The dark side of social media influencer work

25 March 2024

For many of us, the lives of social media influencers are the equivalent of ‘living the dream’. Paid to insert products and services into their daily lives, social media influencers can enjoy eye watering earnings and high levels of fame, all while living the good life.

Micro-influencers can make between US$150-600 per post, while those with audiences over 500,000 can charge up to US$10,000. The true mega influencers can earn even more than that, with footballer Cristiano Ronaldo topping the 2023 influencer earnings table at US$2.4 million per post.

The earning potential of these new jobs has not gone unnoticed among the young. Over 57% of US Gen Z (13–17-year-olds) list YouTuber/streamer as their preferred future career, while Turkish teens also aspire to be TikTokers because of the allure of ‘easy money’. But is being a social media influencer all it’s cracked up to be?

The lived reality of social media influencers is the subject of a new article I wrote with two Danish colleagues, Anna-Bertha Christensen and Richard Gyrd-Jones. Based on Anna’s PhD dissertation research, the article examines how social media influencers monetise their lifestyles. The study employed ethnographic techniques to shadow influencers as they went about their work, from working with clients, to interacting with agents.

Authenticity is the currency of influencer success

What we found surprised us. At the heart of influencer work is the difficult-to-define quality of authenticity. While brands wish to work with influencers because they offer an authentic touch that eludes commercial advertising and sponsorship, authenticity also has a dark side.

Over time, the demand for authentic content gets ratcheted up, with influencers having to increasingly open up about their emotional lives to sustain (and win new) followers.

This opens new commercial opportunities; however, it also leads to increased feelings of alienation.

If we unpack this a bit more, we can see that central to this work is the transformation of the influencer into a personal brand. While clients value influencers for their authenticity, unlocking this requires an enormous amount of scripting and control over influencers by their specialist agents. Why? As one agent we interviewed said, “They [influencers] have to sell something that is trustworthy and sincere, but in actuality, isn’t”.

Agents therefore systemise every aspect of an influencer’s life, including gaining access to their diaries to identify opportunities for commercial exploitation. For example, a planned vacation can easily be transformed into a fully paid for ‘dream holiday’ if the influencer is willing to sacrifice some privacy for a few posts. These posts are then tracked in terms of what marketers call engagement (likes, shares, comments) that provide the clients with feedback on their investment, and if all goes well, enhances the influencer’s personal brand value.

These processes strategically leverage the emotional work of the influencer and unlock streams of income, products, services and experiences, many of which were previously unimaginable to the mostly working-class men and women we tracked. But it comes at a cost.

With authenticity as the currency of influencer success, nothing too personal, or even too hurtful, is free from commercial exploitation.

We identified how influencers felt increasingly unable to retain control over their private selves, with personal tragedies and mental health challenges becoming content opportunities to be offered to clients (one influencer partnered with a counselling brand after she had a very public breakdown online).

Intimate episodes, from weddings to the birth of children and post-natal depression, become opportunities that influencers felt unable to resist, with unanticipated and negative consequences. For example, posts of shopping for wedding dresses were seen by one influencer’s partner, which broke ritualised rules around the groom not seeing the bride in her dress before the wedding day, creating much angst for all.

Authenticity requires sacrifice

Genuine superstars have the security of greater image control, operating secret ‘Finsta’ accounts, or selling selective access to behind the scenes ‘authentic accounts’ that nonetheless provide content that is very controlled and has all the authenticity of a paid commercial. In contrast, our research suggests that the activities and work of ‘everyday’ influencers requires higher level of emotional labour that results in greater authenticity, but potentially greater alienation.

Why is this so? First, the type of personal branding undertaken by the everyday influencer is different from that of the ‘superstar’. This remains precarious work for seemingly ‘everyday’ men and women who engage in it. Whereas Ronaldo’s audience is unlikely to believe that the Portuguese star is like them, these more everyday influencers are seen as authentic because they are like their audience. Since their audience is invested in their story, they expect to be treated as friends, with access to private information and even painful episodes (this does have a positive side, such as when fans of Fie Laursen, a top Danish influencer, convinced her not to commit suicide).

Second, the social media algorithms that govern what content people see in their feeds is driven by emotionally heightened and extreme content. Being boring just doesn’t cut it, nor does having a perpetually great time. Melt downs, self-doubt, and even suicidal episodes in contrast, all generate greater engagement among followers, representing greater opportunities for commercial exploitation.

Third, authenticity is a cultural construct, and thus those embodying authenticity must conform to social expectations of what ‘being real’ represents.

Authenticity never came from the too polished, too sanitised, happy world of brands, but rather is defined as raw, warts ‘n all, messiness that real people embody.

While many influencers developed elaborate strategies to rationalise away the loss of control over their authentic lives, they also began to wonder just where the line between their real self and their personal brand was. The rewards for perceived authenticity can be high but, ironically, it is this performance that may cost influencers the ability to live truly authentic lives.

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