The last decade has seen the rise of a new kind of job, one that went without a name for some time. For a while, people who were making money through their online presence and platforms were identified by the platform itself – Youtubers, Instagrammers, bloggers – or covered by the umbrella term ‘creator.’ But in the past few years a new term has emerged that, somehow, has managed to stick. Influencer.
Most people, including many influencers themselves, seem to cringe upon hearing that word. I know that I do (as a viewer, not an influencer, ha). But what is it about that word that makes social media careers seem all the more questionable, in a way that Youtuber or creator does not? What does it mean to be an influencer, anyway?
The way that influencers make money has only recently become demystified. While everyone has a slightly different business model, influencers, unsurprisingly, make money the way that almost everyone else does: by selling something. Often, that ‘something’ is the promotion of products and services for brands, though it might be their own products or merchandise or running ads on their videos or website. This is not actually a controversial way to make money. The entire advertising industry is built around creating the best messages to make you feel inadequate without that moisturiser or hair colour or whatever, and other content platforms like newspapers and radio have always run ads to fund the content that is available to consumers for free. If some form of ads aren’t involved, then the projects are being funded by some other means, which might be the earnings from a full-time job or direct investment from fans á la Patreon, crowd funding, pay walls and subscriptions. It does not yet pay anything directly to post a video or article on the Internet – even for newspapers and big brands. The fact that influencers make money to fund their work – whether that is more monetisable content or a passion project for which they won’t see a penny – by using paid-for advertisements is a tale almost as old as commerce. It should be that controversial, and yet, it is. Deborah Ross released a savage article in the Times calling influencers ‘detestable freeloaders’ and you don’t have to spend long in the comment section of any article trying to analyse this confusing new career to see how the masses tend to feel. Why do so many people hate influencers even though their business models are the same as those used by many other well-loved industries and businesspeople?
Part of it must be gendered, as influencing is an industry dominated by women, and we know how much people like to levy accusations of vapidity as soon as women claim something for themselves. Most of this ire is directed at women on Instagram, some of whom have managed to make an obscene amount of money posting heavily-edited photos of themselves in beautiful locales or expensive clothes. Yes, there are fair questions to ask about this new phenomenon, but there are men making money in fashion and travel influencing too, though they seem to come under far less scrutiny.
But even if we account for sexism, the idea of making your career out of so nakedly trying to convince people to buy things is still a little… icky, not least because we are in a climate emergency and the planet is fracturing under the weight of unbridled consumerism. Very few of the people most targeted by influencer marketing actually need more stuff. Despite climate change becoming more prominent this year, many influencers still make a living promoting the endless consumption of cheap clothes, makeup, accessories, trips abroad and gadgets, among other things. And even the influencers who are becoming more outspoken about fast fashion still find ways to promote consumption – just through sustainable fashion brands or shopping at charity shops. This is much better for the planet, yes, but it doesn’t confront the fact that wanting to buy new clothes multiple times each year (or even every month!) is a sign of a) extreme privilege and b) the exact toxic thought patterns that contribute to a culture that is never satisfied, to the harm of the world and the less fortunate in it.
Even before climate change became a little more mainstream, I think many people had already recognised that, while they liked new things, excessive consumerism is not one of humanity’s most flattering qualities. Our cultural obsession with Instagram – shown through the fact that the app now has 1 billion active users – highlights many qualities we somewhat deplore in humanity: an obsession with appearances and surface level content; awe of the powerful, influential and famous; a desire to constantly buy new things we know we don’t need; and the tendency to waste hours and hours of our lives scrolling through the grids of people we barely know and yet still manage to make us feel inadequate. Just because many people feel addicted to social media doesn’t mean we collectively think that’s a good thing, and so it follows that the people who feel like the architects of this misguided pastime come under fire. To work on Instagram – and profit handsomely from it – is on some level to endorse its role in our lives, no?
You also see many people moralising about whether influencers have any social value. I think this is interesting, not necessarily because I disagree with the conclusions but because it presumes that many jobs being unnecessary, if not downright harmful, is somehow this new thing unique to women making money on social media. As David Graeber makes clear in his book Bullshit Jobs, lots of current careers are only there to keep people busy, and add very little of value to society as a whole. The problem for influencers, then, is that they are public figures. The average person in a corporate office is probably not doing a lot either, but they don’t have to broadcast their life and activities to the world for analysis. When the very thing that keeps an influencer profitable is an engaged audience, it is difficult to cloak your life and work under a veil of secrecy. Perhaps influencing is not useful work – but how many people making a decent living in modern societies are doing something that has its roots in creating necessary social value? Graeber would argue that it’s not many. This may well, therefore, be a valid criticism of influencers, but it is as much a criticism of modern society as a whole rather than just social media careers.
It might not be as deep as all this. It might just be jealousy, plain and simple. Not jealousy because everyone wishes that they could be an influencer, but jealousy for the fact that society rewards posting on Instagram far more than it rewards teaching or nursing or even other jobs that are less altruistic but still more of slog. To be young and pretty (as the most successful influencers tend to be), working for yourself, making bank, sent lots of free stuff and taking fabulous free holidays sounds like a pretty good deal. It makes sense that people would see it and feel jealous that posting on social media semi-regularly can afford you this kind of lifestyle. I think this feeling is compounded by how random and ephemeral influencing appears to be. Who has a large following often seems totally random, and it’s not as if hard work translates meaningfully to more followers. The magic ingredients that lead to a normal person suddenly having 100,000 people hanging off their every word are hard to quantify and harder to replicate, leaving many feeling like not only is this an insanely sweet deal but one that is closed off to even the most desperate and diligent of wannabe influencers.
But of course, the thing that makes influencer marketing so effective – and therefore so lucrative – is that it is advertising with a personal touch. Influencers blur the line between salesperson and friend, making that ‘personal’ recommendation feel all the more enticing. There is something a little disturbing about exploiting personal connections for profit, and makes it seems like there is nothing impervious to the clutches of capitalism, including our personalities. I wrote about this earlier this year, when I railed against someone telling me that I needed to consider my personal brand more when I made decisions. To openly admit that your aim is to convince people who see you as relatable, as a friend of sorts, to buy a load of stuff that you didn’t buy yourself and only promote in exchange for thousands of pounds sounds a bit bleak. If anything, I think the influencer phenomenon is worth exploring from the perspective of the blurring of brands and individuals, as it seems like every influencer wants to have their cake and eat it too. You can’t build a career out of making people feel inadequate (as this is what convinces people they need more things to become better) through staged photos, a carefully curated lifestyle and the glossing over of life’s messy realities and then say that you want to be treated like a friend, and not be held to the higher expectations of consistency and authenticity that one might expect from a brand and not their mates. Humans are messy, imperfect and contradictory – but Instagram influencers are not human in the traditional sense to the viewer, they are pictures in a grid that only show a tiny portion of the whole story to make themselves maximally marketable. It’s not real.
What do I think about influencers? I think they are probably the natural culmination of years of capitalism, consumerism and technology, and that it is fair to question why this form of making money and consuming content is so appealing to both influencers and followers alike. With Youtuber and Instagrammer now being some of the most desirable careers in the minds of kids, it is fair to say that this lifestyle appeals strongly to the next generation of humans. While I may have some critical personal opinions about the influencer business proposition, I am as interested in why this new spate of careers has arisen now – and why so many people continue to want a piece of the consumerist pie.