Last year, a panicked colleague told me about how her friend’s son had decided to become a social media influencer. Over the weekend, he had declared that he was going to become a YouTuber after graduating from high school and skip college altogether.
I wasn’t particularly surprised or taken aback by the news. Earlier this year, a study conducted in the US and the UK confirmed that children across continents are ditching old-world dreams of becoming astronauts and other traditional professions for the glamorous life of being a YouTuber and social media influencers.
Maybe these kids are onto something, one could argue. With a simple internet connection, a basic sound and camera set-up, churning out content is easy and extremely profitable. You can even launch yourself faster if you’re someone who already has access to an expensive lifestyle in a big city.
Recently, there has been a rise in ads served on Instagram which are from personal brands or small, new start-up handles and are funded by the handle owners themselves.
Kids with well-endowed parents who can afford international vacations and expensive wardrobes have been quick to realise how they can use their lives to create social capital online, and become paid influencers. We have a host of teenagers who progress from high school to college collecting followers all along, so they graduate with not just a degree but an online business. Kids born to celebrities and young parents have followers before they’re even born – and they’re probably going to use it.
They’re all well aware of the risks as well. As an influencer, you risk losing social media following because of a lashback, sometimes over things not in your control. We’ve all lived through the public deaths of too many influencers to name. Worse, risk losing your life – like the Indian couple who fell to their deaths while taking a selfie at Yosemite.
Also read: Why Do Our Brains Love Instagram?
But it’s all worth it for the freebies and goodies, my influencer friend tells me.
She describes several experiences as a food blogger and maybe some have put her in suspicious situations, unethical even. But they all come with free food, clothes, cosmetics and alcohol. In fact, several kids are below the legal drinking age – but that isn’t really a problem, is it? Free stuff is free stuff.
There has been a shift in the influencer market too. While marketing teams of big brands are now looking for ROI (return on investment), focussing on best utilising budget spends, even government body Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) is looking to clamp down and will be asking for accountability and transparency from individuals willing to put their face and voice to products for endorsement.
On the other hand, there are several influencers who have gone on to create their own fashion and lifestyle brands. At some point, they reach a scale where they need to hire other freelance individuals to manage their social media operations.
Through personal stories of friends and teenagers, I’m well aware of how these influencers exploit people for free labour – a little modelling, photoshoot and graphic editing etc. It’s impossible to question them and call them out because the transgressions seem minor in the face of the exploitative stories in India we are accustomed to, but it is definitely driven by the same philosophy of capital accession through cheap labour.
So, as the general awareness of our public grows, as we realise the existence of bots and fake followers, what is the future of an influencer?
While people continue to engage with content, many don’t really believe these influencers to speak the truth. The content formats have become aesthetically passé and the stories are not always inspirational. Consumers seem to have caught on to this copy-paste lifestyle and are ready to become their own influencers.
It seems like the influencer life isn’t the utopia it has been sold to be.
But maybe I’m wrong.
Oddly enough, as I wrapped up writing this, South Park‘s S19E9 started to play on Netflix where Jimmy shows how sponsored content has filtered into the news and how he alone has the ability to distinguish what is truth and what is an ad. He goes on a journey to discover that ads have evolved over time to take human form and have waged a war on truth. “People are ads!” Jimmy screams.
Originally aired in 2015, the episode is called “truth and advertising”. I’m not sure if I should laugh or worry.
Sumedha writes to highlight the need for non-conformity and for practical politics free of labels. She is also a certified cat lady.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty