The Influencer Industry Is Built on Precarity
Paris Marx is joined by Emily Hund to discuss the creation of the influencer industry, how it’s been formalized by companies who profit from it, and what can be done to make it fairer for the people who work in it.
Emily Hund is the author of The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media. She’s also a research affiliate at the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. Follow Emily on Twitter at @emilyadh.
Support the show
Venture capitalists aren’t funding critical analysis of the tech industry — that’s why the show relies on listener support.
Become a supporter on Patreon to ensure the show can keep promoting critical tech perspectives. That will also get you access to the Discord chat, a shoutout on the show, some stickers, and more!
Paris Marx: Emily, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Emily Hund: Thank you so much for having me!
PM: I’m very excited to chat with you. You have this new book out recently called “The Influencer Industry” that digs into a lot of this industry that we’re all familiar with, that we all interact with every day now, as we use these social media platforms. And many of the people that we follow on there would be influencers themselves, or in many cases, some of them will be making some income off of their posts or whatever they’re doing online. So I think that this is a really interesting thing for us to dig into and to explore more and for the listeners to understand a bit more about because it’s not something that we really explored on the show before. To get us started, I was hoping that you could define the influencer industry. What is this and how would you explain it to the audience?
EH: Sure, so for the purposes of my research I think of an influencer as someone who creates content for social media and does so aspiring to earn an income from it, and many of them already are earning some amount of money. Some people are at the place where they’ve cultivated a good audience and are just on the cusp of making money. But that is loosely what an influencer is. Behind the influencers that we all see in our feeds, though, is a vast industry that is not quite as publicly visible. So there are the brands who are involved. When you encounter sponsored content in your feed, you might see a brand tag and that sort of thing.
Most retail brands are involved in influencer marketing in some way. They play a significant role in shaping, especially, the financial dynamics of the space. There’s also influencer marketing agencies who have played a really critical role in getting the industry going and growing and making the deal-making process more robust and bringing in more consistency of deal streams and seeking out influencers and things like that. Then of course, there are the platforms that all of this plays out on — Meta, Instagram, TikTok, are the biggest ones. And then there’s the audience: the people who are watching all of this content and whose attention is being collected and quantified to make this business run.
PM: It’s interesting, I guess, I would fit into your definition of an influencer there. It feels a bit weird to be in that position, but I guess that’s the reality [both laugh].
EH: Well, that’s something that has really developed over the course of the industry’s existence, and that I really trace in the book is how the boundaries of the industry have really been continually blurring over time. In previous times, we might look at early influencers, such as big bloggers, or early Instagram influencers. It’s not like everybody who followed them thought: Oh, I’m a blogger, too, or I’m an Instagram influencer, too. There was a little bit more of a separation, I guess. Now, as the industry has grown so much and reshaped the way people communicate on social media, there has been such a blurring of the boundaries between who really is an influencer, and who is thinking of themselves as an influencer, who sees themselves as a potential influencer. Should I be doing this? It’s really just bled out to encompass anyone who uses social media.
PM: Totally and great for the industry, I’m sure, as well, to have many more potential customers and people to advertise to and from and all this kind of stuff.
EH: Oh, yeah! I mean, the more people who think of themselves as a potential influencer, the better for the platform. Because more people using the platform, spending more time on it, creating more free content that to draw in more audiences. So, it’s hugely beneficial for the platform.
PM: I’m sure we’ll come back to that throughout the course of the conversation. But you were talking about how a lot of this finds its roots in the blogging industry, I guess, if we’re looking at how this is playing out online, and how average people are starting to be taken into this industry and how it begins to develop. Can you talk to us about those kind of origins? And when would you periodize that, when is this blogging period and when does that kind of start to wane?
EH: So blogging was a really sort of buzzy and growing and really interesting space starting in late 90s, early 2000s, and throughout the first decade of the 2000s. Blogging continued to grow, continue to reshape some cultural industries, especially journalism. It was one of the first industries to confront these new people who sort of fashion themselves as reporters or citizen journalists or whatever the many terms that they used at the time. They also reshaped conversations around parenting and fashion and just a huge array of topic areas. But all told, when you think of the grand scheme of number of bloggers, a number of people reading blogs, it was still fairly small when compared now to the number of social media users and things like that.
But that was a really electric time for blogging. Then, as we get toward the end of the first decade of the 2000s, there were a number of things going on that sort of made this shift happen from blogging to the origins of the influence or industry that we now think of. So the first, most obviously, were changes in technology. So earlier, technological changes had helped make blogging grow. Like, we look at the launch of blogger and WordPress, and things like that, helped bring blogging to more and more people who didn’t have necessarily technical skills.
PM: I guess, also with the rollout of desktop computers that becomes more common, so you have more people using it and reading that content that way.
EH: Exactly. That brings up the launch of the iPhone and launch of Twitter, and Facebook and YouTube, and Tumblr, obviously, was really big. All these social media platforms were really novel at the time. They launched under this banner of democratization. We are going to democratize culture; we are bringing voice to the voiceless and everything is going to change. Anyone can have an audience; make yourself known, etc. So these technological changes are bringing more people to these platforms and creating content in new ways. When we have the financial crisis and the Great Recession, that opened the floodgates in a way, because we now have this enormous number of people who are unemployed or underemployed, especially people who are in creative or cultural production type of professions who are now looking to these platforms that say: Look, creative expression, democratization, you’re in control. Okay, that’s really appealing to the person who is an aspiring writer or designer or whatever, and just got laid off and sees no future in their industry that they had planned to work in and perhaps more traditional way.
That’s really appealing. So a lot of aspiring, creative professionals flocked to these platforms, then to say: Okay, well, I guess I will start making my own videos, writing my own blog, or I’m going to start posting photos, whatever. I’m going to self-brand online, and I’m going to let the world know: Here I am; here’s my expertise; hire me! But then this also dovetails wit growing levels of social distrust. So, people are increasingly feeling distrustful of social institutions, government, religion, news media — these traditional pillars anchoring society. People are feeling more and more distressed, especially fired up by the economic situation. That provides a really interesting angle for these early influencers, call them protoinfluencers, I guess. They were saying: Hey, I’m working on my own, I got laid-off, I’m not part of the big media, or big whatever. I’m just me, creating this content. So that becomes really appealing to audiences. I want to listen to this person, because they are more authentic, or more real than these corporate monsters, or whatever.
Now we see these content creators start to amass large audiences, and a lot of people who are creating content with the plan of: Oh, I’m gonna use this as a stepping stone to get a new job or go in this other direction. All of a sudden, they realize: I’m becoming a media business, I have my own audience. Pretty soon then advertisers come knocking because, again, advertisers were also dealing with the economic fallout. Businesses were really struggling, and so they are looking for better use of their, their money. They see that these independent media-makers were potentially offering better targeted audiences, more easily measured campaigns, that sort of thing. So advertisers start saying: Hey, can I take out an ad on your blog? Can I send you some product and you maybe write about it or take some pictures of it and see what happens? And again, these people who were struggling in this economic environment said: Hey! Sure, what? You want to give me money? Okay! That is when the seeds of the large influencer industry that we are now experiencing, that’s when they really get planted.
PM: I think you’ve given us such a good picture of how this comes to be. Coming from blogging through to these platforms and the many developments that happem through that period and in very quick succession through the end of the first decade of the 2000s, into the early 2010s. There are a few things that I want to pick up on there. First of all, I feel like, obviously, we’re talking a bit about periodization. But there’s obviously a lot of blurred lines there. Like you have the blogs in that first decade of the 2000s, but I’m sure there’s many of those bloggers who are sharing their blogs on Facebook, or maybe they’re making YouTube videos as well.
But these are more nascent at the moment, and really take off, especially in that mobile era that you’re talking about in the early 2010s, basically, as more people are switching to their phones, I would imagine. I guess I’m thinking as well, even into the early 2010s, I remember, I was reading a lot of travel blogs and things like that. The blog is still there, there’s different forms, and they’re using other ways to get people in and get people paying attention to the content and all those sorts of things.
EH: Absolutely, the blog did not die in 2009, but it was fading away over the course of the early 2010s, especially as influencers moved to Instagram — that was the main platform that people shifted to. In the beginning, it was interesting, because it’s hard to remember, but early Instagram didn’t allow advertising. So a lot of content creators who were creating content and other venues used Instagram as a way of building another audience, maybe driving traffic to their blog, experimenting with personal branding in this space. But it wasn’t for several years, then eventually Instagram changed their mind. That was actually a really critical moment for the expansion of the industry because in that time, when Instagram was still resistant to commercialization, that’s when we see these other third party businesses crop up to say: I’m going to help you monetize your Instagram presence, or I’m going to help you create your influencer business, rather than just being a blogger, or someone who posts nice pictures on Instagram.
So we have the launch of companies like rewardStyle , which is an affiliate marketing tool that helps and continues to exist and grow. They helped bloggers monetize their blog content, and they also created a tool called Like To Know It, which helped people monetize their Instagram content. So if you signed up for it and you liked the content of an influencer, then you would get an email with all of the information. This is what they were wearing; this was the plate they were reading off of; this was everything that you could buy about this photo. The audience member could get that in an email, and then click, click, click, buy! Influencer earns a commission, and the brand is happy because they’ve made sales. Then the audience member feels they’ve gotten access to this aspirational lifestyle. Companies like rewardStyle were able to plant their feet in this time and establish themselves as major players in this industry. Then many other types of businesses in the loose umbrella of influencer marketing agency just exploded during this time.
These agencies took many different approaches to their business model. Their offerings were very different, because everyone was tussling around trying to figure out what was the most resonant business model, or what message was going to bring the most consumers. What tool was going to bring the most users? So there was just a huge array of types of approaches to the business of influencer marketing. But during this time, there was just a huge expansion in the number of agencies who were trying to insert themselves in the space and basically get a piece of the pie of that burgeoning relationship between brands and influencers. Trying to be the ones who manage the influencers career, trying to be the ones who brought the brands and the influencers, together. Trying to be the ones who provided tools to brands so that they could select the best influencer for them, all of these different things. But there’s this huge expansion in that time and that is when we see the industry really start to grow and mature and expand, from this little bit more haphazard group of brands and creators trying to figure out what’s going on and to a larger much more organized machine.
PM: The thing that really stands out to me as I hear you describe that, you’re talking about the creation of rewardStyle. You’re talking about the creation of these agencies that are looking to these influencers, to represent them, to obviously make money off of them. And you’re talking about how one of the real preconditions for this — or a few of the preconditions — were the launch of the mobile era, the 2008 Recession, and the economic precarity that followed that. It also makes me think about the other major emergence from that period, which is obviously the gig economy. This is where you have a ton of people lose their jobs and they start doing work for Uber and these various apps and things like that. And all of these apps are based on the fact that many people now have mobile phones. I wonder if you see any comparisons between the growth of the influencer industry alongside the gig economy, and these other industries that are also being built using technology on economic precarity, in that moment.
EH: So I think the influencer industry of that time and the gig economy both benefited from this really optimistic public narrative about taking control over your professional life. In a time where there was just immense, immense economic uncertainty, career uncertainty, everyone’s getting laid off — it seems like no one is safe in this environment. They both kind of purported to allow you to regain control, whether it is build your personal brand and monetize yourself and rely on you, as it was in the influencer industry. This is a very similar narrative to the early gig economy. It’s like: Work your own hours; just take the jobs that feel good to you and you’re going to be able to make money in the exact way that you want to. Then pretty quickly, we start to see the cracks in that narrative, but they both really benefited from that idea in their formative years.
PM: Absolutely! You’ve talked about how there’s a lot of lack of trust in this period, and how that leads to a real desire for the influences that you’re following, the people that you’re seeing online, to be perceived as authentic. I talked recently to David Banks and he was talking about how cities also adopted this narrative of authenticity. They needed to be the authentic, purveyors of whatever it was that their specific city did. But, obviously, on social media, authenticity has been something that has been really key. People want to see you as someone who is authentic, and then there’s pressure on the influencers — the people who see this as their profession in particular — to present themselves as being authentic. In the book, you write that, “Authenticity is not a social construction, but an industrial one.” Can you expand on that and explain to us why authenticity is so important to the influencer industry?
EH: So, authenticity has been important to persuasive messaging for generations. It’s already something that people have leveraged for a long time to bolster themselves. As a communication scholar, I think back to previous media eras. You look back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and magazines at that time, and they were often trying to portray Hollywood stars as being like: Look at them at home, here are their children and their pets. We just love them because it’s the way they live at home. And so that was another authenticity play, to try to bolster these public personalities at the time.
PM: Weird to think the celebrities as positioned as they’re just like you and me, instead of this unattainable or thing that we just need to pay attention to gawk at [both laugh]
EH: Exactly! This is already a media and cultural norm, I would say, is sort of trying to find ways to leverage authenticity, to bolster public personalities. Now, it’s really interesting the way it took root in the influencer industry, because in the influencer industries, early years, a lot of the first generation of influencers, if you will, were talking about who they were and how they got to where they were. And like: I just fell into this because I got laid off and blah, blah, blah. That story was true for a lot of these peeople. They weren’t constructing this down on your luck story, necessarily. They really had gotten laid off, and really were surprised by the early advertisers who offered them money and things like that. But then that narrative just planted itself in the industry, and has refused to quit 15 years on, even though being an influencer is obviously something that people strategize and aspire to be now. You’re not just falling into it anymore. We get it — we know what it is!
But that early generation who did kind of fall into it, that narrative just became locked in as like: We are turning to social media to pursue our interests and communicate about who we are, and live our passions and things like that. And that has been just so persistent, even despite all of the stories that have come forward over the last decade plus about how this is an industry. This is not just people being me and having fun. There is a lot of like strategy behind it. But also, the work of being an influencer is extremely difficult. There’s a lot of inequalities baked into this industry. We have seen all of this. But that narrative is just so persistent, part of the reason for that is simple in that people love to aspire. It’s nice to sort of have to sort of believe in a dream, even if it’s not necessarily attainable, or even real.
And the other part of it, the more sort of complicated end, is this transformation of authenticity into an industrial construction, which I get into in the book. That is how the early sort of players — the content creators and influencers, the brands, the marketing agencies — once they recognize that the reason that audiences were flocking to these creators is because of their seemingly authentic nature, then that became the thing that they had to commodify. And they had to keep the pipe of authenticity flowing, so that they could continue to build this business, and everyone could continue to make money. So they had to start trying to measure authenticity, trying to pinpoint it, shape it, cultivate it, and sell it. And so the performance of authenticity in this space becomes dependent on what advertisers and marketers need in any given moment, and the changing nature of the platforms. The tools that they make available to communicate who you are.
So, I talked to a couple of people for my book, who had quit the influencer industry — people who had had built a thriving business, and were doing really well financially. And initially, were feeling very creatively fulfilled by the work, but then ultimately decided to quit. The details of their reasons vary, but the consistent thing across these stories was a resistance to the shifting monetizable nature of authenticity. So these people who I interviewed who quit, ultimately, the breaking point came when the reigning industrial definition of authenticity was, paradoxically, not something that felt actually authentic to them. So I had people say: When the industry pivoted to video, and I had to start coming on Instagram stories and portray myself as raw and authentic in that way of just chit chatting with no makeup, that actually didn’t feel right to me, I did not feel comfortable with that, that is not how I want to communicate. So I’m going to quit.
There were a lot of sort of variations on that story, and also how the changing technological affordances and the norms in expressing yourself also sort of opened the door wider to more audience feedback. And that, of course, becomes a problem for influencers as well, when they are just dealing with this immense amount of input every day from from the audience, and they say: I can’t deal with this anymore; this is not an authentic way for me to be, even though this is the valuable version of authenticity at this time.
PM: That’s so fascinating. And especially when you talk about the shifts in the platforms, obviously, that is something I’ve talked to a number of people about in this moment as Twitter seems to be on a downward trajectory, and that’s kind of the only big text platform left, everything else is kind of visual or video, like Instagram, or TikTok or YouTube. And there’s also a growing pressure now for people who do podcasts to start doing video as well, and putting it on YouTube instead of just out on the audio feeds. So I think that is a very real pressure that I definitely understand.
EH: Does it feel authentic to you to be filming these interviews? [laughs]
PM: Exactly! Obviously, we can see each other right now, but the video doesn’t go anywhere. I only share the audio, and I wouldn’t want to do video all the time. So I understand that feeling that you’re describing, I guess! [both laugh]
Obviously, you’ve talked about the involvement of companies like rewardStyle, you talked about the platforms, you talked about the agencies that get involved. But how does this go from people posting on social media who start to develop audiences to something that is actually a key part of advertising and marketing strategies, as many companies and brands are not only developing their own accounts and their own kind of personal voices on their various social media accounts, but also, as you say, working with these influencers to do brand deals with them to get them to promote particular things? How does that shift from people posting on social media to: Okay, now there’s this massive industry that is measuring all these posts, that is looking for the best way to kind of get these brands messages out there and paying kind of massive deals with these very popular influencers in order to help them do that.
EH: So I think, again, to return to the early years of this time of economic turmoil, I think that made brands more open to the idea of exploring these new platforms, because of these economic circumstances. If everything was going great, they probably would have been a lot more resistant to saying: Okay, now I have to adapt to social media — what is that? What is Instagram? But everything wasn’t going great. So they said: Okay, let’s take a look at what’s going on here. And then things just really started to take off from there. And we see the early changes or the early impacts of the influencer industry in these cultural industries that were already in a lot of turmoil. So if we look again at the magazine industry, which I was working in at the time, and I write about in the book, and the fashion industry, and also, journalism, and news production more broadly, these were all industries of cultural production, that were struggling mightily at this moment.
The people who were working in them — so aspiring writers and reporters, aspiring designers — all kinds of people were also some of the early adopters of platforms like Instagram. And so we see these industries start to reckon with the power of bloggers and the power of Instagramers, 10 or 15 years ago. There’s a lot of really hilarious press, from 2008, 2009 to 2010, about like: Oh, the bloggers are taking over! The bloggers are taking over the tents at Fashion Week, and wow, what’s going on? And we see these older cultural industries have to adjust to this era of social media, and they start to sort of adjust their strategies sooner. And so we see if we look to these sorts of cases of the fashion industry or the magazine industry, we can see how, again, 10 plus years ago, they were looking to: Okay, who’s influential online right now? Who has the biggest readership on their blog? Who has lots of followers on Instagram? We are going to reward them for that, and we’re going to give them jobs, or we’re going to give them products, we’re going to use them in some way. And same with the journalism space. Twitter obviously became huge.
Blogging was obviously a huge force in news production. And, it became like: Oh, wow, this person has a lot of followers on Twitter, and we need to write articles with headlines that are going to get traction on social media. And, again, in the fashion industry, we see this close monitoring of the metrics of content. So, who is reacting to the dress and who is able to sell the dress? And how is it selling through in these Instagram campaigns? So in these early years, we already see the sort of adoption of the surveillance, really of what is going on, in the influencer space sort of broadly understood, and then sort of taking that information and adjusting the cultural production in these other arenas accordingly. So this has been going on for a long time. And that is what actually got me interested in this as a research area. Because I saw how the early influencer industry was providing this feedback that was reshaping how information and culture were produced.
Now, as the industry has changed, and grown, and again, these boundaries have blurred as technology has changed, as we are all more connected to these forever changing platforms. Now, I think in the last few years, more and more people are starting to notice how the influencer ethos of cultivating an audience on social media and leveraging it for economic and social rewards has infiltrated our daily lives, our politics, our other cultural industries that we interact with other experiences — how restaurants have changed, and museums have changed and politics. So much has taken on what’s going on out there with influencers and use that information to reshape how they work.
PM: It’s both fascinating and concerning, as well, to see how that has developed and how these pressures are not just among people who are trying to sell their lifestyles, basically, as this became the career but now, become something that’s so essential to just so many other things. I wonder, talking about that and talking about how this influencer industry has spread, and how there’s a growing pressure for more people to be thinking about this and be engaged with this. There’s another side of the influencer industry. Of course, it’s not just the selling things. But as you were saying earlier, there’s also a lot of pressure that comes with it. There’s potential exploitation from commercial actors, there are also the difficulties of having to post so much the potential mental health effects that comes with that, managing relationships with followers and all those sorts of things. How do you see kind of that side of the influencer industry and the pressures that that places on those people and those individuals as they are engaging in this, and making this their profession, basically?
EH: So, in order to successfully perform authenticity, and again, they are performing — it doesn’t mean that they’re lying about everything that they do, but it is a performance that influencers have to carefully construct. And they have to do it in a way that pleases their advertisers, and their audiences, and the opaque algorithms that privilege particular types of content that influencers are entirely reliant on. Because they need the visibility and the numbers to continue to build their audience and to continue to get the brand deals that they rely on. And so doing this is a really taxing, ever-changing dance. There is a lot of uncertainty in the work of being an influencer, they have to expend a tremendous amount of energy, just trying to suss out what is going on with the platform on any given day.
So creating the content is an enormous amount of work as it is. So, creating the right video, editing, especially in this time that we’re in now of video being dominant. Filming yourself is really difficult. You make one little slip up, and you’ve got to start again, and planning your content, shooting it, editing it, getting it posted, blah, blah, blah, that’s a tremendous amount of work in and of itself. But that is almost like ancillary, and what I’m talking about to all the other work that they have to do. So there is the work of, again, trying to suss out what’s going on on the platform on any given day, because there’s basically no transparency between the platforms and the influencers. And all of us as users. There’s no transparency.
PM: There’s always a focus on the algorithm, and what the algorithm is doing now, how it’s changed what it’s promoting how you can like, adjust your content in order to appeal to the algorithm or get the algorithm to boost it. I remember these conversations about YouTube, and you’d always hear YouTubers talking about the algorithm and what was going on there. But even recently, with the changes at Twitter, people were talking about what is Twitter boosting these days, because things have changed as Elon Musk has taken over. And I remember Ryan Broderick who who writes the Garbage Day newsletter and has looked into this a lot was experimenting with what worked on Twitter now, and what got things boosted and promoted in whatever their algorithmic feed is called these days. But it’s something that people are always paying attention to, because it’s so important, especially if, I guess your income is dependent on these platforms, boosting you and treating you in such a way where you’re going to be in front of a lot of people.
EH: I mean, we’ve all had that experience, I think, as users of opening up our apps of choice one day and thinking like: What am I looking at? Where did this come from? I’m seeing all this stuff that I’ve never seen before, people I’m not following what you just said, reminded me of that moment, a few months ago, when that @dieworkwear guy became the main character on Twitter. He is super interesting, and creates all this really thoughtful and historically grounded fashion content. But suddenly, Twitter is promoting him to like everybody, and he’s getting like thousands of new followers. And then also, with that comes an influx of harassment and bad faith people who are following and engaging with you in a really negative way. So there is just so much unpredictability with this. And it’s unnerving enough to all of us who are just users when you wake up and your feed is totally different. But imagine if your livelihood was dependent on that. And then it becomes a real panic situation.
And again, there’s no one that you can call; there’s no HR like customer service, really, at these platforms an influencer can call and say: Hey, what’s going on? What’s not working today? I know Instagram recently introduced a paid tier where you do get access to someone, but that’s bananas to me. Also, the fact that it’s taken so long to even offer that little crumb. Why do we put up with this? I mean, I know why, but it’s just mind boggling how resigned we are, to putting up with us and now these platforms are able to get away with it. So influencers have to spend a tremendous amount of time.There’s a lot of folk theories of the algorithm and what’s it doing now. This is another challenge of working as an influencer is there is not a lot of professional cohesion, or identity, shared identity or solidarity, because influencers do work independently. Many of the higher tier ones, I guess, might have a small team or things like that.
But it’s not like a bunch of influencers are all working together every day. And so they’re kind of on their own. And so, influencers will sometimes try to reach out to each other, or they’ll try to sort of form support groups, being like: What’s working for you? There was that moment years ago when pods was a thing. And it was like: Oh, the influencers are getting together in these pods, and they’re all agreeing to like each other’s content to boost visibility, and things like that. And then the platform’s cracked down and say: Oh! That’s inauthentic behavior. Well, it feels pretty authentic to me, as a person who’s struggling to make a living.
PM: A few years ago there was a big focus on hype houses and things like that as well — getting these people all together. And then there were stories that came out about the exploitation and stuff that happened in some of those houses. So, I think it’s always something that is difficult. I wonder, did the pandemic change the industry, very much like the experience of things being shut down? Was there any kind of major changes that came out of that moment?
EH: A few things. So first is, especially those early months of the pandemic, when everything was truly closed, and influencers could not go to their locations for shooting really glamorous content and things like that. And they were kind of at home, like everybody else, they continued to resonate with their audiences, I think, because more than they had been in a long time, their experience was actually a bit more similar and shared than it had been for years. Everyone was dealing with this same scary moment and having to be at home situation and all of that. That shifted, too, the reigning, industrial definition of authenticity that push things even more toward the chit chat, the seemingly off the cuff video content. Obviously, TikTok — that is when TikTok really gained a foothold in the US and in many influencers tried to move to TikTok and many new up and coming influencers kind of found their footing on Tiktok. And that was that moment.
Also, in the early months as well, affiliate marketing like rewardStyle, and things like that did really well. They had no competition from brick and mortar. Everyone was buying everything online, for the most part. And they did quite well during that time. And I think the pandemic showed that, despite massive changes to people’s daily rhythms and routines, the influencer industry could continue to adapt and survive and actually grow, and recruit more people to want to be a part of it. Again, because people were home and it’s like: Ooh, man, maybe I’ll mess around with TikTok and see what happens! Another totally different aspect of what happened during the pandemic. So first, we had, not just the pandemic going on, but also, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders happened around that time, and then the fallout, the massive protests, the public conversations about persistent racism and inequalities that are baked into institutions. In the influencer industry, that became a really public and sort of pertinent conversation as well. Sort of prior to that time, there have always been inequalities baked into this industry, actual comprehensive data of the industry is really difficult to come by.
But from interviewing people, over the years, it has become clear that gender inequalities and racial inequalities and class inequalities are sort of baked into the space. And it’s something that influencers sometimes sort of, whispered about with each other. It was something that was kind of a little bit talked about internally, but not a lot. And then, in that context of 2020, that became a much more public conversation, and brands, again, realizing that they needed to meet the moment in order to continue to be a viable partner and not totally reviled in the public eye, they had to adjust their messaging and practices as well. So in some ways, some good came of it because some brands adjusted their pay policies, for example, and made commitments to always pay in money for example, and not just free product, committing to more diverse casting and campaigns, things like that. So there were some steps in the right direction. But that also was brands and marketers just going far enough to not be reviled with without going really far and really rebuilding from the ground up and in a consistent way. It was like a moment. And now the conversation has sort of faded from public view again. But that definitely was a moment of change for the industry, as well.
And the other big change that happened in the context of the pandemic was the rise of influencers, who were claiming to be experts on a variety of topics. So this has always been sort of a part of the influencer industry, again, if we look back to fashion and travel and things like that. Anyone was sort of posing as an expert, 10-15 years ago. You didn’t have to have formal training or whatever. And that was part of the controversy at the time, like: Oh this person doesn’t really know, fashion! But the stakes were a little bit different, I would say, when it was a some untrained person commenting on fashion, or travel or what have you and then it becomes untrained people commenting on a public health crisis, or the political environment of the time. And so that has been extremely consequential for the industry, because it really ushered in this new era of the industry of being really focused on ideas and approaches to the world. In the book, I say, it’s about what to think, rather than what to buy now.
We’re almost getting acclimated to this moment, where anyone can sort of tell us about any sort of topic, and they’re able to monetize their personal brands and monetize their audiences, positioning themselves as an expert on healthcare, the intentionally vague wellness term or in these political subjects and things like that. That is very worrisome to me, and something that we, as a society, and those who are actually working in the industry, really need to confront and act on before things spiral, even more so than they already have.
PM: I guess, on one hand, you did have a lot of doctors who were gaining a lot of followers during the pandemic, as they were educating people about what was going on. But then on the other hand, you had a lot of anti-vaxxers and people like that, who were also gaining a lot of followings, as they were pushing out alternative views on these things. I also find it interesting that, for a long time, there was a view, or commonly accepted knowledge or just approach was probably not comment very much on politics, because you might alienate some of your potential followers, and then that wouldn’t be good for advertisers or the brands who are working with you. But now it feels like increasingly, you can’t really ignore the politics that are going on. And if you’re not saying anything, then that’s probably going to be noticed.
EH: Absolutely. For so many years, in the in the early years of the influencer industry, the expectation was: Don’t say anything, that might alienate anyone, because you want to build as large of an audience as you can, and you want to — and this is still true — you have to be brand safe, as they call it. Your feed needs to be a place where brands feel comfortable inserting their message. And so for a long time, that was like: Don’t say anything political, because brands won’t like that. Then the environment shifted, and you have to, I think, because of the seriousness and severity of the things that we were confronting. But also because of the shifting technological dynamics of the industry as well, where we have to be chatting, we have to be casual. And with that comes, sharing what you think about politics and sharing, where do you stand on the protests that are going on? Have you gotten your vaccine yet? And why or why not? And if you did, tell us about the side effects and tell us about your whole experience. Let us see you do it. And so there was just a tremendous shift in that direction as well. And again, that is another moment where I think a lot of influencers too, dropped off, like people who had already sort of established themselves, then met that moment and said, No, this is not authentic to me. So I am not going to do this anymore. So it’s really sort of opened the floodgates in that sense.
PM: That’s a really good point about the shifting nature of being more chatty, but then you also need to share your opinions on other things. I’m wondering, as we start to kind of wind down this conversation, you talked about how these platforms, this industry keeps growing, and that it needs to keep kind of bringing more people into it. And in the book, you talked about how you see more of a shift in kind of the terminology away from influencer toward creator as a more kind of general term that can encompass more people. And I feel like at the same time, we’re also seeing a shift toward a platform like TikTok and platforms that work more like TikTok, where it feels like completely random people can just have their videos explode overnight. And it’s a very different kind of way of building a platform and potentially building influence than maybe what we saw on some other platforms in the past. So how do you see this kind of continuing as these platforms, and as this industry wants to kind of bring more people into it and keep expanding that?
EH: So I think the shift to creator as a term is really fraught, because I totally understand why some influencers are pushing in that direction. The word influencer has become sort of a dirty word, almost — it brings to mind someone who’s trying to sell you something or just trying to get you to believe something or act in a certain way. And there’s a number of people working in the space who say: I’m an entrepreneur, I do a lot more than that; I’m a creator. And I totally get that. But as a term, it is very vague, and I think it benefits platforms and other bodies who are not us personally, if more and more people, we can think of ourselves as creators, and especially in this moment, have platforms like Tiktok, that do seemingly pluck people out of obscurity in a way that Instagram doesn’t, or hasn’t done in a really long time. There is a sort of endless potential of like: I’m a creator, you’re a creator. Tomorrow, I could have this enormous audience and my whole life will change. And so I better invest some amount of time and energy into creating content for these platforms, because you never know.
And again, that really speaks to how these fundamental structural pieces that made the industry possible 15 plus years ago, have not really changed that much. The world has obviously changed, tremendously. Technology has changed — a lot has changed. But the sort of basic principles of economic uncertainty, a sense of professional precarity, a sense of uncertainty about the future, and the sort of pressure to rely on yourself, and figure out how to survive on your own. And also this sense of social distrust sense of sort of powerlessness or resignation to the monopolist billionaires that are seemingly taking over more and more like functions of our lives, the sort of fundamental, negatively tinged feelings of uncertainty really haven’t changed.
And so, that I think keeps the appeal of becoming a successful content creator influencer. And it continues to sort of lock people into this sort of loop of: I have to find ways to create a safety net for myself, so maybe I should start posting on TikTok, even though I’m a vet, or even though I am a school teacher; I should start making content on TikTok because you never know. And so that sort of fundamental uncertainty and the economic reality that many people, even super educated professionals are living paycheck to paycheck in many cases. And so that kind of keeps gas in the tank of this industry.
PM: You can very clearly see how so many of these platforms do depend on kind of constantly having people who are making content for them, who maybe don’t expect to take off or maybe are doing so in the hopes that they are going to kind of replicate the pathways have one of the influencers or creators that they follow, and will kind of join those ranks. But obviously, there are way more people trying to do that than there are people who ever kind of succeed and have it become their incomes. And I’m wondering, reflecting that and recognizing what you’re saying about the economic precarity that that is based in this the kind of potential exploitation that happens in this industry, what is the right approach to try to improve these things? Do we need more gun regulation? Do we need more organizing by influencers to try to kind of demand better treatment? Or, do we need to kind of reconsider how this industry just works at a much more basic and fundamental level?
EH: So I think that change has to come at multiple levels. I think the biggest work has to be done — for better or for worse — by the people working in the industry themselves. Those working in the industry need to recognize where we are at fundamentally. Yes, it has been shown that this industry can make a lot of money. It has been shown that it’s a great tool for getting brands’ messages out there, and driving sales, and all of that. Some influencers are able to make it in an entrepreneurial way and have a thriving business. There are a whole lot of other people who are not, and who are essentially providing free labor, for both brands and platform companies, and people who are being exploited. And even the people who have made it are still working in this really uncertain space, where everything can be ripped away from them tomorrow, and it’s very taxing mentally. It’s taxing on people’s mental health.
We see what’s going on. And we’ve seen now the direction of the people who are pushing misinformation, people who are portraying really harmful content. We talk about self-harm content and body image and all this stuff. There is enough information out there, where people in the industry can understand where the industry is at. They have a choice to make. Are we going to steer this industry into a more pro-social future? This would look like better worker organization on the on the part of influencers. So they professional solidarity building, demand making as especially as far as pay equity and transparency, I think, are huge. Are we going to be more transparent about the work that we do, and, educate the public about what actually is this? And explain to people what an influencer is how they work with brands? This is similar to how the advertising industry had to make a case for itself in its early years of existence and growing. Platforms, too, need to have a way of flagging content.
So people need to have a better understanding of the context when they are viewing influencer’s content. This is not just a person that I happened to stumble upon, who makes like funny videos. This is a person whose job it is to create content, which means they are beholden to these other groups. We need to have a better basic public understanding about what the influencer industry is. And so the people working in the industry, at brands at the major agencies, influencers themselves, they have to choose: Are we going to shepherd this industry into a more sort of professionalized, organized future where we kind of sort of shape the industry into a sort of more structured cultural industry, like many other cultural industries, or are we going to continue to to just try to scrape by and survive on our own or make sure our business doesn’t fail, or your agency doesn’t fail, and turn a blind eye to the many problems of the space and cross our fingers? And hope we don’t burn it all to the ground?
But I think that making the latter choice will have extremely detrimental effects. We’ve already gotten a taste of those, when we look at what has happened with messaging around COVID, what has happened around political messaging, and how difficult it can be to sort of suss out truth from fiction on these platforms or sponsored from not sponsored. We’ve already gotten a taste of that. And I don’t think it really benefits anyone to allow that to go on out of control. And so it’s really incumbent on the people working in the industry to shepherd it into a better future.
But then, of course, there’s also a role for regulation there, especially when it comes to the transparency between platforms and their users, not just influencers, but all of us who have little to no understanding about how the algorithms work, and why we’re seeing that what we see what kind of data is being collected on us, what are they doing with it. There needs to be much more transparency and much more autonomy given to the user about more control on the for the users about how their experience is being sort of curated for them. And then it sounds throw-away, but I don’t think it is. I think on the part of the user as well — if you’re just a person who is scrolling and enjoying or not enjoying content, influencer content. I think that little changes on the part of the user can make a difference, at least.
I would like to see larger structural and collective change. But in the meantime, users can choose to not look at content — content that is making them feel bad, content that they can suss out is providing money to brands that they don’t agree with, or things like that. You can unfollow — you can look away. And you also can advocate for yourself on a political level, as well. You can recognize that you are a part of this, as well. If you’re posting content, you are part of the reason that these platform companies have so much value, because you are helping keep users there too, because your followers want to see your content and you’re spending time on the apps as well. So recognition on the part of users have the sort of amount of power that they do have in this situation, and sort of advocating for themselves and and acting in their their own best interest for their own well-being would be helpful.
PM: Don’t be scared to block; don’t be scared to unfollow. I do that all the time. It can make the experience much better if you choose the right way to use them. And I think you can very clearly see how these companies have benefited a lot from this industry, and they probably have certain incentives not to change it a whole lot. So that’s where there needs to be pressure from organized influencers who create this stuff, but also potentially from government to push them to do the right thing. Emily, it’s been great to chat with you. It’s been great to learn more about the book and the influencer industry, and more generally. Thanks so much for taking the time.
EH: Thank you. I had a great time!