Inside the lives of social media influencers

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In this photo illustration, the logo of TikTok, the Chinese media app for creating and sharing short videos, is displayed. (Photo Illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images)
In this photo illustration, the logo of TikTok, the Chinese media app for creating and sharing short videos, is displayed. (Photo Illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images)

The life of a social media influencer. Creators post photos and videos of their lives while brands send them products and money, and followers lavish them with love.

But … it’s also really hard.

“There must be hundreds of thousands of participants who go on every day and scrutinize every single influencer post," communications professor Brooke Erin Duffy says.

Internet trolls aren’t just cruel individuals — they're also organized legions of hate.

"If you look at who the targets are, they're almost exclusively women," the professor adds. "They police their parenting, they police their looks, they talk about, did she get Photoshop? Oh, she's being a terrible parent. Oh, she’s using her nanny too much.”

Another issue creators face? They depend on unpredictable social media platforms for their livelihoods.

"For influencers and creators, a tweak in the algorithm can just wreak havoc on their income streams, because they're not being seen anymore.”

Today, On PointInside influencer life.


Brooke Erin Duffy, associate professor in the department of communication at Cornell University. Author of (Not) Getting Paid To Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work. (@brookeerinduffy)

Ayana Lage, freelance writer and lifestyle blogger. (@AyanaLage)

Also Featured

Christina Najjar (Tinx), content creator. (@itsmetinx)

Julia Marcum, co-founder of Chris Loves Julia. (@chrislovesjulia)

Cece Xie, content creator and lawyer. (@cecexie)

Interview Highlights

On what's behind the rise of influencer culture

Brooke Erin Duffy: "Digital content creators or influencers provide us with advice, or inspiration or entertainment. And in the process, they are recommending sponsored products or services. And there's this tendency to see this as a novel career. You know, we heard this from the accounts of Tinx and Julia about, 'I can't believe you get paid to do this.' But this is not necessarily new. I often compare the work of creators or influencers to what media and cultural workers have long done, which is create and circulate content to audiences and in the process, attract advertisers.

"And so just getting to your question of again, How did we get here? I think with any new category of work, we can attribute this to just a rise or a confluence of social, economic, technological factors. So one of them, of course, is just the profound uptick in platforms. And this idea that anyone can go on YouTube, or TikTok and Instagram. And seemingly the narrative goes, cultivate a following. We also have to understand the rise of creator culture against the backdrop of changes in the job economy. It is a lot harder to get a job in the traditional media and creative industries. Whether we're talking about journalism, or magazines, or TV or movies.

"And finally, in part of this, there's this sort of fetishization of independent careers. And by this, I mean the fact that I teach college students and I often ask them, How many want to be entrepreneurs? And everybody wants to be an entrepreneur. But I think in a lot of ways, entrepreneurship is a euphemism for independent work, where it's all on you. Success or failure is on your shoulders. And so I think it's kind of this confluence of factors that has enabled the rise and rapid uptick of influencer culture."

How big is the influencer industry?

Brooke Erin Duffy: "It's hard to establish boundaries around this, and I saw a New York Times report earlier this year that said the creator economy is the fastest growing small business. But one of the reasons it's so difficult to establish boundaries is, for one, a lot of people are doing this on the side — the so-called 'side hustle.' And so they may have a full-time or part-time job in a totally separate industry and are spending every free hour doing this. Another challenge is, as you said, the decentralized nature of this, which benefits platforms where there are very few systematic ways for the creators to come together and share what they're making."

The brands hold power, and the platforms do as well. And then there's the demands of the followers themselves. Who's the dominant player in this dance here?

Brooke Erin Duffy: "It's easy to suggest that, Oh, creators have all the power because they can post whatever they want, and work with whoever they want. And that is certainly not the reality. Brands play an incredibly powerful role in making decisions about who to work with, what their contracts entail, how much they are paid, or in a lot of cases not paid. There's this often deferred promise of exposure.

"And so brands will send aspiring influencers so-called swag without any kind of material compensation. But absolutely, the platforms benefit tremendously from the creator economy and in a lot of ways, hide in the shadows of this system where the attention tends to be on audiences, creators and brands.

"And so thinking about how platforms are reaping tremendous rewards from the attention and audiences that creators bring to their platforms. But there's a lot of really problematic ways they treat creators, including the fact that they leave them out of it. A lot of decisions, including about the daily operations. And I know you said we can talk about algorithms later. I think that's a really important point of how creators have to struggle with platforms, invisible algorithmic systems.

On the impact of Instagram's changing algorithm 

Brooke Erin Duffy: "Creative workers, from book authors, to musicians to TV writers, they've always faced a level of unpredictability. Who knows what's going to quote-unquote 'do well' with audiences? What's going to resonate, what's going to draw Box Office sales, or what's going to make the seller chart? So there's a level of unpredictability there. But in the platform ecosystem, this unpredictability is amplified by the fact that we don't know — and we're not supposed to know — how algorithms work. And you mentioned the case of Instagram's algorithm. And if anyone is a user of Instagram and I imagine many of the listeners are, I mean, it was frustrating, right?

"All of a sudden content was appearing out of chronological order, and we weren't sure why we were seeing posts a week ago. But it didn't fundamentally impact our lives. If you're a content creator, your career is run by the visibility or lack of invisibility of this invisible algorithm. And so I have talked to many creators who say in addition to the grueling demands of this profession, they now have to think about how to respond to the algorithm, how to game the algorithm, how to reverse engineer this unknowable feature so that their content can still be seen to audiences."

What's your conclusion about the algorithmic influence in the influencer industry?

Brooke Erin Duffy: "It introduces a new level of precarity to these careers, or a new level of instability. And so going back to what we talked about earlier. Of course, there's always been this level of capriciousness in creative careers. But now creators are not just thinking about what they want to create and put out there into the world, or what audiences are going to demand, but how to play to the algorithm for a platform that may not even be there in a few weeks. I mean, I think that's another level of instability the creators have to reckon with. Right now we're talking about Instagram and Tik Tok, but who knows if we'll be talking about the same platform a couple of months or years from now."

This program aired on December 8, 2021.


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Annie Sinsabaugh Freelance Producer, On Point
Annie Sinsabaugh was a freelance producer for On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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