I seem to be reading a lot about “influencers” lately. When I think of influencers, the typical profile that comes to mind is the Instagram star with oodles of followers trading their share of eyeballs for products that are ripe for placement.
@rmcrob recently posted a link to an article about an ice cream truck that charges influencers, who try to get free ice cream, in return for exposure, double the cost for some fresh desert.
Though there is something distasteful about how many of these internet celebrities trade fame for product, arguably to the detriment of their audiences, it isn’t really a new thing. This type of trade-off has for some time been proposed in the photography world. Most photographers have come to despise the request for free services to get them exposure, leading to at least one clever Oregon Trail meme on the subject.
It’s probably safe to say peddling influence has been around for as long as there has been media. I wrote this about the movie Christmas in Connecticut (1945) in December 2017, when compiling a list of favorite Christmas movies for my brother.
Then you find out that the leading female character is a materialistic New York urbanite (played by the delightful Barbara Stanwick) named Elizabeth Lane, who writes a popular folksy column for a magazine under a completely assumed identity.
In today’s parlance, Lane could be considered part of the “influencer economy,” trading tales about an aspirational lifestyle for product sponsorships. The character doesn’t know how to cook (in fact, she’s got a Hungarian cook named Felix who features prominently for comic relief) but she writes whole features around down-home recipes.
@cheri recently opined on the subject in My Problem with Influencers. She starts off of the piece with a David Wallace quote, emphasizing that this trend has been with us for some time, but has only accelerated with the newer outlets for covert advertising.
This passage still feels relevant even though Wallace wrote it in the nineties, long before the rise of social media. Perhaps that’s because the trend of ads-pretending-to-be-other-things has only sped up over the years. As a result, we’re living our lives alongside a bizarre set of social norms that I’ve come to think of as influencer culture. Influencer culture is most visible in the world of advertising, but it trickles into our politics, communities, and nearly all internet-mediated communication.
My guess is that we’ve reached some soft of peak influencer period. People are spending a lot of time on YouTube and Instagram, where popularity is mostly self-made. The newly famous on these platforms need or want remuneration for their efforts to gain followers (which can take substantial effort). As long as that holds, advertising, whether obvious or not, will remain a tempting business model.