It was when I was researching a story on micro-famous LinkedIn users that I realized there truly was no escape from the influencer industry. If business bros with corporate jobs in tech and finance — stable, high-paying careers with cushy benefits! — felt the need to supplement their status (and possibly their income) by becoming influencers, what hope was there for the rest of us?
In truth, I should have realized this a long time ago. In an increasingly unpredictable economy, one with massive wealth disparity and mass layoffs, where landing a solid career path feels out of reach for so many, of course the industry that promises self-employment and creative freedom sounds like the best possible option.
The first inkling that the influencer industry would become a very big deal occurred during a different period of economic precarity. In her new book, The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media, Emily Hund, a research affiliate at the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, analyzes how in the wake of the Great Recession starting in late 2007, individual bloggers charted a new path to financial and social fulfillment, and launched an entirely new cottage industry that would threaten the institutions it circumvented.
“While individual participants looked for a route to autonomy, stability, and professional fulfillment that seemed impossible elsewhere, they ended up creating a value system that advanced the erosion of boundaries between individuals’ inner lives and commercialism, asking us to view ourselves as products perpetually ready for market, our relationships as monetizable, and our daily activities as potential shopping experiences,” Hund writes. “Influencers are neither ‘a flash in the pan’ nor ‘a bubble about to burst,’ but indicators of a paradigm shift in the way we think about each other and ourselves.”
I spoke to Hund about her book, where we discussed the past, present, and future of this paradigm shift and its effects on what we buy, post, and think. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
What happened in the 2000s that created a perfect storm for the rise of the influencer industry?
The economic crisis was the last straw that pushed this industry forward. Before that, we had lots of other factors that had been bubbling for a long time: in the US, the valorization of entrepreneurialism and self-branding, especially since the 1980s. We love public figures who we think are just being themselves and are still successful at whatever they do.
Then there was software that made it really easy and accessible for people who were not technical experts to create a web presence for themselves and build newsletters and personal websites. There was also this optimism at the time that social media was going to democratize culture, that it was going to be a way for you to take control of your selfhood. At the same time, the media industry was facing significant challenges adapting to the digital world, and advertisers were looking for new places that had a greater return on their investment for their ads. They discovered these individual people who had really loyal audiences, and that was appealing to advertisers.
Then we had an economic crisis that unmoored millions of people from their jobs and from their lifestyles and how they thought their lives were going to go. It was both a very material financial break for many people and an ideological break for a lot of people as well, where they started to think, “Wow, this system is not going to save me, and I have to do something to try to survive.” There was all this rhetoric about the wonders of social media, and it drove a lot of people online to try to keep themselves afloat in some way. A lot of creative people started blogging, started using Pinterest and YouTube and Tumblr and then Instagram, in the hopes of getting freelance work or networking so that they seem more legitimate. Influencing was not an established path yet, but this drove so many people online that it created a situation where certain people were able to cultivate really sizable or loyal followings for advertisers to notice.
Women were really the ones who invented this method of selling oneself. How were women essential to creating this new industry?
The biggest thing that came through in my research — consistently and across women with different jobs and different backgrounds — is that a lot of the women [influencers] I interviewed pointed to the failure of traditional industries to offer them a viable way forward. Whether it’s because of a lack of flexibility or a toxic workplace culture, traditional career options are often hostile to them. That’s obviously a huge issue in our society today, the way work is hostile to parenthood. It drives capable workers who would be really valuable contributors out. So a lot of these women decided, “Social media seems to offer everything I need: the opportunity to make money, use the skills that I know I have, and take the time that I need to, either to parent or take care of myself.” That attracted a lot of women to the space.
The first and most visible example of influencers taking over an industry was within fashion: Bloggers went from unwanted party crashers to sitting front row, and in the years since, magazine editors and fashion designers have had to become influencers themselves. How did that process happen?
In the beginning, “blogger” was, like, a dirty word. Some editors were starting to embrace them, some were not. Then publications continued to shut down and working within fashion media became more and more precarious. At the same time, Instagram was eating everything in the early part of the 2010s. Eventually, it became really clear that editors needed to cultivate themselves and their publications online and that drawing from the monetization strategies that bloggers and influencers used, like RewardStyle and affiliate links. They realized they had to become more influencer-like to survive.
What’s happening in fashion right now is interesting because there’s another blowback with the rise of TikTok and videos that are more bold-faced, like, “Here’s how to lie to get into Fashion Week.” Even influencers who have been accepted [into the industry] are looking at this TikTok genre like, “What the heck? No!” It’s happening again.
What other industries is this happening in?
One where it’s really apparent to me is journalism. Journalists, for 15-plus years, have felt pressure to self-brand online, and this has only become more and more heightened in recent years when we’ve had mass layoffs. You have to walk a very thin line because if you’re acting too much like an influencer, that’s not okay, but you still have to put in all this unpaid labor to post on these platforms and maintain visibility. You see it in all creative industries: book publishing, music, comedy, academia. You have to post in consistent and reliable ways on social media to maintain a certain level of visibility, in hopes that you can translate that visibility into financial and social rewards. In journalism, there was a huge migration to Substack and the idea that you should subscribe to individual journalists. On one hand, it’s great because you really like this person’s writing, but then if you are only subscribing to those few people who you’ve decided you like, that seriously shapes your worldview.
People tend to get really freaked out when they feel like they need to become an influencer in order to maintain professional relevance. Do you see a future in which everyone is an influencer in some capacity?
I feel like we are already there, to some degree. Obviously, the importance of content creation in people’s lives varies widely. But we’re still experiencing economic precarity in career paths generally. That continues to place a lot of pressure on regular people to consider, “Should I be trying to make a name for myself on social media, if for nothing than a safety net so if the career that I want doesn’t pan out?” Even people like a friend who works in finance or something, they’re like, “Should I be posting more on LinkedIn or trying to become a LinkedIn personality?” I would love for that pressure to be reduced, but I don’t pretend to have the exact right answer.
There’s also the rise of so-called “expert” influencers. It’s all pushing this trend forward of like, “Listen, I’m gonna give it to you straight. You can’t trust institutions, but you can trust me.”
You reference the “virtual influencer” Lil Miquela in the book, and I find her and projects like her to be so boring and irrelevant, but what are your thoughts? Do you expect virtual reality and AI to have an even bigger relationship to the influencer industry than it does now?
In the case of influencers like Lil Miquela, I think that trend seems to have been really overblown. From the brand perspective, it’s perfect because this is someone that you can easily control. But it’s been five or six years since she was launched and clearly it did not incite a wave of CGI influencers. I think AI will play a larger role going forward; a lot of marketing companies have been touting their AI-driven tools that could pinpoint influencers for campaigns or negotiate rates. I think that is where the potential for AI is in this industry. It is potentially worrisome because it is behind the scenes, it’s not something that many people are privy to, unless you work for a brand or marketing firm, or you’re an influencer, who’s, you know, actually intimately engaged in making these deals. I can absolutely see brands and marketers leveraging AI more heavily to help them make decisions.
You wrote about how the influencer industry has seen these macro shifts from fashion influencers to beauty influencers, then fitness influencers, then wellness influencers, then spirituality influencers. Do you get the sense that that trend will continue toward the philosophical or existential?
[Philosophy] has actually always been part of the appeal of [influencers]. I thought it was troubling enough when we were just talking about clothes and beauty products, and now that we are talking about how to parent, your spirituality, your political identification, it’s beyond concerning. Part of what allowed it to gain steam is because people were particularly confused in 2020 and 2021 and it was very destabilizing to the entire world. We have social chaos happening between COVID and the election and George Floyd, which gave a huge boost to people who claim to know what they’re talking about, giving you the illusion of autonomy and ability to manage the chaos. That is what influencers have always done, and now the stakes are just higher.
When you hear people dismiss the influencer industry as vapid or insignificant, what do you think they fail to understand about it?
First of all, in a totally crass way, they don’t understand the financial weight of the industry, and how much money is changing hands, because for better or for worse, that often attracts people’s attention and respect.
I think they also don’t understand its cultural weight. Over time, what happens in the influencer industry has had a tremendous impact on the world around us, whether it’s the way our news is presented and delivered or the way our clothes look and the way our clothes are marketed to us. Our daily lives have been shaped by this industry. People notice it when they go to Target and they see an influencer [fashion] line, and they get annoyed, or when the Fyre Festival happened or when the FTC tried to make an example of Kim Kardashian. But there’s a lot more to it than Target looking at a shiny influencer. Of course the gendered nature of it has played a huge role in it not being taken seriously for a long time.
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