Boudica Shaffer is one of the country's top social media influencers. Or, at least that's what it says on her Twitter account, which was enough for us to decide that we'd like to meet her and find out what this influencing business is all about. When we put a call through to her it turned out that she'd already been working her influencing magic and had been expecting us to get in touch for some time.
And so it was that on a grey Tuesday afternoon we found ourselves in a chintzy little tearoom in Oxford, where Miss Shaffer was occupying a table by the window. She cut a slight figure, small, fragile, as if a strong breeze or a substantial meal might floor her. She looked expensive - hair, shoes, designer clothes, chunky jewellery. We don't really understand all that stuff, but to our untutored eyes it all looked like the real deal.
She greeted us with the faintest flicker of a smile, calculated not to disturb her makeup, and held out her hand at an angle, such that we weren't entirely sure if we were meant to shake it or kneel and kiss it. We decided on the former then took our seats with some apprehension, wondering if she was already inside our heads, putting the 'fluence' on us. As a precaution we had left our credit cards at home in case she tried to make us buy anything, but we were still uneasy.
"You'll be wanting to know how I got to be the country's top social media influencer," she said.
Actually, we really wanted to know exactly what a 'social media influencer' was, but this was as good a place to start as any so we just nodded politely.
"It's all about getting inside people's heads," she told us. "About understanding what makes them tick and guiding their choices. By the way you should really try the mint tea here, it's exquisite."
We sidestep the suggestion and order coffee. We want to know what it takes to be an influencer and ask her to share some of the tricks of the trade.
"Ah, so you want me to share some of the tricks of the trade?" she says, nodding sagely and parroting our exact words back to us as if she has uncovered some previously hidden meaning. She pauses. We realise this is not a rhetorical question. Yes, we repeat, we want her to share some of the tricks of her trade. "Ah well, it's all about subtlety. For instance, you probably didn't notice but a few moments ago I surreptitiously planted the suggestion that you should try the mint tea."
We respond with faux surprise as our coffee arrives.
"Now that thought is lodged in your brain and will affect your choices without you even realising it," she continues. "The secret is to gently embed these suggestions into the conversation and it takes great skill to recognise the right opportunities to do this. It takes an eye for detail - the same eye for detail, for example, that it takes to spot a bargain. A bargain such as this stylish bag which I bought online for just £49.99. You should probably get one, it's great."
We feign an interest in the bag. So subtlety is the key, we ask?
"Oh yes, and it takes great skill to recognise the right opportunities."
Which would imply, we continue, that not just anyone can become a social media influencer?
"Oh no," she says. "Because it takes great skill to recognise the right opportunities."
And yet, we point out, pretty much every other person on Twitter seems to describe themselves as a social media influencer. What, we wonder, qualifies them as such? Are there, for example, any exams they need to take?
"No, no, it's not something that can be taught," Miss Shaffer tells us. "You can't go on a course, you can't get a certificate. It's an ability that you're born with. You see, it actually takes great skill to recognise the right opportunities. Such as recognising what a terrific bargain this stylish coat I'm wearing is. It's transformed my life and I would recommend it to anyone."
Our own experience of social media influencers suggests that their main techniques involve endlessly repeating a limited series of random, unconnected and irrelevant recommendations for things that they plainly have no interest in. Miss Shaffer is keen to set us straight about this misconception but we pre-empt her by suggesting that, perhaps, we've got that wrong. That, maybe, it actually takes great skill to recognise the right opportunities.
"Wow, that's really quite astute of you to realise that," she says with the wry smile. "Yes, it actually takes great skill to recognise the right opportunities. Now I won't deny that some influencers are better than others. Some influencers are so bad that they are actually uninfluencers and are unable to convince anybody of anything - if uninfluencers is a word."
We tell her that 'uninfluencers' is not a word, but fail to convince her.
"There are some influencers who would really struggle to persuade anyone that the Supervax carpet shampooer has totally changed their lives, reinvigorated their homes and proven to be one of the best things that they have ever bought. Whereas I can state unequivocally that the Supervax carpet shampooer really has changed my life, reinvigorated my home and absolutely proven to be the best thing that I have ever bought. See what I mean? It's an awesome power to wield."
And this leads us to a question that fascinates us. If there really are people out there who can exercise such influence, often using no more than 140 characters, what happens when they recommend competing products? Does it come down to a battle of wills for the hearts and minds of their followers?
Miss Shaffer nods. "An influence-off," she says. "Oh yes indeed. The meeting of minds, the ultimate battle of two great intellects. It has happened to me on more than one occasion. It can go on for days, weeks even. It's exhausting but at the same time it is exhilarating, and the feeling you get when you emerge triumphant is truly awesome. What it must be like to lose is something that, thankfully, I have no knowledge of but I imagine it is soul destroying. Many of the people that I have bested have never influenced again; they are broken, spent, but ultimately they didn't have what it takes - which is the great skill required to recognise the right opportunities."
So there are risks. What then, we wonder, are the rewards?
"Oh, there are a great many rewards," she answers.
We ask her to elaborate.
"Oh, many, many rewards," she says. "It's very rewarding."
Financial rewards, we ask? We don't imagine that you could earn a living from it.
"Oh financial, yes, I should say so," she answers. "Top social media influencers can earn lots. Yes, more than you'd imagine."
So this provides her main income? She doesn't have another job? Or maybe a rich aunt?
"Well, I have other interests, obviously. This can be... well... time consuming. Have you seen these shoes, by the way. I didn't know what I was missing until I bought these shoes. They have transformed my life and I can't recommend them highly enough."
But if you can put in the time you could, presumably, earn a decent wage, we ask, steering her back to the question. Would she be happy to recommend influencing as a career?
"A career?" She seems a little rattled by the suggestion. "You can earn money, yes. If you've got the time. And the skills, I suppose... If you can recognise the right opportunities."
Before we can explore this further Miss Shaffer suddenly remembers an appointment she has with an optician, or a vet - she is vague on the details. Our questions may have implied that what she does is not a proper job, and she is evidently uncomfortable with this suggestion.
She apologises: she doesn't have any cash on her and she believes that the establishment does not take cards, so would we kindly get the bill for her and she will reimburse us later. And then she's off to take her dog to the opticians, weaving through the tables like a downhill skier and pausing only to recommend a phone, a brand of furniture polish or a small chain of discount homeware stores to various other patrons on her way out. Meanwhile, we call the waiter over and order a mint tea.