Age of the influencer?

Is the pursuit of online fame something to be encouraged as a viable and sustainable career option?

34 million TikToks alongside 3.7 million YouTube videos are uploaded daily. On top of this, 1,074 pictures are posted to Instagram per second, equating to 95 million a day. There is no doubt that the digital sphere plays a significant and indisputable role in the lives of many in today’s society. Acclaim and recognition is also actively sought after by many who contribute to the colossal amount of media uploaded to online platforms. 

South East Technology University (SETU) in Carlow recently announced their new Bachelor of Arts in Content Creation and Social Media which will launch officially in Autumn of 2024.

The course hopes to teach students how to  ‘take on the digital world’. However, many have coined it as a course on how to become an influencer.

This notion struck me. Studying in order to become an online personality is never something I would have considered an option. First, before we delve further into the mindfield of what being an influencer truly entails I believe it is important we are working off a common definition of the term. 

Urban Dictionary, the dictionary of the people, defines an influencer as: “A makeup, hairstyle, or fashion blogger who is instafamous only on Instagram or buys ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ and gets free products from companies who fall in their trap of fake fame.” Cambridge Dictionary describes the term as “a person who is paid by a company to show and describe its products and services on social media, encouraging other people to buy them.”

Is there any semblance of truth to these somewhat crude definitions?

Zoella, Pointlessblog and danisnotonfire are just some of the influencers whose YouTube channels I watched religiously during my formative years. These faces morphed into those of Emma Chamberlain, Cody Ko and Noel Miller once I aged. Now, older still, when deciding to press play on my meal time entertainment I tend to gravitate towards channels who produce meticulously written video essays such as Jordan Theresa and Shanspeare or seek out the comfort of a Keelin Moncrieff vlog. 

The appeal of many influencers is that they are ‘just like you and me’ or in other words their relatability. Hailing from normal backgrounds, these individuals were sprung into a niche online spotlight due to their personalities or the nature of their content. Is the essence of an influencer something which can be bottled up taught to others? Is there some magic elixir to take which guarantees you a definite and secure platform in the online area where millions of others are competing and trying to carve out their own brand? 

SETU Carlow’s Bachelor of Arts in Content Creation and Social Media has been both correctly and incorrectly labelled as a course on how to be an influencer. The degree is set to teach valuable business and PR skills on how to market oneself online while also focusing on celebrity studies, podcasting and creating videos. As the digital landscape becomes intrinsically intertwined with our daily lives, I believe that the learning outcomes of this degree are to be desired regardless of if one pursues influencer stardom or not. Perhaps we will even see Trinity institute a similar course in the future. 

There is however a darker truth to the influencer epidemic we are experiencing. Videos have gone viral from influencer or content farms in China. These clips show factories full of people arranged in lines with each individual situated in front of a camera, ring light and tripod. If you think this sounds like something from a 2010s dystopian novel – you would be correct. Companies hire these KOLs (key opinion leaders) or influencers in order to promote their products and thus boost the streaming e-commerce market in China which is estimated to exceed over 720 billion US dollars in 2023. Taobao, an online shopping platform based in Hangzhou China uses KOLs to churn in enormous profits through its live streaming platform and ‘see now, buy now’ ethos. It is a highly competitive yet lucrative industry. At its peak, KOL and influencer management company Ruhnn would scout 800 people a month only offering the top 10 a contract illustrating the highly competitive and desirable nature of this career. 

Influencers for hire is not a new phenomenon. I’m sure we can all remember the Kardashians’ endless marketing of appetite suppressant lollipops and diet teas along with the slew of low quality and overpriced merchandise YouTubers used to sell to us. These examples aside, the landscape for online content creators has in my opinion experienced a significant shift in the last few years as the premise of what an influencer can do has changed. Corporations and companies have only recently released the full lucrative potential of having a ‘normal’ person advertise their products. 

The rise of micro influencers only further facilities the onslaught of constant marketing one experiences upon opening any social media. Micro influencers operate in a sweet spot when it comes to attracting sponsorships from companies. Their smaller fan bases are often very loyal thus they achieve high levels of engagement with their content which appeals to brands. The perceived reliability of smaller content creators also means viewers often form deep bonds with the creators meaning they are more likely to purchase something they praise, promote or purchase themselves. These influencers usually have between 1,000 to 100,000 followers meaning the commission owed to them is lower as opposed to an account with 50 million plus followers. Micro influencers have unknowingly provided corporations with a newly found goldmine when it comes to advertisement. 

When it comes down to it, advertising either yourself or a product is the only way to ensure a sustainable and definite income due to the precarious nature of influencer as a career, a career which in my eyes is unethical and unsustainable to both promote and pursue. I do not believe it is moral in this age of climate catastrophe to encourage the constant purchasing of items we do not need. Modern day influencers are inherently linked to overconsumption. Paid partnerships content creators enter into with brands encourage and promote excessive spending. Unless they rein from an affluent enough background to not partake in sponsorships or work another job in conjunction with their online career, this is how your favourite influencer garners their income. If choosing this job as your primary source of income you must be prepared to denounce any values you hold in relation to issues of fast fashion or sustainability. 

There is little we can do to close the online floodgates as the age of the influencer is upon us, whether we like it or not.

Aoibhinn Clancy

Aoibhínn Clancy is the Deputy News Editor of Trinity News and is currently in her Junior Sophister Year studying History and Political Science.