The Influencer Paradox*

The term “influencer” has gained great relevance in the last decade around the world to designate content creators on digital platforms and social networks who have a large number of followers and enjoy popularity, credibility, and admiration in niche communities and audiences. From fashionistas to foodies, environmentalists to adventure travelers, gamers to animal lovers and music producers, there are influencers for a wide variety of cultures and niche markets. There is something for all tastes, lifestyles, genders and ages. 

Influencers are a new type of celebrity, a public figure that emerges in the context of the network society, globalization and the expansion of information and communication technologies. Just as the 20th century had its universe of movie and TV stars, in the first decades of the 21st century we have seen the emergence of constellations of local, national and global influencers, who have become central agents to energize the digital economy and culture. They are celebrities who, as their name suggests, have the power to influence the tastes, desires, beliefs and behaviors of the thousands of people who follow them.

Being an “influencer” can be understood as a new kind of job. In a map on the most desired jobs in different countries around the world recently published by Business Insider, “influencer” appears as the most desired job in Colombia, and other Latin American countries such as Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela. The map is the result of a study prepared by the company Remitly in 2022 using data on queries made by people from different countries in the Google search engine, specifically the search for the phrase “How to be _______.” In the particular socioeconomic context of these countries, characterized by deep structural inequalities, lack of opportunities in the labor market and unstable and precarious career paths, it should come as no surprise that many, especially young people, want to be influencers. 

Although it is debatable whether being an influencer is a profession or a career, in the digital and networked economy and culture, “being an influencer” is for many young people one of the first activities they can do. It is enough to have an internet connection, create an account or channel on one of the platforms and start publishing content using accessible production tools such as a smartphone. To do this job, it is not necessary to prepare a resume, enter a contest or pass an exam. In what emerges as one of the most seductive discourses of the neoliberal economic paradigm, influencer work is done individually using digital devices, interacting on digital platforms, sharing content that exalts the “I”, their tastes and knowledge, and configuring, thus, a personal brand that is attractive to others who share affinities. 

The cultural and technological industry has been responsible for feeding the desire for this type of work and popularizing this kind of culture. The dream is that we all have the potential to be influencers by participating in digital platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok by creating and sharing content (especially visual and audiovisual), interacting, socializing, and communicating from our cell phones or personal computers. The desire is driven by the success of global, regional, and national influencers, who achieve fame and display their fortune and eccentricities constantly in the content they share on social networks. In Colombia, personalities such as Marce la Recicladora, La Liendra, Poche, Yeferson Cossio, Sofia Castro, and Kika Nieto, embody the consecration of the influencer narrative as ordinary young people who, thanks to the content they produce and share on platforms, and the interactions and social connections they accumulate, have managed to build online audiences of thousands of followers and earn money. 

Photo of Colombian influencer Sofia Casto, from her Instagram. Sofia, 26 years old, is considered one of the raising celebrities on Youtube and Instagram.

The race to become an influencer, however, is not easy. The competition is wild and the expenditure of time and energy is enormous. Today thousands of people around the world are trying to become one. They generate content and interactions on the Internet on all kinds of topics, ranging from social and political causes to beauty tips and travel recommendations. Marketing and advertising firms, which are in charge of generating rankings and lists of global and national influencers, now recognize the possibility of being a micro- (between 1000 and 10000) and macro-influencer (between 10000 and 1000000), according to the number of followers and the size of the audience. In this way they manage not only to expand the number of people who can be recognized as influencers but also to discover new market niches.

The paradoxes of this type of work, as we discussed in the “Youth and the Digital Economy” report, abound. On the one hand, it is an aspirational job that gives hope and motivation. On the other, it is a precarious work activity, without safeguards, social security options, and long-term stability. Being aspirational, this work is done with the hope of obtaining in the future the popularity (quantified in content views, number of followers, likes, favorites) needed to monetize the content, and to be recognized by marketing firms in their rankings. The promise is that this recognition will allow them to monetize their content on digital platforms and obtain contracts to promote products, services and brands. However, while there are few who achieve fame and accumulate a large number of followers, most of those who perform influencer activities generate content, interactions and data on the Internet and contribute to boost the economy and digital culture, benefiting mainly the companies that manage social networks and platforms. This reflects the contradictions that exist in an economy run mainly by giant technology corporations with business models based on advertising and the capture and processing of data and content generated by users.

Even those who obtain the status of influencers face conditions of precariousness and uncertainty. Since they do not have social security, and depend on short-term contracts that they can negotiate to promote products, services and brands, there are no guarantees or safeguards to ensure their stability. In addition, influencers must assume high costs in terms of time dedication, energy expenditure and public exposure. Being an influencer is a work activity that aims to exalt and celebrate the self, the individual, and therefore requires constant exposure of the person on digital platforms, often blurring the boundaries between private and public life. As a consequence, it is common for influencers to be frequently involved in scandals related to their intimacy, or to be victims of attacks and discursive violence that violate their privacy. Influencer activity also implies the blurring of the boundaries between work, play and leisure. Any activity of daily life, however ephemeral it may be, is part of the work and is captured in videos, photographs or other types of content, it becomes data that energizes the cultural and technological industry. Against this backdrop, it is not surprisingly that “de-influencing” is becoming a new trend among influencers that want to solve the paradoxes they confront developing new communication approaches with the goal of de-influence the tastes of their audiences and publics.

However, despite the paradoxical nature of the activities carried out by influencers, and by those who wish to become influencers, the truth is that this type of work has also contributed to empower people of all ages, genders, races and lifestyles. In addition, it has also made it possible to make visible a wide variety of interests and causes, and to articulate communities, audiences, and even cultural and social movements. Influencers have managed to build audiences by gaining credibility, trust, and reputation, and to empower themselves as digital citizens, visible and popular, as opinion leaders. Using information and communication technologies, they have established connections and woven networks that they can leverage to distribute and circulate content. This is perhaps the greatest power that these types of celebrities of digital culture and society have: the power of having many social connections through which they can distribute information and content, capturing the attention of online audiences, and influencing the behaviors, tastes and desires of their followers.

* Other versions of this essay have been published in Spanish in Colombian media: Luces y sombras de la revolución ‘influencer’ (El Tiempo, 24 de junio 2023); La revolución influencer (Razón Pública, 12 de febrero, 2023)

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