*I’m using the word ‘influencer’ to describe people whose job is to work on social media as a brand version of themselves. This is a GROSS WORD but it is the current term and is less vague than most of the others*
With more and more people building up an online following and getting paid serious money to recommend products and brands to their audience, I’m sure many people have wondered: “could I do that?”
But for me, the more pressing question is would I want to?
It does – much to the protestations of most influencers – look like a fairly straightforward life. I don’t ascribe to the view that it’s as easy as most people seem to think; shooting and editing photographs and videos, marketing your creations, liaising with brands and attending events all take time. Plus being self-employed comes with a host of administrative responsibilities: sending and chasing invoices, organising your business expenses and the great joy that must be paying your taxes independently.
However, much like a liquid adapts to the shape of its container, I imagine that your workload expands to fit the time you have available. The days of procrastination being relatable and acceptable as a student are gone, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has become magically more productive. It’s also true that, in a world where everyone constantly emphasises just what a busy, busy, important life they have and how much of a luxury it would be to have one single second to themselves, it would feel like social suicide to admit that some days, you do very little.
It doesn’t help that before the days of being paid to use these platforms, everyone found time to make videos and post content around their day jobs. Plus there remain thousands of people posting diligently online who still work a 9-5. Clearly, it is possible. But I’m not a supporter of martyring yourself, and if you’re making enough to support yourself by focusing on your own projects, why wouldn’t you quit working for someone else to your do your own thing full-time?
The key thing is that many of things that are work as an influencer, are things that are either genuinely fun or something most people still have to do for free. Doing funny challenges or getting drunk with your friends is probably something you’d do for free, and if you film yourself getting ready and you post a video of that to YouTube, you are essentially getting paid to get ready in the morning. This is, obviously, something everyone does, and any influencer has to admit that getting paid to do something they would otherwise be doing for free is a huge bonus. If you film it, you profit off it. That means that every mundane chore can become part of your paycheck, provided you ruminate about life or love or your new moisturiser while you do the washing-up. As long as you do a bit of legwork (editing and uploading, though many YouTubers have teams to do this for them now) you get paid just to be. This is a clear departure from what it means historically to ‘work’, hence why it consistently makes waves.
Being able to primarily work on projects that are meaningful to me sounds very appealing. Similarly, the freedom of freelancing in general often captures my attention, and to do so full-time would mean being able to support myself, which given that most influencers live in major world cities would seem feasible. Making money by travelling, messing around with friends and talking about interesting subjects – and then posting photos or videos of it – looks like it would be freeing.
However, it doesn’t all look like rainbows and free stuff to me. My first major concern is the reality of you being the product. Especially with anyone who vlogs regularly, you turn your life into a reality TV show. It’s especially insidious because the more exciting an event in your personal life, the better content it will make. Every event you might want to keep for yourself, you know your viewers are most interested in. Birthdays, weddings, births, illnesses and accidents – all times when you might want to not be working, you have to crack out the camera. The lines between your personal and professional lives are not just blurred, there is no line. They are the same. You’ve commodified your personal experiences and shared them with millions – can anything stay personal when it’s watched by a vast audience?
I can’t imagine having millions of people watching my life like a TV show – how it would warp my sense of self, knowing I had an audience to please who essentially paid my rent. YouTube have recently had to crackdown on family channels who were posting exploitative content of children – e.g. them in distress after an accident, nude or toilet training – and I’ve seen a video containing staged scenes while a couple were at the hospital to have a D&C following a miscarriage. I mean, this stuff is horrifying. I would never want to get to a point where I was staging scenes in my daily life or grabbing my camera before tending to my child if they were hurt.
I’ve even recently deleted my social media apps to minimise my usage, so it’s not looking promising that I’d want to spend my time jumping from one social media platform to another. The lack of boundaries and self-awareness our online culture creates – not just between people but also with ourselves – is enough to make me fear for my livelihood depending on my online persona.
I do recognise that many influencers don’t vlog regularly and only make content related to their themes, like sexuality, comedy, cooking or beauty. It is definitely possible to have a better online/offline balance than channels that record and post their life every day. However, it remains true that, in and of itself, posting a video, photo or podcast doesn’t actually generate money. The thing that makes money is advertising. A video with a million views but no ads won’t generate a penny for the creator. The things that I’m sure influencers truly love – producing funny, informative and/or original content – can only be their full-time job if supplemented by a steady stream of ads, sponsorships and product placement. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with this, it’s just that I wouldn’t want my actual job (the thing that makes me money) to be an online salesperson. I hate watching ads; advertising exists primarily to make us believe that something is wrong with our lives and that spending our money on a product or service can fix that. It’s based on insecurity and filling our lives with stuff we don’t need.
When you skip an ad before a video but then spend five minutes watching someone praise Audible (with the same exact words they used the last time they discussed Audible), you are spending your free time watching ads. When you watch someone cook with Hello Fresh, you are watching a 10-15 minute advertisement. I don’t want to do that (and indeed I don’t, by not watching sponsored content and skipping sponsored segments and posts), not because I don’t support the creator but because it’s not real and advertising is a powerful force that it’s hard to avoid being influenced by. Maybe in the early days reviews were more genuine, but influencer marketing is a huge industry now, with contracts and posts and videos being approved by the brand before publishing. Influencers will be provided copy to use to make sure they include all the necessary information. It’s just an ad, the same as on TV or on a website.
It’s easy to make a leap from this to say: well, do you think all recommendations are bad? No, clearly recommending a book or podcast or mascara to someone because you think it’s great and would suit them is fine. Important, even, as this is how you can reliably discover things that you will probably enjoy. But the differences are a lack of ulterior motive and the lack of individual focus. There is literally no reason for me to recommend a book to my friend if I don’t think they’ll like it. As soon I’m getting paid, even if I liked the book anyway, it changes the meaning of the interaction. This is what brands are profiting from – exploiting what started as an equal online relationship, based on trust, so it looks the same but changes from recommendations to advertisements. The relationship you might have with a creator online goes from person-to-person to salesperson-to-customer. In addition, an influencer isn’t recommending something for you, as they’re recommending the same product to their many followers. It’s not a curated suggestion relevant to your personality, they’re just advertising to the masses and seeing who bites.
If you want this, then genuinely go for it. I’m sure the good aspects that I discussed earlier – the daily autonomy, money and project freedom – would make me very happy. But there are other ways to find those things in your work that don’t involve becoming a product mule and that seems like a better goal for me.