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Being an influencer is harder than it looks

Emily Hund investigates how the shifting definition of “authenticity” is the basis of a $16 billion industry.

Masego Morgan, an influencer in South Africa who promotes sustainable fashion online, at a vintage shop.GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images

Influencers on social media are politically active, have opinions about everything, and have more star power in the eyes of younger generations than traditional celebrities. They’re advising teens about birth control, collaborating with politicians and law enforcement agencies, exposing the realities of stressful jobs, providing alternative channels for journalism, spreading religious messages, and engaging in controversial advertising. But what, exactly, makes someone an “influencer”? And why do millions of people take them seriously when there are so many other sources of information and instruction?

Emily Hund, a research affiliate at the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, answers these thorny questions in her upcoming book, “The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media.” She explores the social, cultural, economic, and technological factors that enabled influencers to become such a distinctive group. And she explains how power dynamics involving brands, marketers, technology companies, and audiences have shifted, leading influencers to adapt by changing how they present themselves and their ideas.

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Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

What’s an influencer?

If you had asked me this question a couple of years ago, I would have said an influencer is someone who creates content for social media and get paid for it by partnering with brands. For a long time, it was a channel for commercial advertising and selling products. But my opinion has recently changed, because the industry has expanded its reach to selling ideas. It’s becoming less about what to buy and more about what to think.

What ideas are some prominent influencers spreading?

Prominent influencers run the gamut, and people’s awareness of them varies by their preferred platforms and their interests and demographics. I use Instagram a lot; it usually puts Dr. Becky (@drbeckyatgoodinside), Sharon McMahon (@sharonssaysso), Darien Sutton (@doctor.darien), and Joanna Goddard (@cupofjo) front and center. Can you tell I’m a parent, a researcher, and a woman based on the East Coast? These are all people with significant followings and impact, but it’s entirely plausible that many readers might not have heard of them.

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There’s an influencer for seemingly every lifestyle, interest, or niche, and an array of options (Instagram, TikTok, Substack, and more) for receiving their content. Therein lies their promise — how great that social media provides tools for people to share their passions or expertise and find community! — and their hazard. Misinformation and misogyny are persistent problems, and some influencers’ bread and butter.

How much is the influencer industry worth?

Recent estimates put the industry at over $16 billion. That’s pretty striking for something that barely existed a decade ago.

Are influencers replacing traditional authority figures?

Influencers are absolutely threatening the authority of institutions. That’s also why we are seeing these same institutions become more influencer-like. Take, for example, how the White House has a director of creator partnerships and regularly engages with influencers for a variety of messaging, including about COVID vaccines and the war in Ukraine. Surveys show that influencers have eclipsed Hollywood celebrities as the go-to idols of young people. And at the same time, many musicians and actors are doing sponsored social media content.

You claim in your book that “the influencer industry’s core business is continually reassessing, redefining, and revaluing authenticity.” So then what is authenticity?

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Authenticity has always been a social construction. While there isn’t a stable meaning of what it means to be authentic, some consistent ideas have been associated with it over time: a sense of being true to yourself, being genuine, and being spontaneous and not overly strategized. Since the dawn of the influencer industry, authenticity has played a significant role because our culture and society have had a longstanding interest in people who aren’t afraid to be themselves. We admire and sort of venerate them.

The early influencers would often post and talk publicly about how they were passionate about their work — they loved fashion, travel, or beauty and were just making a living creating content out of what they loved to do. Remember, in the late 2000s, there was a lot of optimism generally about Silicon Valley and social media, but people were getting laid off and having difficulty finding creative work. Influencers were seen as empowering themselves by making a living through creative expression.

Emily Hund is the author of “The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media.”Carina Romano

How did things change?

Once the field became so saturated that you couldn’t rely on an influencer’s metrics — this many followers or engagement rate — marketers and advertisers needed to find another way to narrow things down. So they looked to determine who is the most authentic and the most real. That’s when authenticity takes on a life of its own and becomes an industrial construction rather than a social construction. The definition of authenticity is constantly being renegotiated with brands, marketers, and influencers.

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What’s an example of authenticity being renegotiated?

At one point, in the mid- to late 2010s, there was pushback against people who presented themselves like they were posing for a catalog or magazine, which had been the dominant influencer aesthetic on Instagram. Then influencers started to go on Instagram Stories in their sweatpants without makeup and without using filters. The aesthetic of authenticity became more about being perceived as off-the-cuff.

One of my interviewees had a thriving fashion blog and was big on Instagram. When Instagram Stories became the dominant place for influencers to share content — it was now all about frequent, “spontaneous” video updates — she felt uncomfortable with this shift in the industry and quit blogging and quit Instagram.

Caitlin Covington, who has 1.3 million followers on Instagram (@cmcoving), is known for her love of autumn and gets paid for sponsored posts about fashion. She took a trip to Bennington, Vt., last October.Kelly Burgess/NYT

Are people naive to believe that influencers are authentic?

People have an affinity for influencers for a variety of reasons. There’s an element of the parasocial — the idea that you feel close to a person who doesn’t actually know who you are. People have had this relationship with celebrities. Influencers also present themselves in ways that resonate because of their backgrounds and jobs. And, because we’re overwhelmed with information, influencers can be helpful by providing trusted recommendations, like what to make for dinner, what couch to buy, and, more recently, how to vote.

Do influencers ever feel suffocated by having to live up to their public image?

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Yes, absolutely, the work of being an influencer is incredibly difficult and mentally taxing. They are trying to create content that they find interesting, but they also need to make money and not alienate their followers or the brands and marketers they work with. That creates a lot of pressure. Influencers have told me many stories about the negative impact of their work, particularly on their mental health when they feel their mood is tied up in their metrics.

For the longest time, influencers were expected to not talk about any topic that could at all be construed as controversial. But the tide changed. In 2020, when COVID, the US presidential election, and the murder of George Floyd were in the news, many influencers started talking about issues that were previously felt to be off limits. One of my interviewees, who had a successful career as a blogger and an influencer on Instagram, was working in a hospital when the pandemic started. She spoke on Stories about what she was experiencing at work and received so much blowback that she, too, quit social media altogether. Being “authentic” exposed her to so much harassment that she decided it was not worth it.

What other difficulties do influencers face?

Influencers are also tied to platforms in a pretty uneven relationship. Influencers’ work is wholly dependent on apps like TikTok and Instagram, but there is a persistent fear that these companies could change overnight — tweak their algorithms, be revealed to have done something scandalous, or something else—and influencers’ visibility and thus income will tank. There is no professional contract here. While influencers’ content creation creates a lot of value for social media companies, they also sense that the rug could be pulled out from under them at any time.

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology; an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity; and a scholar in residence at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.