For just a moment, let’s turn to the big data mirror we use to express ourselves: social media. Specifically, influencer culture. The marketing world looks to influencers, popular social media moguls, and micro influencers, those with smaller followings and seem more “authentic”, to reach their audiences. It’s a sound business model. In the current landscape, general audiences and millennials especially are skeptical of advertisements yet willing to try something recommended by the people they know or admire. While only a small percentage of the population uses ad blockers, we’re better at parsing what’s an ad and usually try to ignore them. No one likes feeling like they’re being manipulated. So, manipulators just had to get better at it. Influencer marketing is a billion-dollar industry and despite the handful of think pieces suggesting the contrary, it’s here to stay.
The reason influencer culture is still relevant is that it runs parallel to the phenomenon of fake news and micro-targeted ads. It’s easy to draw parallels between the two. Social media targeting lets brands or organizations whisper into our ears and cater what they say to each of us; it’s why I get followed around the internet by ads about organic cotton dresses and sustainable jewelry. While marketers use influencer marketing like targeted ads to reach niche audiences, they’re disguised. The ads are masquerading as closely to honest content as legally possible. Humans are predisposed to trust the taste and decision-making of those close to us. But what influencer marketing does is intercept that line of trust by presenting people with ideas, opportunities, products, places and experiences that they might not have otherwise recommended or even found. In that way, it’s reminiscent of the phony sites and Facebook pages sharing false stories as news. People believe them because the message aligns with their worldview. People believe influencers because they’re predisposed to trust them.
To be clear, I don’t think social media in a vacuum is the problem, nor do I place the blame entirely on the people who enter these contracts. I blame the companies that understand consumerism and the insecurities that they themselves have planted into cultural zeitgeist to make sales. It’s the same aspirational marketing deeply rooted in the assumption of competition and the assumption of scarce resources (even if those resources are attention, love, beauty, or a caring partner) that brands have been doing for decades. Now, it’s sent to us over a medium that theoretically should have supported community, but instead furthers anxieties over comparison and competition.'Influencer culture takes some of the worst parts of modern life: the importance of physical beauty, competition, consumerism, and monetizes them.'Click To Tweet
There have always been and will always be people of influence, but social media influencers aren’t the same as their predecessors. They’re typically not artists or public figures or philosophers, though many are very creative. They’re gorgeous people who do gorgeous things. Beautiful people with beautiful problems. They’re what we all wish we were, yet no one can truly attain. It’s easy to be caught up in influencer marketing; external validation is delicious. But the problem is that it’s an influence that’s predicated entirely on external factors. We’re already a youth-obsessed beauty-obsessed culture, and now being professionally liked by the 18-35 year old crowd is a career choice. I worry about the people, mostly young women, who aspire to be influencers. Influencer culture takes some of the worst parts of modern life: the importance of physical beauty, competition, consumerism, and monetizes them. It’s peak late-stage capitalism.
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But, again I don’t blame people for wanting to be liked and feel important. Those feelings are valid, but they’re easily manipulated. I’ve done it. In the pursuit of an easy confidence boost, I signed up to be an “influencer” for a clever brand that used the system not only to get customers but free advertising. They give accepted influencers a minimal discount (hint, they accept literally everyone – I accidentally sent a blank form to one brand and before they saw my complete form they replied to the first with discount codes). They made a Facebook page where influencers could talk to each other in a weak attempt to create a community, though it quickly became clear that it wasn’t. So, they got a few hundred people to not only buy their products at nearly full price, but then share the photos for them. They tapped into a market of very young people who desperately want to be influencers. It’s honestly disquieting to think of the millions of mostly young women willing to turn their social presences into billboards for the enrichment of others.'We’re already a youth-obsessed beauty-obsessed culture, and now being professionally liked by the 18-35 year old crowd is a career choice. I worry about the people, mostly young women, who aspire to be influencers.' - EWP's US-based writer Mary ImgrundClick To Tweet
I’ve honestly had trouble writing this because it’s both so personal yet so cliché. Most young people feel anxiety when they go online and a lot of people hate themselves. We’re in the same club, we just haven’t convened any official meetings yet. My dilemma is that outside of becoming a Governor, or Senator, or Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, or beloved writer and social critic, or senior political advisor, there aren’t many ways for me to really feel my impact. I honestly want to influence culture and politics for the better but have neither the aesthetic nor the desire to be an influencer. So not only has influencer culture created a fleeting career path for young Instagram users and manipulated people into mistaking ads for suggestions, it invalidates other forms of positive influence. No one cares if ten thousand people chose to recycle, but ten thousand people might like a photo of a beautiful young woman recycling. Obviously the first has more real-world consequence, but the latter is what everyone wants. That’s why influencers are so powerful. I want to be an inspirer, an uplifter, an advocate, an activist, an altruist, but not an influencer.
What do you think of this modern ‘culture of influence’? Sick of it? Love it? Think it’s on its last legs? Feel free to share your views below.