Throughout this lockdown period I, like many others, have spent unreasonable amounts of time on social media and noticed a number of trends. People we now insist on calling ‘influencers’, having amassed huge followings, are becoming increasingly prominent on my feed. I spend every day scrolling through pictures of shiny 19-year-old millionaires living in their hyper-modern LA homes, publicly documenting a new pair of Nikes and matching tennis skirt every single day. Alternatively, you will see the modern Jane Birkin character, likely situated somewhere in mainland Europe, clad head-to-toe in “lowkey” designer, relentlessly showing us her morning, afternoon, and evening skincare routines, when at this point, I think we can just accept pore-less skin is a genetic gift some of us have not been blessed with.
Admittedly I am not an influencer and cannot pretend I understand the mental labour such a job entails; I understand spending so much time on Instagram that you start influencing people’s real lives would be quite emotionally destabilising and overwhelming. But from what I can tell, as an object of their influence, these people’s job is essentially to accumulate embarrassing amounts of material goods so that they may show us all what they look like on their sparkling marble countertops and size 4 frames. It gets to the point where they start renting out their bags and coats because they don’t use them enough.
Sometimes I try convincing myself that with the multitude of nationalities and cultures I expose myself to, they give me inspiration; that is, after all, the main positive to be taking away from the internet, the variety of perspectives we are given access to. For example, layering this blouse under this jumper makes you look like this! Voila! And you can do it too! I am newly imbued with culture daily.
Every time I stumble upon their posts though, which is now rather often, I ask myself; What benefit are they providing to the world? What exactly is their contribution? What about a “haul” is sustainable? And how is it that they have filled some hole in the job market by getting dressed eleven times a day and videoing themselves buying candles? And, here being the billion-dollar question, why do I find myself following them anyway - in spite of all these inconsistencies and issues that I seem to think are so glaringly evident?
I think I have safely come to the conclusion that they represent all the very capitalism-induced wants that plague our society and all they are compelling me to do is buy clothes. They are, to companies, an external marketing tool with all the qualities of a real person that could possibly lure you in - a personality, a sense of humour, political views, ethical values... and then BAM: here is a £750 coat from Charlotte Simone that I got for free but I really do encourage you to invest in because check out how fabulous I look in it.
We may think we follow them for their values, but for all the sustainability many of them preach, few of them seem genuinely invested. It’s pretty easy to say “shop small!” when you have gifted items arriving at your doorstep every 12 hours and are - more often than not - sponsored by brands that are benefitting from sweatshop labour and hardly sourcing fair trade cotton. Though recent headlines and the Black Friday ordeal have exposed brands like Boohoo and PLT selling tops for pennies, made of low quality material by mistreated workers, countless influencers still benefit hugely from their backing. You can sing the shop small song all the way from your bedroom to the kitchen, but I don’t see you dancing the shop small dance!
Eventually, influencers also start producing their own buyable goods. I have, for example, recently given into the hype and bought Florence Given’s Sunday Times bestseller Women Don’t Owe You Pretty - on the spectrum of influencer creations, what I would definitely categorise as something laying on the worthwhile side. Florence, unlike the aforementioned prototype, is already 20! She has written her book about codependency and healthy relationships after one (1), albeit horrible, long-term romantic endeavour with a man. There are many things I like about her - she’s leftist, she grows out her armpit hair, lives in East London, wears the same pair of 70s platform heels in back-to-back posts, and preaches loving other women.
But alas, it has taken me spending those 12 quid to find that her Instagram infographics are just about as deep as her work gets. I too am 20 and I do not find myself by any means qualified enough to write an entire book about relationships or oppression. I have enough trouble understanding it all and, with my limited life experience, cannot pretend to be representative of others. But her position as winner of the 2019 Most Important Influencer of the Year Award, after influencing enough people to buy enough things they would not have otherwise bought, allowed her to market herSELF - so why not write a book?
Without meaning to seem overly critical, I do want to make my stance on it known in brief; I think, contrary to her alleged aim, anyone who isn’t a middle-class slim white girl would have some doubts about her writing. In fact, having seen her re-posts of readers’ endorsements, middle-class slim white girls are exactly the types of people who seem to be most engaging with the book…not unlike myself. She does fleetingly mention disabled bodies, fat bodies, Black bodies and trans bodies, but it seems as if it’s in an effort to remind the reader that she is modestly aware of their existence rather than providing any analytical insights into how these bodies experience patriarchal structures differently; we just know they have it worse. Secondly author and activist Chidera Eggerue has recently justifiably highlighted how Given has very closely emulated the work of her and other Black feminists whilst heavily profiting off it and failing to acknowledge it. Given is standing on the shoulders of Eggerue’s 2018 release What a Time to Be Alone, not only in the content and graphic style of her work, but also by appearing as the first Google result when Eggerue’s own work is searched. Aside from being a great example of how white supremacy works, it also seems quite hypocritical considering Given’s subject matter.
Lastly, it is made abundantly clear that Given’s work isn’t targeted to a male readership, which any contemporary feminist work should be. Men have as much to gain from feminism as women do, but if we continue portraying men as the enemy, like this book in many ways does - denouncing heterosexuality to the extent she encourages everyone to consider dating other women (Chapter 9 titled, ‘Maybe it’s a girlcrush, maybe you’re queer?’) - we are not getting any closer to the end goal.
In Florence’s defence, I come at this whole thing with a passion for the academic view of the debate. I have really enjoyed reading the book’s reviews; finding out fellow women have had a feminist awakening, Dumped Him, and started wearing leopard print crop tops makes me over-the-moon ecstatic. The truth is, Florence’s book has had a hugely positive effect on many young women of my generation. She has sought to render accessible a movement that is more often associated with Hilary Clinton, grey pantsuits, and a metaphorical glass ceiling, and I respect that. My point is more that I think someone could have done it (far) better, rendered it even more inclusive and informative and less anecdotal - potentially something Eggerue has already done. What has gained her access to this opportunity to have her work published are all of the privileges she acknowledges in her book and the massive internet following they have granted her as a slim, middle class, young white woman.
Though Florence is probably the best of the lot in many respects, she is an example of how internet popularity becomes a fast-track to putting things out into the world - things that may not be ready, things that already exist, or things that might just not deserve it. Because once influencers have shown you enough swan-feather bathrobes to fill enough bathtubs, they come out with their OWN jewellery line, their OWN tracksuit. Then, almost by default, they can use this platform to market all of their own products because their Social Media-made authority and superficial authenticity have generated huge capitalist corporations enough revenue. Emma Chamberlain reinvented coffee beans and started a styling series in which she turns everyone into a 19-year-old Urban Outfitters model not dissimilar from herself, Valeria Lipovetski released her oh-so-unique spin on the tracksuit, Camille Charriere has partaken in countless product collaborations, the latest being a new-age cowboy boot... It becomes difficult to differentiate between the person we see talking in the very Live Stories before us, and the brand they have cultivated around their image. And forever how much all of us revile Bezos and his offensive conglomerate wealth, their books somehow all end up on Amazon.
Lastly, what is most important to remember is that we, as followers on this social media multiverse, are involved in the value-creation process of influencers. Every time we share an influencer’s work, interact with their page by liking it, or even look at their posts for a prolonged period of time, we increase their popularity. It will rise to the top of any feed typically similar to ours, and increase the number of followers the influencer has. By increasing the value of the influencer or “opinion leader” we create a snowball effect and become actors or co-producers in the influencer’s marketing strategy. It is therefore important to consider who we think ‘deserves’ this contribution of ours, who can be left to fend for themselves, and who would be best at really offering a different perspective on the world to the one we already know.
Maybe I’m just jealous, because I too want new furry goodies in my hands every morning and events to attend and book deals before I hit double digits for the third time. And maybe I would sell some part of my privacy and ethics to do that as well. Maybe that’s even why I follow them - because they are living the dream! But that possibility does not lay on my horizon at present, and in the meantime, I will be trying to reduce my contribution to the impending Instagram Influencer takeover of society, one unfollow at a time.
Edited by Ellie Muir, Essays Editor