope, I am a snake."—Noah Rayman
Arguably the Internet's most famous citizen journalist, Drudge rose to prominence in 1998 by breaking the news that Newsweek was sitting on a story about Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The look of his site hasn't changed much since then, but the audience has. Drudge Report now racks up almost a billion page views every month—a number that's bound to increase as the 2016 elections loom larger—and it is at times the top driver of traffic to news websites, outpacing both Twitter and Facebook, according to Pew Research Center.—O.B.W.
On Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo, the 35-year-old actress touts a record 77 million followers, putting her in command of a population that exceeds the size of most countries. And Yao, who became a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2013, frequently taps it to advance causes she champions. When she shared a video for an organization dedicated to combatting Pneumoconiosis in 2011, for example, the group raised $32,000 in two weeks, roughly 80 times its average inflow. Yao has also demonstrated a willingness to cross over into social commentary—a risky move in China—by criticizing smog pollution and defending a newspaper against state censors.—N.R.
The popular fashion and beauty blogger, who boasts 8.3 million YouTube subscribers and has more than 800 million views, is also a bona-fide businesswoman who pulls in more than $500,000 in ad revenue each year. The 19-year-old has released original music, interviewed President Obama, and even oversees her own clothing line at Aéropostale, making her the most Googled designer in the world, ahead of icons like Kate Spade and Oscar de la Renta.—S.G.
The Russian blogger, 38, won a loyal following by exposing corruption in Vladimir Putin’s regime—or, as he calls it, “poking the crooks with a sharp stick.” One of his posts, for example, alleged a $4 billion corruption scheme at the state-owned oil firm Transneft; it logged a million views in a day. Naturally, this hasn’t sat well with the Kremlin, which has twice tried Navalny and sentenced him to house arrest, and recently accused him of embezzlement. But as long as he has an Internet connection, he will remain a major thorn in Putin’s side—and a force in Russian politics.—N.R.
Some 8.6 million follow Furlan's antics on Vine, making her the site's biggest female celebrity. "It's changed my whole life," says the 28-year-old Philadelphia native, who spends anywhere from minutes to days planning the clips she will upload (many of which feature over-the-top characters, such as “Ghetto Dora the Explorer”). Now she's set her sights set on other projects, as well, including developing a sketch show with Seth Green.—S.G.
She may not be as personally engaged on social media as some of her contemporaries, but there's no denying Shakira's social capital. The two-time Grammy winner touts 107 million Facebook fans—more than any other person on the site, including President Obama and Taylor Swift—giving her an unparalleled platform to promote her work and her causes. A 2013 post asking people to donate money for UNICEF's "World Baby Shower," for example, tallied 1.3 million likes, nearly 90,000 shares, and helped raise enough money to provide 80,000 polio vaccines and four tons of food to children worldwide.—S.G.
Denny Januar Ali
The 52-year-old Indonesian political analyst and pollster is an unlikely candidate to compete with the likes of Ellen DeGeneres on Twitter. But in a country where politics and social media have become intertwined, his June tweet backing then-presidential candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was retweeted more than 1 million times, becoming at the time the second most shared missive in the site’s history (after DeGeneres' infamous Oscars selfie). Jokowi won the election, and Januar Ali continues to share his political insight to his 2 million followers.—N.R.
Amid the #Gamergate controversy, this Canadian-American feminist became perhaps the most public critic of sexism in the gaming community (via her blog, YouTube channel and Twitter account), which earned her thousands of fans—and almost as many enemies. (She says she received death threats.) More recently, her blog, Feminist Frequency, got funding from Intel’s initiative to promote diversity in tech.—S.B.
Josh Ostrovsky (a.k.a. The Fat Jew)
The raunchy comedian is the Internet’s court jester, posting funny photo memes (many of which he lifts from sites like Reddit and Tumblr) and absurdly posed photos of himself, all to the delight—and sometimes chagrin—of his 3.2 million Instagram followers. Now brands have started to pay for exposure to that audience. Last year, Stella Artois flew Ostrovsky to the Cannes Film Festival where he partied with Sharon Stone and poured rosé all over himself (for an Instagram photo). Ostrovsky is also eyeing more traditional media, working on a book and shows for Amazon and Comedy Central.—S.G.
The 30-year-old photographer behind Humans of New York, the massively popular photo blog, has more than 15 million fans across social media. But his biggest moment happened earlier this year, when he posted a photo of Vidal Chastanet, a 13-year-old student from Brownsville, a neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in New York. In the caption, Chastanet revealed the person who inspired him most: his principal, Ms. Lopez, because “when we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains how society was built around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.” The post eventually sparked a fundraising campaign (set up by Stanton) to send sixth graders from Chastanet’s school to visit Harvard. The initial goal was set at $100,000. In less than three weeks, it raised nearly $1.5 million.—Ashley Ross
The author, 49, has given Harry Potter new life online, answering fan questions, teasing future projects and revealing uberviral plot extras to her 4.2 million followers on Twitter. Among the buzziest ones: A cryptic riddle about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the Potter spinoff screenplay she's writing, and the fact that there are Jewish wizards at Hogwarts. She’s also especially giving on her fansite, Pottermore, which crashed last July after Rowling posted a new story about Harry Potter as a 30-something.—A.R.
The Indian Prime Minister has roughly 38 million total followers on Twitter and Facebook, more than any other leader in the world except President Obama. And unlike many of his contemporaries, Modi recognizes that social media can be invaluable when trying to reach India’s 200 million-plus online population directly. Last year, for example, he announced President Obama’s upcoming visit to India on Twitter, bypassing traditional media outlets.—N.R.
Whereas his Tonight Show predecessor, Jay Leno, traded in bits that were fun but ultimately disposable, 40-year-old Fallon—who came of age with the -Internet—creates can’t-miss moments engineered to go viral. Among them: reuniting the cast of Saved by the Bell nearly 22 years after the finale and coaxing actress Emma Stone into lip-synching to “All I Do Is Win.” That verve has made The Tonight Show a virtual powerhouse. Fallon himself touts 22 million followers on Twitter, more than quadruple the number of rival host Jimmy Kimmel. And his show has 6 million subscribers on YouTube, dwarfing figures from Comedy Central and The Late Show With David Letterman (170,000). “Time slot doesn’t matter to me,” Fallon has said. “If people want to see you, they’ll find you.” To wit: NBC estimates that 70% of The Tonight Show views are happening online.—D.D.
Is this dress white and gold or black and blue? It’s a question the whole world was asking last week, and the person who prompted it was McNeill, a 21-year-old Scottish singer and guitarist, who uploaded the dress photo from a wedding in Colonsay. Within days, her Tumblr entry had been aggregated by BuzzFeed and virtually every other media outlet, and hundreds of millions of people had weighed in on the debate, including Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian. Eventually, Roman, the U.K. brand that sells the dress, settled the debate: although the optics in the photo are undeniably wonky, the dress is definitely black and blue.—O.B.W.