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How this decade defined and demised the social media influencer

This decade was groundbreaking for the many developments within the internet and tech industries, there is no arguing that. But the one thing that really defines the 2010s is the rapid growth of social media, how much it has changed our world and us along with it.

Sure, social media has been around for a while now, and is not exclusive to our decade. Facebook was launched in 2004, YouTube was activated shortly thereafter, in 2005, Twitter in 2006, and, let’s not forget, their earlier predecessor Myspace (as a gen Zer I have no recollection of such a thing, but it was cool, apparently). Fast forward to 2010—Instagram launches and the first-ever photograph is uploaded onto the platform on the 17th of July 2010. In the next few years, following its launch, Instagram grows hugely in popularity, becoming the main source of inspiration for new social media moguls like Snapchat, which was launched in 2011 (although it only really got popular in 2013), Vine in 2013 (RIP), and TikTok coming in 2016 and taking over.

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Social media has skyrocketed so immensely that for many of us it is nearly impossible to exist without an online presence, no matter what industry you are in. Social media allows for new careers to exist which simply did not before, be that social media management or strategy. Most importantly, with the rise of social media, a new phenomenon was introduced: the social media influencer.

Hate them or love them, social media influencers have had power in influencing anything we did in the past decade, from the way many of us communicate on social media to our buying habits. Instagram alone has become an advertising powerhouse, and what started as a platform to share photos from our lives has turned into a mega marketplace, one that is estimated to be worth $8 billion in 2019—with some of the most famous influencers, such as Kylie Jenner, earning up to $1.2 million per single post. Even platforms such as Amazon are trying to monetise on influencer marketing, with the company recently creating the Amazon Influencer programme.

By 2022, the influencer industry is estimated to be worth $15 billion. But as we are finally cracking down on fake verifications and followers, and call for more authenticity, we start wondering: is the influencer industry as we know it here to stay?

Instagram is known for selling us a false idea of ‘perfection’, and more and more people are rejecting it and calling for Instagram transparency. Influencers that were once going viral for their carefully curated feeds of staged and edited photographs are now taken over by those with a much more unfiltered persona. Funnily enough, while this call for Instagram transparency is something that has seriously increased in popularity and received praise in the last couple of years, ex Instagram influencer Essena O’Neill received major backlash in 2015, when releasing the then viral and emotional video calling out just how fake social media and influencer culture really is.

This decade was also a turning point for just how much we trust social media influencers and whatever they pitch to us. Remember the Fyre Festival fiasco? Sure, the festival organisers were to blame; how were the social media influencers meant to predict the outcome? But this highlighted the responsibility that influencers have to research the product they are promoting, and how accountable they must be for their actions. Fyre Festival made us realise how much influencers can actually influence us. Perhaps it is situations like these that have disrupted the trust between us, and are responsible for the gradual downfall of influencers. After all, how do you trust someone who claims to have your best interest at heart as long as it brings them monetary value?

Influence is something that will always exist but taste changes, and those influenced change along with it, meaning many ‘traditional’ influencers may find it hard to keep up in the future, and, for many of them, being an influencer is what serves as their main source of income. It is also difficult to predict where social media influencer marketing will go next—surely, Instagram still remains the number one platform for advertising and endorsements through sponsored posts, but algorithms have become a mess, shadowbanning is a serious issue that Instagram won’t seem to fix, and where the company stands on protecting its users from sexual harassment is still uncertain. Just last week, Instagram deleted artist @venuslibido’s account for calling out a man when receiving an unsolicited dick pic through its platform.  

Who will be the next to dominate and monetise on social media influencer marketing? Will it be TikTok? Will it be the new, ever-evolving Yubo app? Who knows, but I am excited to see what the next ten years have in store, and you should be too.

You can now pay social media influencers to be your friends

In the latest turn of events surrounding influencer marketing, people with a large following on social media are now offering a service to their followers where they will become their ‘online’ friends for a subscription fee. Before we go into the ethics of this, my question is, why are people so eager to be friends with someone they only know by their social media presence and what do they really get in return?

Influencer culture attracts much scepticism, and the main reason for this is due to some of the questionable tactics influencers and influencer agencies use to make money. For example, expecting freebies in exchange for ‘exposure’, staging a motorcycle crash to promote a water brand, or perhaps the most notorious incident, in which Caroline Calloway, recently under fire for an essay published by her ghostwriter and former friend, was charging people $165 for a tour of ‘creative workshops’ across the U.S., that later turned out to be a failure, as she sold tickets prior to confirming a venue, as well as promised orchid flower crowns to the attendees and instead had them passing around a single orchid for selfies (it was even compared to Fyre Festival). Calloway ended up having to cancel all appearances, except for one in New York. This year’s Love Island runner ups, Tommy Fury and Molly-Mae Hague have also been reported to be charging fans for taking selfies with them—with Hague requesting £4 and Fury requesting £30.

With the rise of influencers selling their services, many have begun using Patreon, a crowdfunding membership platform that provides business tools for artists and creators to build relationships and provide exclusive services to their patrons. Patreon is essentially enabling influencers to streamline and profit from this newly invented service: selling a high profile and ‘blue tick’ friendship.

Gabi Abrao, aka @sighswoon, is an artist and influencer with over 94.2K followers on Instagram, and around 437 of them are her patrons, paying a cool $3.33 a month through Patreon to gain exclusive access to her close friends’ Stories. In these, Abrao posts video and text rants, theories, personal updates, “priority advice sessions”, access to her book list as well as poetry and prose from her personal archives. From $9 to $22 a month, her followers also get weekly recaps including “extensive writing about important experiences or reflections of the week”, a “mantra to carry into the week”, as well as a 10 percent off code to her merch.

For $222 per month, Abrao’s followers will receive a weekly personal email thread or penpalship, every merch drop and publication as well as 30 percent off in store (on top of everything else the other, more budget-friendly subscriptions are offering). Lastly, for $333 per month, eager followers can get the exact perks as the $222 subscription, but as Abrao explains in the description, they will not receive anything extra, “just 333, my favorite number”—and honestly, why not?

Abrao is not the only influencer offering this type of service. Unsurprisingly, Caroline Calloway, too, offered her followers a friendship subscription service. $2 per month will gain fans access to her close friend’s Stories on Instagram and $100 to become her “closest” friends, getting a monthly one-hour Skype call with Calloway herself.

And while many are sceptical of what Abrao is doing through her Patreon account, think about the work that actually goes into sustaining her patrons—replying to emails, managing an online store, having to open up and share personal experiences and feelings on a weekly basis. In many ways, it is a customer service job to the brand that is her own self, and it requires a certain level of vulnerability too. Yes, this practice is quite superficial and narcissistic, but Abrao did not create the culture of social media narcissism from which she is now benefitting; nor is she pressuring anyone to subscribe to her Patreon. Instead, her followers actively choose to do so.

Social media has both connected millions of people but also created a culture of loneliness and isolation; so isn’t Abrao, to an extent, helping her followers feel less lonely and as if they are part of something, while building her own business?

Loneliness is on the rise. So whether Abrao’s intention is to provide these individuals with human contact, or to build her own brand, doesn’t really matter. In some weird and backward way, this trend of someone you look up to taking the time of day to speak to you, include you, and make you feel welcome might be what social media was all about in the first place. And who is to say that Abrao isn’t eradicating her own loneliness by creating a community with these online ‘friends’ too?

“I love the idea of a core group that I can trust certain expressions with more so than the entire internet. I imagine this will grow and there will be more ways, digital and otherwise, that this core community can interact in the future,” Abrao writes in her Patreon description. We are shifting towards a future dominated by digital interaction. Many millennials and gen Zers are meeting their friends through Twitter or Instagram and dating apps, with some of these friendships eventually materialising into real life connections. Many, however, remain purely online, and these should by no means be discredited. 

If we can pay to match with a compatible other on dating apps, for a living space that provides social interaction, or even hire a family, is it so wrong to pay for a friendship, even if that friendship only exists online? While charging somebody a fee for being your friend simply because you’re insta famous can be seen as exploitative, who is to say that most of us wouldn’t do the same if we had the chance (and the clout). So let’s look at the positives—maybe this is the future of online friendships, for better or for worse.