Being An Influencer Is Not A Real Career...Or Is It?
That question: it’s not “influencer” that’s the operative word, but “career”; how creatively can you carve out one for yourself? The influence will follow, but it won't lead you far.
When Voltaire started creating an intellectual ruckus, along with his contemporaries, throughout a feudal Europe where for the most part the social order was still divided into the peasantry, the nobility and the clergy (there was a nascent middle-class). While poets and playwrights had always existed through the patronage or some hustle of the other, sociocultural/ intellectual commentary was not a thing; it was the domain of the Church, as was the University.
The printing press slowly revolutionized the kind of things people could do. Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, et al. all became “public intellectuals”, now known more for their socio-political views than their novels and plays. Could they be considered “influencers” back then?
You’d best believe Voltaire would have a podcast were he alive today.
Have you seen Netflix’s The Crown? The queen was but an influencer. Marie Antoinette had a gang of “fashion influencers”; high society hostesses dictating the drip for the season. 18th-century France definitely had some influencers – Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, for one.
And what about subcontinent mystic-poets like Kabir Das, Meera Bai, Lal Ded et al? Yes, they were poets and preachers perhaps – but they also influenced thought, or at least instigated discourse.
Okay, the slope is getting slippery. Let’s backtrack a bit.
The stereotype of the contemporary influencer is maybe someone dancing to a TikTok or IG Reel. Or maybe endorsing protein powder while flexing their butt or bicep or something. But look at the cream of the crop, the one’s who actually made a fortune out of it. Logan Paul, KSI, Emma Chamberlain, and Addison Rae, for instance.
Gold standard success stories; ones wannabee influencer will look to, at least in terms of their stratospheric trajectory.
They leveraged their initial momentum onto other things. The first three blew up on YouTube, just posting content around pranks, livestreaming playing video game, and everyday vlogs (respectively), while Addison Rae blew up on TikTok. Now, they have so many other ventures, podcasts, music, acting, boxing and wrestling careers. Some people may still call them as “influencers”, but that’s just their myopia.
Closer home, you have people like Ankur Warikoo and the BeerBiceps guy. They are known because of their visibility on platforms like YouTube. They give “gyan” on all kinds of things, productivity, self-help, finance and all that good stuff. They have big followings, it would be fair to say they have influence. But, for instance, Warikoo has also authored books, and founded many websites. To call him an “influencer” would be disingenuous.
The “influencer industry” is a booming business. Big enough for MoneyControl (a business publication) to quote a Social Beat report stating that the “influencer marketing industry” will reach Rs 2,200 crore by 2025. Herein, lies the crux of why modern-day “influencing” is contentious. Marketing, advertisement, commercials AKA “selling out” or “getting your bag”. Whatever you call it. In terms of semantics, the “influencer” is linked not only with having an audience but equally with endorsing a commercial product.
Without the angle of advertisers dangling chillar/change for the creators to have their products get hawked to the captured audience, the term “influencer” is hollow. Everybody has "influence" to some degree, but it is the big business of endorsements that gives weight to the term – it becomes a part of pop culture lexicon with a significance like never before. Hence, the question “is being an influencer a real career?”
Rest assured: Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun would not have worried about “product endorsement” as a means of income. She was already well-off. She’d still be curating clout though. Kabir Das may have struggled with patronage, but he’d go on preaching.
Internet Impact’s video essay – “The Emma Chamberlain Paradox: Why Big YouTubers Get Boring” discusses the challenges of keeping one’s content fresh and dynamic over a period of time. Both as a creative endeavour personally/professionally, and an entertainment endeavour for the audience.
The topic orbits the interesting debate about what it means to be a “content creator” versus an “influencer”. There are many sites splitting hair over the differences. But safe to say most influencers, even if they coast by posting pictures of their travels, food, or their body, are in some way or form creating “content”.
Technology enables new avenues of enterprise, work, and yes, careers. The printing press made the existence of authors possible in the form we have today. Films allowed for movie stars, screenplay writers, directors and cinematographers. And then, the internet opened the floodgates for “creation”. Blanket, pure, raw, cut, copy and paste, or painstakingly deliberate CREATION.
From blogs and vlogs to video essays and web design; a plethora of new enterprises emerged. Tony Robbins had to do seminars in greasy sweaty halls to become a motivational speaker; now, some kid with a webcam can tell you to do push-ups and get your life in order. Before you used to just play video games, now Twitch streaming is a career.
Technology just changes things.
Influence is the back-end by-product of what happens when people are successful in finding an audience for the content they create. It is contingent on the content they create, even if it is something as intangible and vague as an “aura” or “online personality”. The concept of influence should be left to be deliberated by companies looking to hawk their product using the clout of the “influencer”. Rest should focus on the craft of their content creation. Because as the Athletic Interest points out – athletes are the biggest influencers in all the metrics that matter; fan following, and lucrative brand endorsement deals. And they focus on playing their sport first. It must be actors and musicians, after that.
There is a push to recognize the “Influencer Industry” as a respectable and legitimate industry. Emily Hund’s The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media (2023) is a book going in-depth about the genesis of the modern iteration of influencing/content creation. It examines the Great Recession of 2008, the unstable working conditions, and the evolution of the internet and social media, and their effect on the industry. Wired’s excerpt showcasing passages from the book explicitly argued to provide more institutional support and protection for workers and consumers of the industry.
But semantics matter. My unsolicited opinion about the semantics of calling it “influencer”/“influencing” is that it leads to people perceiving it to be a superficial and superfluous endeavour. As Laurence Scott points out in the New Yorker, the history of the term influencer has always had a centre-negative connotation. On the other hand, it's facts - that everyone is creating some kind of content using media, and everyone in the "influencing" space especially so. You’re influence may wax and wane, it’s a little bit in your control and a lot more out of it. But your drive to create content, that more or less you can dictate.
Finally, if you look around, you’ll notice the amount of energy platforms like Medium, Substack and Ghost are putting out for people to create blogs, newsletters and publications. On top of that platforms like YouTube, Rumble and others are doing their best to promote video-content creation. Creative industries like the traditional publishing, music or movie industry were born out of technological innovation. Now we are in the midst of another one, and once more things are in flux.
And it awaits those who want in.