From an encounter with the notorious Instagram influencer, one writer explores the past, present, and future of influencerdom
It's the twentysomethings and current affairs so often feel like sophisticated, horrible, science fiction. Exploring the boundaries of the real and the imaginary, Confused News is a literary series which takes real-world news into sci-fi territory. Taken from the spring 2020 issue of Dazed.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the influencer economy took hold. Take a glance at any industry – from fashion to tech, wellness and even sex work – and all visible metrics of capitalism have been surrendered to a white-knuckle class of unspecial inexperts, crowdsourced for their social media followings and their seemingly limitless vacuum of standards; those with the blithe capacity to shill for any brand or hawk any product, at any time, with minimal pushback – or, even worse, irony. A true post-recession phenomenon, influencerdom gained rise around 2010 – the tail-end of fashion and luxury’s grand democratisation – after bloggers crashed the front rows at Paris Fashion Week, tumblr artists were handed Diesel campaigns, and reality stars became supermodels. It also came about in tandem with the rise of Trumpism and European nationalism, following decades of unregulated capitalism. That all of this happened at the same time social media became our go-to news hub, misinformation became rampant, and elections were increasingly at risk of being hacked is no coincidence. Influencers have taken over at the precise moment capitalism is flying off the rails and democracy is beginning to shudder under the weight of its own ineptitude. How did we get here? And how do we escape?
In the 2010s, millennials became sullen. As earners, creators and consumers, we bought into the dream of social meritocracy that came with the rise of Facebook and Instagram, embracing the gig economy as a meaningful alternative through which to acquire independence and pur- sue creative satisfaction (if also economic precarity and, in the US, wholesale abandonment of reliable healthcare). Millennials are, uniquely, the generation born into the capitalist dream of the baby boom who were held down and forced to watch it implode. Suddenly, signing away one’s life to the almighty dollar became a taxing risk. Everybody was out for themselves. A SoundCloud rapper could skyrocket to stratospheric wealth off the merits of a flimsy chorus comprised of words repeated enough times to make them meme-worthy. The fandom over these figures was honourable, built on a kind of folk heroism: we championed those who succeeded at hacking the ceiling. But many saw fig- ures without evident vocations reaping the rewards of building large followings by means both superficial (read: being hot) and suspicious (according to Wired, up to half the followers on celebrity Instagram accounts are fake). Influencing became the easiest scam, because it required little skill, talent or ingenuity. Sometimes, all you had to do was have the right parents or friends. If you saved up enough, you could even buy your way in.
All of this is understandable and not necessarily amoral. The reification of big money within our obscenely stratified economic system has left a generation in the lurch – what did we expect? Last year, I took a press trip to Montreal for the launch of a new brand by a venerated designer. The PR took me around the city and entertained me along with a small cluster of other media folk, including an influencer I’ll refer to as ‘Deborah’. As she was unaffiliated with a publication, I was curious about who she was and what she was doing on the trip, and was struck by her loud sense of entitlement. While many of us planned interviews with the designer, premiered the content of the collection or simply reviewed it, her only assignment was apparently to have a good time and take photos of herself during the trip, tagging the PR company and the brand (including on photographs of dinner). “Thank you!” she often gushed, tagging the designer personally as though she were bestowed with an incredible personal gift by a close friend (they were not and, I believe, are still not acquainted). My curiosity having gotten the better of me, I found Deborah on Instagram (26,000 followers) and scanned her feed for analysis: lo and behold, I quickly decoded her blueprint.
It turns out that becoming an influencer is like taking candy from a baby. It’s a step-by-step process that goes a little like this: (1) Tag brands and thank them for products of theirs that you’ve actually purchased, creating the illusion you have been gifted the items because you are on some type of list. (2) Shamelessly, directly, publicly ask for more products from said brand – and others! (3) Compile as many ‘pro- fessionally’ lensed photographs of yourself as possible: avail yourself to party photographers, remind them of your name, argue your way on to every step and repeat, and tag whatever brand you’re wearing when you post the photos. (4) Attend as many branded events as possible, no matter how downmarket: an Evian spring water activation? What an honour! A Gillette Razor launch? Get in there! Once you’re in, fulfil all of the experiential agency’s expressed criteria: tag, post, hashtag, share. (5) Dupe an acquaintance into becoming your personal photographer – many influencers lack social popularity and often relegate begrudging siblings into this role, so it appears you are always being pursued and photographed by others. Selfies won’t cut it. (6) Forfeit all shame. Your personal brand must be vacuous enough to adopt any style, positive enough to communicate lack of controversy, and devoted to commerce to the outsize degree that at least no one can accuse you of being dishonest.
“We’ve finally entered a sort of Instagram Battle Royale, where our greatest delights spring from influencers’ epic fails”
At the final dinner during our trip, Deborah became intoxicated. When I asked her how she became an influencer – a touchy subject – she leaned in and fixed me with a condescending stare. “Listen, bitch,” she snapped. “I earn more with a single Instagram post than you do in an entire year with your pathetic $60k salary making print magazines nobody reads.” She then accused me of destroying the environment, despite fast fashion and plastic water-bottle manufacturers being among her most prominent benefactors. “What is the point of a magazine when you can read things online?” Deborah cried. “Magazines are garbage!” I rattled off a list of reasons why we make magazines: art, design, photography, permanence, freedom from quotas, process, product, community, collaboration, escape, experience, expression. She glowered at me and said that soon I’d no longer be invited on press trips, and she was stealing my job. She threw her head back and laughed. Sure, it was ugly... but mostly because she was right.
Most influencers today are followers at heart, tracing a path influenced by other influencers before them. Deborah started her public identity as a fraud, mimicking what others before her had done. She didn’t require any reconnaissance to arrive at her position of brand influence: no dangerous life experiences, deep drug trips, tours across the world with rock stars, years of building a legitimate (real-life) social network connecting with artists who break boundaries in their fields. What she did do, however, is hack the algorithm, and against all intellectual odds she made it work for herself. Why begrudge her an income now? She is blameless in the scheme of things. In fact, I hope Deborah rides this grift to the bitter end. But what stands out to me most about Deborah, a drop in a veritable ocean of Deborahs, is that the follower became the followed. From a cultural standpoint, the inmates have been handed the keys to the asylum.
Somewhere amid the ascent of social media, brands embraced the idea of empowering consum- ers and crowdsourcing creative from all corners of the internet. This had a double-edged effect: it launched the careers of a few genuine talents, while also brilliantly removing the onus of creative responsibility from the executive class so they could burden their audience with it for free. A decade later, the so-called democratisation of luxury – think of that nauseating expression ‘haute streetwear’ – has revealed itself not as a rebuke of stratified wealth and capitalist systems of iniquity, but another symptom of it. Online creators are now seen as sourceable unpaid labour, disposable brand partners who aren’t compensated through dusty old models like ‘licences’ or ‘contracts’ but via the promise of ‘engagement’. Social capital has replaced real capital. Brands might argue that creatives are given a platform to build their own businesses through ‘impressions’, but as most discover, it’s a cold world out there for, say, a musician who once loaned a song to a global fashion campaign, or a street-cast model hopelessly addicted to opiates.
The influencer bubble is now, mercifully, beginning to show signs of wear. When looking back at the past handful of years, few will recall which influencer wore which outfit. But we will remember the time sepia-queen Tiffany Mitchell staged a motorcycle accident for sympathy while promoting SmartWater. And we definitely won’t forget Fyre Festival, which ushered us into influencerdom’s most valuable pivot: toward schaden- freudian disaster-tainment. What goes up must come down, and we’ve finally entered a sort of Instagram Battle Royale, where our greatest delights spring from influencers’ epic fails. Last September, writer Natalie Beach published a lightning-rod piece on The Cut detailing her toxic friendship with Instagram star Caroline Calloway. Calloway’s seeming lack of self-awareness had already made her the target of micro-scandals on the heels of Fyre Fest, and Beach’s essay was coronated as the grand takedown influencer-watchers had been waiting for. The actual story – that Beach worked for Calloway as a low-paid assistant and ghostwriter for her lengthy Instagram captions – lacked the drama its widespread contagion might have suggested, but that didn’t matter: it was the fever of the implosion which everyone wanted a piece of. She may never have been an influencer, but once New York con artist Anna Delvey became an internet folk hero, the whiff of any kind of scam became programmable entertainment capital. These are the sagas that have now replaced the novel.
“Don’t be surprised if this lack of investment in authentic brand values, similar to the avoidance of the internet 20 years ago, also pays off in catastrophic ways”
Naturally, I found myself in Calloway’s presence in the wake of all of this. The podcast Red Scare, hosted by Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan, had surprised its audience at a live event with Calloway on stage, ready to answer questions and “spill the tea”, as she repeatedly announced with a shrill, nervous laugh, without offering much more than introspective waxing on her friendship with Beach, and the opportunities that might come to her now that this was a trending topic. She announced that Beach had sold her article to television mega-producer Ryan Murphy for $1 million, and stated that, despite having failed to deliver her book to her publisher after receiving a hefty advance, she would be pursuing a similar TV deal the following week during a trip to Hollywood. The night then descended into farce as the audience screamed at Calloway to stick to the subject, stop avoiding questions, and stop coming back to the same topics on an ADD loop. After the event, one friend remarked to me how gross it all felt. “It was a room filled with Brooklyn intelligentsia attacking a mentally ill woman,” he said with palpable discomfort. Later, at the afterparty, Calloway Googled herself and kept hitting refresh, waiting for new articles to pop up about what had just happened. They didn’t come. Frustrated, after two hours of this, she left.
Calloway’s insistence on her own myth was instructive. Like many influencers, she had gamed her numbers with purchased followers in search of a lucrative brand deal (a book with a flush publisher), which she is still in the process of paying back. It’s but one example of how influencers operate without any regulation, using disingenuous means for their own profit. In the early 2000s, fashion missed the memo on digital. Today the industry is playing furious catch-up to the point of overcorrection, neglecting creativity, artistry, interrogation, conversation and evolution in favour of fast and sleazy capital at the hands of an unmanageable expanse of influencers whose value has grown increasingly questionable. Don’t be surprised if this lack of investment in authentic brand values, similar to the avoidance of the internet 20 years ago, also pays off in catastrophic ways.
Calloway and I actually walked to the afterparty together. When I mentioned offhandedly that I had discovered her from Beach’s story that week, she gave me a blank stare, pupils pinned, half present and half someplace-else. “Do you mean to tell me that you didn’t know who Caroline Calloway was until that story was published?” she asked, referring to herself in the third person, like a myth she had invented separate from herself. “Yes,” I affirmed. She gave me a long stare before shaking her head. “No,” she said with a laugh.“You know exactly who I am.”