Exploring the Artifice of Influencers

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Words || Shinae Taylor

“Is this caption okay?”

It’s the summer of 2017 and I’m sitting in a newly furnished office space in Surry Hills. With exposed brick, bold pillars and even a real tree grown under the artificial nurture of UV lighting, the space is a real treat for an unpaid intern. It belongs to a health-focused startup, and as a fresh-faced second year student, I’m the newest addition to the team and by far the most exuberant. 

The question comes from *Matt* a popular Instagrammer with a chiselled jawline and a body to rival Adonis himself. Having received his $300, Matt is ready to post. Well, almost. First he must get my approval. 

Being an ‘influencer,’ or ‘influencing’ if you will, is a tough business. Each sponsor requires the influencer to follow strict guidelines. They must contort their body in a certain way, wear particular clothing, write a specific caption, promote a certain lifestyle. These rules are non-negotiable, and with the exception of ‘big’ influencers, finding a sponsor is hard work. Most of the struggle is tackled by agents, normally from modelling or PR companies. These guys act as a buffer to negotiation, often claiming set post prices for their clients with little to no wiggle room. Smaller influencers manage their bookings, and as a result are much more likely to accept offers below their normal price. It’s much, much harder for new players; social media is a vicious game where the odds are stacked in favour of the rich and beautiful. 

As an intern my task was to scope out potential influencers and, if they met our carefully maintained brand image, to negotiate a price. If they agreed to this amount the next step involved informing them of our posting guidelines. Firstly, and most importantly, the brand label has to be clearly displayed. Next come the strict rules about the photo’s contents. No other products are to be displayed in the photo. The photo has to be of a high resolution, and must be taken during the mid to late afternoon to ensure the best lighting. 

With every feeling of playing God, I look at the photo Matt has sent. He’s shirtless. The camera has managed to catch him at a most precious moment – drinking our health beverage (label facing the camera) post workout (explains the shirtlessness, of course) with perfectly timed golden hour lighting. 

Excellent.

I know my supervisor will be happy with the photo. It makes the product look great. His caption, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired. I spend five minutes crafting a caption then click ‘send.’ 

Matt is just one of the thirty or so influencers that I contacted over the summer. Out of this large number we ended up with just five or six posts. Price was the primary obstacle. It was my job to assess each post price against what kind of results the photo would deliver. ‘Engagement,’ the ratio of likes to comments, is the most important tool. Followers are the next most important measure. A large following, however, should not be mistaken for genuine interest in the account holder. Some influencers have been caught out purchasing ‘fake followers.’ For this reason, it’s my responsibility to check the ratio of likes and comments. Doing this will tell me if the influencer is indeed ‘genuine,’ if such a thing exists in a world of carefully-constructed artifice.

Fast forward to September 2020. As of today it’s been a whole week since I deleted all the social media apps off my phone to amend the recent deterioration of my body image. While the feelings have probably been building up for a long time, I feel like this year the toxicity of social media pushed me into a dark labyrinth of insecurity and self-criticism. 

Sadly, I’m not alone. Mission Australia’s 2019 Youth Survey found that 42.8% of young women were “extremely or very” concerned about what their body looked like. Considering the well documented impact of social media on mental health, it’s worth looking at where influencers fit into the mix. Are they to blame for the low self esteem of young people today?

According to the Butterfly Foundation: “individuals—particularly children and adolescents—who are exposed to role models who demonstrate unhealthy attitudes and behaviours in relation to body image, eating, and exercise are at greater risk of developing body dissatisfaction.” In other words, role models play an important role in our attitudes to our own health, and this particularly is the case for young people. Social media influencers, as well as other kinds of media figures and pop culture icons, are therefore pivotal in how we see our bodies.

While this article so far has been focused on negative aspects of Instagram culture, social media undeniably holds some potential for improving body positivity and promoting various kinds of social progress. Some niche influencers, for example, emphasise body and racial inclusivity, while others might prompt discussions about social issues such as racism or body shaming through sharing their own experiences. 

My problem is this: as a retail worker I wear a brightly coloured uniform, a name badge, an overly eager smile and “let-me-help-you” demeanor. My role in the sale process is clear; I’m there to serve customers to make profit for the company. That much is clear. When it comes to influencers, these boundaries are not so obvious. Fitness models might be earning sales commissions, but that’s not always apparent to their followers, many of whom are likely young and perhaps somewhat vulnerable. Sadly, the use of inclusive language, the act of masquerading as a ‘gal pal,’ as well as the relentless promotion of nonessential products, are all common yet insidious features of influencer posts, particularly in the fashion and beauty categories. 

While some influencers describe having a genuine relationship with their followers, I remain highly critical of any friendship where one member profits from the consumption activities of the other. It makes me sad to think there are people who place a high degree of trust in influencers, particularly in the health and fitness categories, where often influencers are unqualified and highly motivated by the pursuit of impossible body standards.  

Disturbingly, upon entering “social media influencers impact” in a search engine I came across pages of marketing websites encouraging businesses to use influencers as a tool for profit generation. I couldn’t help but find the impersonal characterisation of influencers as “human brands,” as mere instruments of making sales, rather depressing. The dehumanising language used to describe social media influencers, many of whom are young women, leads me to question where influencers fit into the employee-employer relationship. Are they the exploiter, or the exploited? 

According to WINK Models, influencers charge an average of $1000 per post for every 100,000 followers. This represents a lucrative opportunity to earn a high income, but at what cost? As someone who was formerly involved in the creation of social media artifice, I can attest to the commitment behind the influencer role. In 2019 journalist Jenni Gritters interviewed twelve Instagram influencers to learn more about the psychological impact of the app. Overwhelmingly the influencers felt constant pressure to not only spend time online, but also to perform within the bounds of “a static, inauthentic identity.” 

In their dependence on Instagram as a source of income, influencers get caught up in the intricacies of engagement ratios and popularity strategies. This limits the potential for authentic creativity and self-expression, not just for influencers, but for average users as well. As it grows in size and power, influencer culture therefore impedes on the ability of other users to engage in artistic expression outside the bounds of conventional health and beauty trends. 

Danielle Wagstaff, a psychology professor researching social media, argues that the anxiety caused by social media usage is nothing new. She points to the well-documented evidence linking poor body image to representations of beauty across a variety of media sources, such as magazines, TV and films. While this association predates the world of social media, research such as the aforementioned survey by Mission Australia show that young people are increasingly insecure about the way they look. I can’t help but think we’re dealing with the same problem – social pressure to look and act to fit a narrow social mould – albeit on an unprecedented level and of increasingly destructive proportions. 

Before I was involved with influencer campaigns I was obsessed with having the ‘perfect’ Instagram account. I craved validation from my followers, a small collection of friends, coworkers and acquaintances from high school. Nights out were an opportunity for a photoshoot, as was a ‘girls lunch.’ My outfits were selected with careful precision, my makeup perfected to a photo-ready standard, ready for cyber-immortalisation. Social media was a game and I wanted to come out on top. The irony is that I had less than 150 followers, and I knew all of them in real life. Nonetheless, I had this innate compulsion to broadcast a certain image of myself. Exposure to the bronzed, toned bodies of models, their glamorous holidays, their semi-candid photos of beautiful friends – I wanted all of it. 

It wasn’t until my experience working with influencers that I realised the true artifice of social media. Strangely after finishing my internship I almost felt a kind of loss. I found that I no longer enjoyed posting on Instagram. The validation I had once received from ‘likes’ had disintegrated into the hollow recognition of social media for what it is, a shiny, sparkling world of artifice. 

Instagram functions like a two-way mirror. The power lies in the hands of brands, who, possessing access to the rich collection of user data, can see into the minds and souls of everyday scrollers. Blind to what’s happening on the other side of the glass, Instagram users, particularly young women, easily fall victim to the paralysing yet intoxicating algorithm of body-focused images. 

Today, I regret being a part of the problem. I despair for the people who get entangled in the web of media-imposed body insecurities. I also feel concern for the female and male influencers who rely heavily on their body to maintain a steady income from sponsorships. As independent contractors who work for brands, but do not receive employee benefits, I can’t help but think we should shift the blame to the broader system of commodification. 

Media-related insecurity is on the rise, and I have no doubt that this represents a major challenge for current and future generations. At the same time, I can’t help but feel we blame the apps themselves as a means of absolving or avoiding acknowledging the destructive nature of our hyper-consumerist culture. After all, Instagram is a platform created by humans, for humans. All content is user-generated and there is always the choice to delete the app if one wishes. While it has become common practice to lament the artifice of social media, we should also consider why, despite this widespread criticism, we are motivated to both maintain and actively pursue this fake world. What is it that draws us, like moths to a flickering light, to a luminous yet shadowy universe of fictional identities and commodified creations? Is it that we are exploring ourselves, or escaping from darker elements of our existence?

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