Becoming a social media “influencer” is the new unpaid internship, and just as exploitative

Few “social media influencers” are able to turn unpaid work building a personal brand into meaningful income.
Few “social media influencers” are able to turn unpaid work building a personal brand into meaningful income.
Image: Diane Bondareff/Invision for Paul Frank/AP Images
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You may have heard about Chiara Ferragni, who started a personal style blog as a 27-year-old that now generates $8 million per year. Or Johnny Ward, who started blogging about his travels as a budget backpacker and ended up with a successful media company. Or the food blogger who earns $150,000 per year.

The internet is overflowing with how-to guides on how to imitate their successes by becoming a full-time Instagrammer, blogger, and fashion guru.

But you have probably never heard of the women featured in (not) getting paid to do what you love, a book by Cornell researcher Brooke Erin Duffy that examines the myth that working hard on a personal brand will pay off in the long run.

She compares this premise to that of unpaid internships. “The expectation is, if you invest yourself now, this will pay off in the future with this glamorous, fantastic job,” Duffy says. “But the reality is much less auspicious in terms of how often these actually do turn into full-time employment.”

Just as not everyone can make it based on unpaid internships, which inherently favor those with connections and families who will pay for their living expenses, not everyone can build a huge online presence and find enough advertisers to make a living. “You have to think about the investments they’re making upfront, the investments in the fashion or the makeup or the food,” she says.

Social influencers with 1,000 to 100,000 followers can be paid between $50 to $1,000 to advertise for a brand, according to influencer marketing firm Hireinfluence, which works with brands such as Oreo and Microsoft to place products in the social feeds of popular personalities.

Most of the dozens of women who Duffy interviewed, despite many hours of unpaid work, have little to show for their efforts.

Meanwhile, companies are benefiting from the free labor, which Duffy calls “aspirational work,” by running “influencer marketing” campaigns that sometimes only pay in free swag.

Q: What is the myth that powers aspirational labor?

The myth is very much a meritocratic one: That if you are putting the most creative, unique content out there, and you have a special voice, you will rise to the top. And by rise to the top, I mean you will earn an income.

The reason that I call this a myth is that if you look at people who have actually risen to the top—the super bloggers, the super influencers—I don’t see them as people just like us. They have some sort of existing capital. They have the right connections. And so, the myth is one of digital meritocracy. If we work hard enough, if we have this creative vision that nobody else has provided, we can get our dream job and do what we love and get paid.

What is the difference between aspirational labor and posting on Facebook once in a while?

What is different with aspirational labor activities is that they are very much seen as something that will provide a return on investment. They’ll provide you access to the right people who will turn this into a job.

How much work did the people you interviewed put into their personal brands?

Let’s take the case of someone uploading an image on Instagram. We see the final image and the cutesy caption, but we don’t see the amount of thought and strategy that goes on before any of this happens.

You have them preparing the photo, staging the photo, doing the photo shoot, afterwards editing the photo and coming up with a caption. And then you have this self-promotion.

A lot of people who had been doing this for years were shocked at how a culture of self-promotion eclipsed the creative elements. They got into this because they really enjoyed styling or writing or photos. They would say, I’m coming up with my creative product, and then I’m spending hours promoting it—sharing it on Instagram, sharing it on Facebook, sharing it on Twitter. It can’t be the same content. They have to vary it depending on the audience for each platform. And after that, they would say, we have to go through and respond to all of our followers, and we have to engage this culture of reciprocal following. I follow a blogger because she’ll follow me.

It was just staggering to hear all of the work that goes into this.

Was anyone you interviewed successful?

A lot of people who were successful had worked for years moonlighting as a blogger while maintaining their full-time jobs. They were essentially doing two jobs in order to make enough to subsist on.

There was also a sense that they always had to be on. You can’t just abandon your blog for a week, or you see a huge dip in your followers, which directly links to your advertising income. And so, there’s this kind of, what is this doing to my personal life? But also, when is this going to pay off enough for me to leave my job? Or is it not?

How are companies benefiting from this myth that anyone can make it on social media?

Native advertising and influencer marketing is all predicated on this idea that “real people” are promoting their favorite brands and products. It’s much cheaper for an advertiser to reach out to a young person with their own “organic following” than it is to place an ad in a magazine or on TV.

Brands kind of dangle this promise of hope. You’ll see campaigns where brands will say, hey, hashtag your favorite jeans look and post on Instagram and maybe we’ll feature your image for people to see. There are also more dubious promises of exposure. I talked with people who said the companies would not offer them any sort of financial compensation. In one case, this woman was a cosmetics blogger and she had a sizable following. She said companies would sometimes send her products unsolicited and say, hey, could you just do us a solid and blog about this?

You drew a parallel between aspirational labor and other types of traditional “women’s work.” Can you explain?

“Women’s work” is a form of invisible labor that goes unrecognized and uncompensated. Child care, domestic work are seen as activities that women inherently do and they’re naturally good at. It’s invisible in that it’s unseen and also there are no economic rewards associated with it.

We now see the lineage of this devaluing of work in the social media economy. I see these investments of time and energy as a form of work, but they’re often seen as leisure, they’re seen as fun, and they’re seen as something that shouldn’t be materially compensated.

After interviewing all of these women, did you come away with a conclusion about what you think should change?

I think the best place to call attention to that are in the very same places where this activity is happening, which is online, across social media.

I would love to see more attention to how few people are making it in this industry, how few businesses are willing to compensate influencers. They have this incredibly saturated market, it’s teeming with young people who are willing to work as so-called influencers. I think transparency about how lopsided the system is is what I’d like to see as the first step.

This interview has been edited and condensed.