The Economy of Influence

The Economy of Influence

A conversation with Emily Hund, the author of The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media.

(Getty Images)

Influencers—the people who make their money through sponsorships, ads, and payouts for viewership on social media apps—have unmistakably shaped the world we live in, whether through promoting impossible and persuasive beauty standards, inaugurating new trends, or molding political discourse. In a new book, The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media, digital culture researcher Emily Hund draws on years of interviews with influencers to make the case that they should be understood as workers—and that the industry should be regulated and subject to democratic control. For those used to glossing influencers’ careers as easy and unimportant—or those who justifiably criticize social media’s destructive effects on society—her position might sound provocative. But for all its ills, Hund argues, influencing is here to stay, and in order to change it we must understand it as a form of labor.

Lyra Walsh Fuchs: How did influencing develop as an industry?

Emily Hund: Over the course of the twentieth century, both within academia and marketing, influence moved from a lofty, philosophical idea into something that we can capture. Now we can pinpoint how influence happens; we can measure it; we can figure out who is more influential and why.

Simultaneously, there was the growth of celebrity culture, and the idea that celebrities should be looked to as lifestyle gurus. We should not just enjoy their movies but follow their every move and be invested in them as people. They, in turn, need to cultivate an image of themselves that is aspirational but accessible. Celebrity culture further expanded through reality television, which helped normalize the idea that a regular person might have access to that lifestyle.

The rise of self-branding also started to take hold in the 1980s and 1990s, along with the beginning of the hollowing out of the middle class. No longer could you assume that you’re going to work at a company for your whole career, or that you were going to do a similar job for your whole life. People increasingly have to shoulder the burdens of the workplace, cultivating an individual sense of security. Self-branding was seen as one way to protect yourself in this environment. If I can cultivate a self-brand so that people know who I am, that will be my currency. I’ll be able to get the next job or provide some sort of professional safety net for myself.

And then, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was the rise of technologies and ideologies that make the influencer as we now know it possible: blogging; optimism around the internet, and social media in particular; and the idea that anyone with an internet connection can go online and cultivate an audience. These tools to start a business or create a brand online became more widely accessible.

The financial crisis was the last straw. Millions of people lost their jobs, or were underemployed, and there was a further break with the idea that you can rely on a more traditional career path. Because there was so much optimism at the time around Silicon Valley, and social media was very novel, people flocked there. Maybe they said, “I don’t know what else to do. I’ve lost my job, so I’m going to start a blog, or I’m going to start posting online and try to keep myself afloat in some way. Maybe I’ll be able to drive some consulting or freelance projects, or at least point them out to potential employers.” There were a variety of reasons why this first wave of influencers did it, but it often had to do with economic precarity.

Advertisers were also trying to keep themselves afloat. Every industry was struggling. The advertising industry was impressed by how early bloggers and influencers were able to cultivate loyal or engaged audiences, and often about really niche topics. Quantification was also appealing—as was the idea of control. These were super-targeted audiences that could be easily measured because it was all happening online. Once advertisers saw what was going on with this first wave of influencers, we were off to the races.

Walsh Fuchs: You write about how a cottage industry of agencies popped up to interface between the advertisers and the bloggers. Was that the first phase of the expansion of the industry into something more?

Hund: When advertisers and early bloggers and influencers first started working together, no one knew what they were doing. It was not an established business or career path. So they were fumbling around and testing out different ways of working together. The influencers said, “You want to pay me? Or give me this purse? Great!” Then a broad umbrella of marketing agencies saw that advertisers were reaching out to people who were essentially tiny media businesses of their own—and they wanted a piece of it. In the early 2010s, there was huge growth of these marketing agencies. They said they had the best tools for understanding how influential these people actually were, or that they had the expertise to hand-select the right influencers for a brand, or that they had new technologies for ranking all the influencers out there.

These tools streamlined the process of seeking deals, pricing deals, and making agreements. They were supposed to inject efficiency into the industry. It helped increase the volume of deals, and provided advertisers access to tens of thousands of influencers. An advertiser can go to a marketplace and search for whatever keywords they think are relevant to their campaign, and then turn up all these results for relevant influencers. With some of these marketplaces, influencers can just sign up and join. If you don’t have much of a following, you may not get anything out of it, but you can certainly try. Then affiliate marketing expanded, as did new monetization technologies that expanded the industry.

Walsh Fuchs: How did social media platforms get in on the action?

Hund: In the beginning, deals played out on these platforms without them paying much mind. As the amount of money in the industry grew, the platforms decided to get involved and advocate for their interests. Optimization first happened at the level of marketing firms, which tried to pinpoint what numbers were most compelling to advertisers, what mix of metrics told a compelling story to potential sponsors, and what aesthetics were most compelling.

On the platform side, the way content gets ranked and selected—how the algorithms work—is not at all transparent. And the platforms are continually tweaking their algorithms, leaving influencers to guess how to optimize their own content. With TikTok getting so popular so fast, Instagram is trying to compete. They are clearly prioritizing video, pushing influencers to pivot. Influencers have to suss out what the algorithms are doing, and then adjust their content accordingly to get the most visibility on different apps.

Walsh Fuchs: There are influencers who have carved out a niche targeting other would-be influencers. They make content about how they built their following, and give tips to get views through the algorithm, such as by using a particular trending sound. I think their success indicates how many people want to be influencers. What is it that draws people to influencing as a career? I’ve even heard kids say, “I want to be a toy reviewer when I grow up.” It’s really seeped into our culture.

Hund: To me, it’s very obvious why being an influencer is an appealing career: it purports to offer autonomy and potential. People desire respect in the workplace; they desire not to be belittled or constrained in ways that are illogical. From the outside, being an influencer is really appealing. It seems like that person basically works for themselves, creating the content that they want to create. It seems like they are able to express themselves in the way they want. They appear to have a creative career that also brings financial rewards.

Something that really came through in my interviews is how women were the trailblazers in influencing. Part of that story is that many did not feel that more traditional career paths were going to allow them to live the lives that they wanted to live—especially for mothers or people who knew that they wanted to be mothers someday. They figured that influencing would allow them to continue working, have some creative fulfillment, and earn money for their families—but in a way that works for them. They don’t have to be chained to a desk in an office with a restrictive schedule or get approval to get time off when their kid is sick.

But the public narrative about what it’s like to be an influencer is not necessarily true. Yes, you are the proprietor of your own business, and yes, you can make choices about what your content looks like, but you are beholden to a number of stakeholders behind the scenes. It’s not like you just get to do whatever you want. You have to consider what your sponsors are asking of you and what your audience is asking of you, and also deal with platforms and algorithms and all their opacity. It’s a tremendous amount of work. It’s not part-time. It can also be very emotionally taxing to deal with constant feedback from followers. And if you work really hard to create a piece of content, and you post it and get not even close to the engagement that you’re used to, then you wonder if the platform did something to the algorithm, or if it was something you did, and your followers just didn’t like it. There’s a lot of guesswork and uncertainty. You sense that you’re wholly reliant on these platforms, and all this could go away tomorrow.

Walsh Fuchs: Have you watched The D’Amelio Show? It’s a reality show following two sisters, who rank in the top twenty most-followed people on TikTok, and their parents.

Hund: I have not.

Walsh Fuchs: On the show, they have mental health crises all the time, to the point that most episodes of the first season start and end with a warning and a hotline number. I see other influencers who talk about mental health, especially anxiety. How much of that is just reflective of wider trends?

Hund: It is unfortunately not surprising that people are experiencing mental health crises, because they are constantly having to put themselves out there and construct their public personas in a very particular way, so that they are not inflaming their audience or advertisers or the algorithm. And they are dealing with constant input from the public and from their professional colleagues, be those brands or fellow influencers. They’re constantly serving themselves up for judgment—in addition to working under these opaque conditions.

At the same time, it’s increasingly normalized to talk about mental health. In 2014 and 2015, when I first started interviewing influencers, they were sharing their various personal struggles with me. But it was not acceptable to post about them. They were still portraying themselves as whatever their authentic brand was on social media. They weren’t sharing much behind the scenes. In the last several years, that expectation has changed.

It’s a cultural shift, but also one enabled by changes in technology. Tools like Instagram Stories and TikTok created an expectation for influencers to be much more off the cuff—turn on your camera and talk about what’s going on—rather than being super curated. So it is also a way of cultivating that authenticity; coming out there and saying, “Hey, I’m having a really bad day and here’s why,” or, “I had to take a few days off posting because I just wasn’t feeling it and here’s why.”

Walsh Fuchs: At the close of the book, you advocate for some sort of industrial organization. You mention the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and also an existing Influencer Council. Can you tell us a bit more about these efforts?

Hund: SAG took many years to decide if it was going to let influencers in. It ultimately decided that the criteria for influencers joining the union was whether or not they do video or voiceover work. It’s great that influencers have one potential avenue to join a union and have some professional protections, but the nature of that deal is another incentive for influencers to present themselves in certain ways: to do more video content rather than writing or photos. The Influencer Council is an internal body that is trying to set ethical and business standards and promote education. These are nice steps, and I would like to see them expand.

If the people working in the industry are treated better, then that will also make it better for everybody else who’s engaging with the content: it would hopefully incentivize the influencers to focus more on higher-quality content and not be attracted by more dubious deals.

Influencing continues to change and expand, but the reality is that it is a new cultural industry. Film, television, radio, journalism, publishing, advertising: all these other cultural industries have internal codes of ethics and are subject to regulations of various types, and the public has a general understanding of what they do. Of course, those codes and regulations can always be improved, but the influencer industry doesn’t have much oversight. The Federal Trade Commission has guidelines, but it is difficult to consistently enforce them. There should also be a way to flag the content at the platform level so the public knows that they are engaging with influencer content.

Walsh Fuchs: That speaks to something you write about in the book: the rise of misinformation distributed by influencers across platforms. There are also the dubious health products and, of course, the amount of waste that comes from fast fashion and packages. Do you think a professional organization could address those problems?

Hund: The speed of consumption and the environmental impact of our consumer cycle are much bigger than influencers alone. But influencers have certainly played a role. And the influencer landscape has encouraged brands to create products that are made for this type of consumption. A professional organization isn’t going to solve all of these problems. But I think that it will hopefully, at least, promote the conversation, and become another pressure point for companies that are extraordinarily wasteful to rethink their practices.

Walsh Fuchs: What about on a more regulatory level? Are there any initiatives that you think should get attention?

Hund: There has to be attention paid to the lack of transparency between tech companies and their users more broadly. Platform companies have little accountability to their users. It’s particularly apparent in the case of influencers, because they are wholly dependent on these platforms to do their jobs. For them, it’s an urgent problem, because they can’t do their job if their tools aren’t working. For all of us who use these platforms, it’s wild that when you need help, there’s no one to turn to outside what they have chosen to share on their support page. There’s no real customer service. How do they get away with that?

Lyra Walsh Fuchs is Dissent’s associate editor.

Emily Hund is a research affiliate at the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and the author of The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media.