Updated: Aug 6
Influencers are too often an easy punchline for those who don’t have the time or inclination to consider this digital career on a more serious level.
I never thought I would be writing in defense of influencers, but stranger things have happened in the last year. As I contemplate my own work and experiences as an influencer a few recurring themes have become clear. Criticisms of influencers often:
Are rooted in sexism.
Rely on the concept of certain work being “unworthy.”
Don’t account for privilege.
Lack acknowledgement of personal responsibility.
Widespread characterization of influencers as dumb and vapid is rooted in sexism. 77% of influencers are women. If the vast majority of influencers were men, would we see the same level of vitriol and mockery as we do now? If men dominated this field, would we consider it a real profession, rather than just a hobby worthy of ridicule and disdain? Would we see social media bios proudly state that an account is run by “locals” or “videographers” while emphasizing that they are not “influencers”?
If a group, primarily men, mastered complex computer algorithms (the inner workings of which are closely held secrets of some of the world’s most valuable companies), taught themselves advanced photography and videography, learned the art of performing on camera, and grew adept at negotiating contracts, in addition to becoming digital marketing gurus who often conceptualize, write, and produce their own content with limited equipment, what would we think of them? I suspect, deep down in my core, that we would consider the select few of those men who managed to do all of that and grow successful businesses to be geniuses and lionize them like we have the leaders of major tech companies.
Another common criticism is that by taking on ads, influencers are somehow tainted or “bad”. Usually, these critiques don’t actually explain why ads are automatically negative. Instead, they paint anyone who takes them on in poor light with little to no explanation or nuance. Some accounts push out branded, easily shareable graphics and content capitalizing on trends in a manner strikingly similar to influencers, yet publicly and widely share their policy of never taking on paid ads. They hold it up proudly as a marker, a point of pride intended to separate them from the taint of influencers who do engage in paid partnerships.
This perspective is rooted in financial privilege and a narrow view of what constitutes “work.”
Why would we expect or even hope for someone to labor and not be paid? Whatever our opinions about ads and the ways that targeted advertising impacts us, why are we seeking to glamorize unpaid work as the desired standard?
Yes, commercial relationships should be disclosed to audiences and other measures taken to ensure transparency. But what does it mean when a common refrain in the digital arena holds up people who have the privilege to do labor-intensive work -- to make graphics, edit photos, and take time out of their day to share curated information -- but accept no pay or compensation as the ideal model?
Sneering at influencers who take on paid partnerships ultimately means that we support upper-middle-class, predominantly white, wealthier voices in the digital space. It means that we can’t or won’t seek to uphold standards that would allow for the inclusion of more people from marginalized backgrounds who may need payment to be able to continue their work.
I’ll belabor this point a bit more, as I think it’s truly a vital one. Before social media and the rise of widespread internet access, our popular culture was largely defined by more traditional media. Radio, film and television, and major and local news outlets had a dominant hand in creating our popular shared culture. Those are the same outlets and forces that have come under heavy fire in recent years for classism, sexism, racism, and a whole host of other issues.
Today, the rise of influencers offers an opportunity for a much more diverse set of perspectives to shape our popular culture, with less gatekeeping and without some (but not all) of the institutional barriers of more traditional media. To ensure that influencers and other new voices in the digital arena are truly representative of our society, we must recognize that many of them will need to receive payment to ensure their participation.
Whether we like it or not, our society is built on capitalism with a limited social safety net. Just as for other professions paid influencer work is “worthy,” especially when we consider that it has the potential to impact and diversify our ongoing process of culture creation.
The influencer space is not above reproach. There is a lack of transparency and compliance with FTC rules, particularly around free products or services and relationships that would impact an influencer’s content. Some influencer posts engage with trends that don’t seem to have any purpose other than to get likes and shares. I also bristle at the overwhelming whiteness of the influencer space, though I understand that a multitude of factors coalesce to create predominantly white niches and many of those factors are beyond the control of individuals. The list goes on and on. Yet we should not ignore the role and responsibility of customers: the users who follow influencers online and engage with their work.
We (and this includes me) complain about the focus on food porn and lack of nuance among some food influencers. Yet, would food porn be so prevalent if vast numbers of users didn’t like it, comment on it, share it, and follow the influencers who produced it? Likely not.
And, yes, we hate-watch accounts we disagree with while we remain unwilling or unable to turn away though we know our follows and attention are literal digital currency. Individual choices about what influencers we give that currency to won’t magically make the industry fairer or more honest. But they do have an impact, as do the questions, comments, and DMs we send to influencers. We can ask for better if we desire it.
Ultimately, do I think influencers should be absolved of all responsibility for their actions? No. Do I think regulatory bodies should better enforce transparency rules in the influencer space? Absolutely.
But should we hold up free work as inherently more legitimate, ignore the expertise and labor of a largely female workforce, and downplay our own participation and culpability in the same system we are complaining about? Definitely not.