The Influencer Dilemma

“What we should be asking is what are influencers, influencing”

At some point last week, after an afternoon of pizza making with two of my closest friends, we sat around catching up on life and somewhere in the conversation we began talking about social media. In particular, the influencer economy and what makes someone an influencer.

Now we live in a world where the internet has connected us more than ever before, which is such a privilege. Culture is evolving, and being exchanged from different parts of the world in a way that was never possible. Where we used to see Beyoncé as the face of Pepsi in 2002, the corporate world has been overtaken by influencer marketing. Maybe it’s that these ‘cool’, ‘in the know’, people are more relatable to the average person or that we are just easily influenced by the allure of beauty or perfection and gullible. We would be lying if we said that this hasn’t changed our relationship with the internet drastically, it sometimes feels like with every scroll, you’re being sold something.

During this conversation we spoke about the sometimes inauthentic and deceptive nature of influencing. On the one hand it is reckless to not be transparent in financial matters when you have sway over people’s financial decisions. I understand that there is hustle culture that exists where online attention now pays people but at what cost? When an influencer in Nairobi portrays that they make a comfortable living off of social media and that we can all do it too, this is very far from the truth. What other income do you have that pays for that apartment of yours? There is a serious disconnect and gap between the socioeconomic classes in this city, and to not be conscious of that in how you approach your ‘influencing’ is not only tone deaf, but in my opinion also reckless. Of course this also spans into a plethora of things such as body image, mental health, dieting, etc.

You are not entitled to pay the bills by stealing people’s attention, on the other hand if you show up with something that people need and want and you can be of service to them, then you’ve done something important.

Seth Godin

My friend made the point that if you look to influencers such as Oloni, who is a sex blogger, presenter and the agony aunt of the influencer age, or beauty YouTuber Jackie Aina, who has become one of the most important voices in her industry when it comes to advocating for the visibility of Black and Brown people in beauty, you not only notice their knowledge and skill in their respective fields, but also the actual value that they bring people. They positively influence people’s lives, get them thinking, en masse, daily. Am I the only one that sometimes feel like influencer communities can sometimes become the same circles of people who are involved in everything in the most suffocating way. I understand the concept of a multipotentialite, I consider myself one, but how many hyphens in to what you do, do you leave yourself vulnerable to never becoming a master of any of them. Overextending yourself is a real thing, and solidly knowing the basics of any trade is super important

Think about 5 local influencers that you follow and answer these questions for me, if social media disappeared tomorrow, what would become of them? What are their expertise? And no, lifestyle is not an expertise, or a unique voice….who do they speak for? Why do they deserve your attention or time? I’ve spoken to algorithm changes in another blog post, but with many of these platforms, people don’t dictate influence, the algorithm does. We don’t control how they work, influencers certainly have no say over how they change and therefore this idea of influence can become non-existent tomorrow because it wasn’t real power to begin with.

There’s this weird dance that influencers and their followers have. The influenced are into whatever the influencer is selling them and the influencer may not entirely believe in what they are selling but they are getting paid, and this is where my mild cynicism comes into play. Yes, there have been guidelines set by Trade Commissions and social media platforms that people have to disclose whether a post is sponsored, but aren’t people always selling something on a perfectly curated feed? Whether it’s an idea, the fantasy of a lifestyle or a product, isn’t it all somehow motivated by money or attention?

Any job that makes you depend on the approval of others for your livelihood, it’s a crazy job. The more you invest in yourself as a celebrity, the less of yourself you get to own.

Dave Chapelle (My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman)

I get it to an extent, showing up as our weird selves is uncomfortable. Many people feel most comfortable not standing out, getting lost in a crowd just enough to mask their quirks. Same with influencers, everyone is on trend – you shop at the same place, do your makeup the same, wear the same sneakers and are a part-time creative – just so you can be safe, affiliated and popular, influencers influence themselves in a way. However, if you have a platform that is built off of an audience’s attention, time, money, you owe them to be responsible. Do not get it confused, the internet, corporations, that impressionable 14-year-old don’t owe you for putting on a pretty outfit.

Influencers are by no means new to our human story, they existed in Shakespeare’s writing, the Pope some years ago called Mary the first influencer and even in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray”, we are told that “all influence is immoral” almost as if influence can end up masking people’s true personalities. Influencers used to be people of mystery, people that were at the top of their niche. They used to be the early adopters, the people that went for what was new, not what they already knew. It used to be the promise of innovation that comes with risk, so if we want change, in whatever we’re interested in, we have to ignore the mainstream. This isn’t easy, it’s not comfortable, but it’s the fact that you can do this work in a way that leaves a positive legacy. Maybe taking that risk won’t work, but the fact that you showed up in a way that doesn’t corrupt people and as a human should be a goal to aspire to.

Everyone aspires to be in a better place or be a better person, but it doesn’t make it easier when you are constantly bombarded by unrealistic goals and airbrushed realities. I know that not everyone wants to carry a responsibility like this, but you are by virtue of choosing this lane. I just believe that there is great opportunity to influence in a way that is positively engaging, informing and entertaining. What would happen if we weren’t trying to sell all the time?

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