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.
Having just moved into a new building and in need of art for my walls, I reached out to my friend who’s more involved in the local art scene for something interesting and relatively cheap. She immediately sent me eight different Instagram profiles of local artists, selling and promoting their art via the app. Not only did I find art to buy, but I followed some of the accounts and even went as far as saving one of the girl’s pictures to use as a reference for what colour I wanted to dye my hair next. This took me a total of ten minutes.
Currently, all over Europe, notable and famous museums and art galleries have been desperately attempting to change the demographics of their visitors to be more diverse. Those who consistently visit these museums and art galleries tend to be older, whiter and richer than the average resident of a city. What in fact seems to be engaging a larger and more diverse group of people is the impact of social media on all aspects of the art industry. In today’s art world, an artist and whatever works they post online are exposed for all, accessible to those interested and measured plainly in metrics of likes, follows and comments. It is evident that Instagram can be an incredible tool for well-established artists to spread their art, and create a sense of connection through online communities. An obvious example of the ‘FOMO’ induced, influencer-esque visual omnipresence is Yayoi Kusama’s exhibitions, which over the last few years have been travelling globally and have littered social media sites with images of her famous infinity rooms. But is this type of accessibility good news for the art world, and more importantly for younger emerging artists?
OnBuy.com found that the online art market has grown 20-25 percent in the past few years, and it’s estimated that this online market will grow at a rate of 15 percent per year, if not more. It seems as though there is no going back, social media, artists and galleries are becoming increasingly integrated with one another to appeal to this new digital age and new art fans. Dealers are increasingly reporting sales from collectors who discovered pieces using Instagram, and galleries and museums are beginning to heavily use and invest in social media sites to better understand art fans and promote events, shows and artists. It is easy to understand and see why well-established institutions and artists are benefitting from this new digital age. The real question is assessing how these technological changes are affecting emerging artists.
From an immediate glance, it’s obvious that practically everything has changed in terms of artists attempting to break into the industry. The traditional routes of needing representation, a gallery, or an agent are no longer necessary. Artists are creating partnerships and collaboration through Instagram direct messages and buyers are finding their next million dollar investment by simply scrolling through their timeline.
And while interactions within the art industry have changed completely due to technological structural changes, at its core, not much has changed about the art world. Buyers and followers of the art industry have always been obsessed with the artist and their lifestyles, not just their works and pieces. Social media provides a platform for more followers to inclusively watch and obsess over what they deem to be an “artistic lifestyle,” as well as observe the creative process itself. Anyone can like, comment, message, save, share and frantically consume content through the ease of their phones.
The sense of connection developed between interested buyers and fans with artists is stronger than ever before. Where the physical art world of several years ago had barriers of entry for buyers with money and social status, geographic region and privacy, the online sharing community of artists is for all to access. Art and the interest in it online are all about curiosity and education because the pressure of buying isn’t as heavily present. Nothing is stopping you from following and possibly, one day, buying.
Though there is an evident benefit on the buyer side, do these follower counts and Instagram metrics actually demonstrate success for emerging artists and their online efforts? Social media has solidified the importance and money in careers of being an “online influencer,” and interestingly enough the similarity between influencers and artists on Instagram is at times uncanny. Mediakix has estimated that in 2017 $1.7 billion was spent on influencer marketing and that this would rise to $2.38 billion by 2019. As the career aspirations of many around the world is to become an influencer, globally have career aspirations of simply being ‘influencers’, and with that, millennial artists are often seen as ideal influencers for many companies around the world. Successful emerging artists tend to be followed by many and liked because of the time evidently invested in curating an interesting online profile. In doing so, these artists are not only creating art they can promote, but they are creating a brand they can promote. They partner with streetwear companies, magazines, and other important online influential players. The young artists of today will have the best chance at succeeding if they are talented in whatever fine arts they chose to specialise in, but more importantly if they are able to curate a social media following that fits an attractive artistic aesthetic while aggressively marketing their lives.
Recent technological changes in the art trade industry have been disruptive and impactful as they seemingly create a shift in who has the power to promote, create and sell their art. The impact of technology, social networks and third-party applications has created a seemingly more decentralised art world, giving more power to artists, and more visibility and opportunity to those around the world who want to view, explore and understand art. As in all industries though, there must be a weariness moving forward and a call for hesitation that maybe relying solely on these virtual infrastructures can be dangerous and less freeing in the future.