It seems like every fourth photo on my Instagram feed is of a beautiful woman—a beautiful woman I don’t know. Being from New York, a lot of the Instagrammers I follow are glamorous city girls with an affinity for sparkly clothing and NYC rooftops. Others live in suburban America, posting pictures of themselves impeccably done up in their girlish bedrooms. Others live in entirely different countries, live entirely different lives.
Some may call them “Instagram baddies” or “art hoes;” they post hundreds of pictures of themselves, but also of their art, fashion choices, thoughts and feelings, and glimpses into their inner lives. It seems the only commonality among all these Instagrammers I follow—who aren’t really famous and who I don’t really know—is that they are all beautiful. Incredibly beautiful.
I’ve spent the last few months talking to beautiful people on the internet—some of the very people I used to see when scrolling through my feed. I chose to do my sociology thesis on Instagram influencers because I find beauty fascinating, which is at least partially why I spend so much time on Instagram. On Instagram, beauty is more than just beauty. Beauty is a tool that social media users employ to gain influence—literally to become an “influencer.” And to have influence is to have power on the internet. I’m sure we all know the story of the Fyre Festival and the handful of bikini-clad influencers who posted a simple orange square leading the fraudulent festival to completely sell out. The aggressively marketed Hulu documentary about Fyre claims that “the Fyre Festival proves that the power of influence is real.” But I believe, more importantly, the power of the influencer is real. I wanted to know about the influencers. Who are they really? What do they get from Instagram? Money? Power? Fame? What I found is that the line between an influencer and a follower is a blurry one.
Naturally, I found the influencers for my interview sample on Instagram. Being the semi-famous individuals that they are, it took a while for me to get in contact with anyone. I would just shoot DMs off into the abyss hoping for a reply or two. The influencers that did reply were always friendly and enthusiastic. After all, they are just ordinary people. The biggest question I initially had was a nosy and simple one: how much money do you make? But I quickly found that Instagram creates many avenues of success, and money is only one of them.
The influencer @akiralopezg is one such success story. They’re (They use they/them pronouns) a 19-year-old from Australia with a slightly edgy and very trendy feed. They post a mixture of professional model shots and pouty selfies. Out of all the influencers I interviewed, they were the bluntest about their success on Instagram. As they put it: “I like to see it as a game. You play the game to win likes.” The bluntness fits effortlessly into their aesthetic. @akiralopezg told me they wanted to use their Instagram to expand their world beyond Australia, especially considering they have aspirations to be a filmmaker. Remarkably, they were scouted by a modeling agency in LA that found them from their Instagram account, which brought @akiralopezg closer to both their modeling and filmmaking aspirations. The “game” is more extensive than Instagram.
Another influencer I talked to, @maitreyabrooks, had recently finagled a job through Instagram as well. @maitreyabrooks is a young professional from Portland, Oregon with a chic, Portland-y feed: earthy but modern. Her posts have a neutral color palette, alternating between pictures of outfits, food, and restaurants with impeccable interior design. Often the businesses she visits, coffee shops or ice cream stores, will know who she is, or at least who she is on instagram. Knowing her potential to reach an audience, they’ll offer her free stuff: a free coffee here, a free pint of ice cream there. The brand Outdoor Voices contacted her, asking her to promote their product, but @maitreyabrooks decided she would see if they could offer her more. She asked if they had room to hire her in an advertising role, and they agreed. Benefits from Instagram seem to follow @maitreyabrooks everywhere. She, like pretty much all influencers, also receives a lot of free products delivered to her doorstep. She’s very thankful for the fact that she receives, “a lot of benefits … I haven’t had to buy clothes in a while or jewelry or beauty supplies.”
But aside from receiving nice gifts, how much money do influencers actually make? Understandably, nobody really wanted to straight up answer that question. However, @maitreyabrooks explained what a collaboration with a brand looks like. She works with Urban Outfitters despite having only 6,000 followers, making her what they call a ‘micro-influencer.’ In her recent collaboration, she was asked to choose $1500 dollars worth of clothing from the Urban Outfitters website and was then given another $1000 in cash in exchange for 25 photos delivered to UO. @rohinielyse, a blond Glossier representative and influencer located in Brooklyn, told me, “I don’t feel comfortable revealing the exact amount but it’s enough for me to live on.” The influencers who responded to me tended to have a smaller following, so I imagine influencers with more followers make even more money.
The term “influencer” comes from business scholarship and simply means a consumer who is socially situated to easily influence other consumers to buy a product. Brands are a crucial part of the influencer industry. And with influencers having a return on investment 11 times higher than traditional advertising, brands are not likely to let up. Brands and influencers work hand in hand in a mutually beneficial relationship; influencers promote brands and brands promote influencers. @akiralopezg said they gained a lot of success from working with the brand Unif. After Unif reposted them, they got 17,300 likes on one post. @rohinielyse had a similar success story after working with Glossier, which happened after she “went to their showroom and posted a few photos … and then they emailed me.” Promoting brands can help you get more followers, and brand promotion is status in itself. This explains the trends of influencers or even regular users tagging brands who aren’t even paying them.
Unlike @akiralopezg, influencer @isabelleestrin didn’t initially have any grand plans for her Instagram. She remembers first downloading the app in a high school math class. Her feed has an airy, almost French feel despite that she’s from Brooklyn. She has an affinity for romantic mirror pics taken in her all-white apartment while wearing lacy white outfits. Despite her 38,200 followers, she thinks of her Instagram as a personal account, because she believes her success came naturally: she started gaining followers without really trying. Still, @isabelleestrin does work with brands. She explained to me, “usually a brand will reach out to me about collaborating, or vice versa, and that’s always really nice and fulfilling.” This comment represents the sort of relationships influencers and brands have on Instagram. Brands comment on influencers posts and they DM them: they’re friendly. @isabelleestrin only works with brands that she aligns with “ethically and aesthetically.”
Many influencers subscribe to @isabelleestrin’s standards. Brands and influencers can have a lot in common: they have high standards for ethics and aesthetics. Many influencers refuse to work with brands that have bad sustainability practices or are not expressly body positive. In this way, the influencer industry can actually encourage better business practices. The “aesthetics” part is why influencers and brands work so well together. Just like businesses, influencers create a branded aesthetic for themselves; that’s how they gain followers (and how they make profit). Businesses, then, need only ensure that the brand of an influencer they hire matches their own. Some feminist scholars have argued that influencers engage in self-objectification, but I believe it’s closer to self-commodification. Influencers can work with brands because they are brands.
@maitreyabrooks points out that part of why influencer marketing works is that it’s more personal than traditional advertising, she says, “A lot of my followers are in Portland … we run into each other around town … people really do trust what you’re talking about because you wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t mean it. That’s the whole wave of micro-influencers. It’s just more personal and more organic.” The personal touch explains why the behemoth brand Urban Outfitters, with 8.4 million followers, would enlist an influencer with only 6,000 followers. On Instagram people have a relationship with their advertisers, but often that relationship is one-sided. Instagram doesn’t just blur the lines between influencers and brands, but also between everyday individuals and brands.
Glossier is perhaps the best example of an Instagram brand. All of Glossier’s product are clean, white, and Instagrammable. Seven days after the release of their product Cloud Paint in 2017 there were 1,700 user-generated images of the product. In four weeks, there were 6,368. The company almost exclusively uses Instagram influencers to advertise. But Glossier’s involvement with Instagram goes even further than collaborations with influencers. One of Glossier’s major strategies is to take the “customer is always right” philosophy to the extreme with the aid of the internet. The Glossier team takes time to respond to comments and messages sent to their social media profiles, and the business then creates products directly in response to what followers say they want. Again, Instagram brings individuals and brands closer together. @maitreyabrooks even thinks influencers are the entire future of advertising:
“Traditional advertising is not worth it anymore. Because a company can release, say, a line of pants and you can either spend $200,000 advertising it, and you don’t know who it’s being advertised to. Or you can have a budget of a couple thousand dollars send to influencers have them post it and it sells out the line in like a day.”
Instagram, let’s not forget, is a platform deeply imbedded in capitalism. It is the top social media for advertising. Influencer marketing is, like data-mining, a step further into intrusive advertising methods because Instagram influencers are the people we choose to follow, not the ads that interrupt our television programming. On Instagram, there’s no “cut to commercial.” It’s easy to forget you’re being sold something. Often, influencers don’t even discuss the products they are selling; they just wear them and tag them. And yet, it’s an incredibly effective advertising technique. Instagram influencers are like the cool kid at school who shows up carrying a particular backpack: the next day everyone else comes in wearing the same thing. Instagram allows companies to harness the power of the “cool kid at school” on a global scale.
Instagram influencers often use their beauty as a huge leg up in attaining influence. Instagram is undeniably a platform that glorifies beauty. If likes are the currency of Instagram and beautiful people get the most likes, then on Instagram beauty is power. I call this power “beauty capital,” a form of capital which can be turned into economic, cultural, and symbolic capital. But if beauty is power, then it becomes crucial to consider the ways we define beauty on Instagram.
The final sample for my research included 70 influencers, and I ensured the sample would include influencers of different races and body types. Given that everyone’s feed is so hyper-tailored to their interests and tastes, it is impossible for me to say whether everyone or even most people’s feeds reflect a wider range of beauty standards. As @isabelleestrin said when I asked her about shifting beauty standards on Instagram, “It depends on what content you’re consuming and what you’re taking from it.” I can say that there are plenty of very popular influencers who fall outside of Eurocentric beauty standards. Because Instagram is a platform that anyone can engage with, it enables people to broadcast themselves without needing to get through the narrow gates of Hollywood or the modeling industry or any other mass media. Instead it is up to us, the Instagram users, to pick a feed that represents the kind of beauty we want to see. We have the ability to curate a feed that expands our norms and assumptions not just about beauty, but about everything.
However, while more types of beauty are celebrated on Instagram, influencers still create impossible standards within their types of beauty. Using Instagram analytics software (usually used by brands to find influencers to work with), I found that in my sample of 70 influencers, 62 of them had a predominantly female follower base. By selling an idea of beauty to women, the influencer industry mimics the traditional advertising world. In many posts, nearly everything an influencer wears on their body will be tagged, from their hair extensions to their colored contacts to their lingerie. But unlike traditional advertising, on Instagram, women choose their own models. If you’re goth you can follow all the goth girls; if you’re curvy you can create a feed with influencers that look more like you. Of course, the influencers you follow will still be incredibly beautiful. On Instagram, women choose their own impossible beauty standards. The recent backlash against photoshopped mass media popularized the idea of “real” women (versus model women) in advertising. But what does ‘real’ even mean? Beauty capital is a major avenue for women to gain power on the internet, but it is a double-edged sword: you still must be (impossibly) beautiful.
Instagram fame, beauty, and the influencer industry all may seem like rather shallow pursuits, but they’re the future. I think about @breughnuh, a 15-year-old from New Zealand, started her Instagram in October 2018, and when I interviewed her in January she already had 8,000 followers—Now she has 22,900. I also think of the bluntness with which 19-year-old @akiralopezg told me: “I go through explore and change my aesthetic according to what is exploding on explore [the explore page of Instagram].” Generation Z grew up on smartphones—they understand social media. While Instagram fame may seem like a young and frivolous interest now, as Generation Z ages it will likely become more serious. Shallow or not, Instagram and the influencer industry represents a major way that young people, and especially young women can gain power in the internet age.
The influencer industry has an estimated value of $1.8 billion, and it’s growing, not because of influencers with millions of followers, but because of influencers with thousands or even only hundreds. As @maitreyrabrooks points out, micro-influencers are successful precisely because they don’t have millions of followers. So the connection feels more personal. As the number of followers someone needs to become an influencer keeps shrinking and the desirability of working with brands keeps growing, I can imagine a world in which every single one of us is an influencer, all selling each other products. Glossier CEO Emily Weis welcomes such a world: “What’s very motivating to us is the idea of every single woman being an influencer.”
If we’re all influencers, it’s worth asking yourself: what are you selling?
Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019