Written by: Mansi Samre || Graphics by Mansi Samre
The invention of the internet in 1983 opened many doorways for people around the world to connect with each other. Originally meant for military use, over time it was developed into the internet that we know today. The first social media site was born in 1997 called sixdegrees.com, where you could set up a profile page, browse through users’ profiles, create connections and send messages within the networks. Although it is no longer in use, sixdegrees.com is still a pioneer for the social media we know today. Now there is an abundant variety of social networking sites out there that we can easily access and use. Traditional media has taken a back seat in the new age of digitalization. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. not only enable the exchange of ideas and information but it also helps to share content in real-time. These media platforms sites can also be interlinked to allow users to easily navigate from one medium to another, which plays an important role in growing your influence. This also creates an environment where users can reach a maximum number of people without sacrificing the intimacy of person-to-person communication.
Today Instagram is one of the most highly regarded social media platforms. As of 2018, it has been recorded to have more than 1 billion active users. It is one of the most important platforms used by marketers to promote their products or services and therefore is one of the most crucial platforms to grow a following on. The reason Instagram has managed to gain this reputation is by letting these influencers engage directly with their audiences and form interpersonal relations with them within their niche.
WHAT IS AN INFLUENCER?
An influencer is nothing but an individual with a huge following and credibility, and has carved a niche for themselves. These influencers can influence the opinions of their fans and persuade them to buy a service or a product. These influencers frequently post pictures and videos, also known as content, on more often than not various social media platforms. The content is usually based around their niche which could be anything from food blogs to skincare. The audience typically enjoys and relates to their content and is, therefore, able to build a personal relationship with them. These influencers have millions of followers in addition to great organic engagement. They get paid by the brands for urging people to buy the products they are promoting. Brands today rely heavily on social media for promotional purposes, therefore these social media influencers provide great reach and a relatively lower cost.
TIMELINE OF THE INFLUENCER CULTURE
With the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1991, users were now able to connect, build and maintain relationships with people they have never met before. It also became easier for people to access information and media content produced by non-mainstream sources. The web forums and bulletin board sites of the 1990s and early 2000s allowed users to engage in niche virtual communities. Some users who were frequent in these communities would gain a reputation of being a reliable source of information, and hence were considered the first prototype of the influencer we know today.
With the commercialization of personal blogs becoming popular, we could see a lot of similar characteristics as we see in social media influencer culture today. Companies sending freebies to influential bloggers in hopes of earning a review or a promotion had become a common practice in the early 2000s. This in turn raised questions around the ethics of disclosing these sponsorships.
Influencer marketing has turned into an exponentially huge industry. Previously these influencers would expect a small fee in order to promote these products on their social media but over the years influencer marketing has turned into a powerful marketing tool. Now the influencers have an upper hand over brands trying to promote. The influencer payout rates are rising quickly but the payout ultimately depends on the number of followers and follower engagement. This has given birth to new problems like online marketplaces where you can purchase followers, likes, and views.
INFLUENCER CULTURE IN INDIA
While a lot of people might have a huge following on various social media platforms, not all of them could be called social media influencers. Traditional celebrities have a huge following which usually originates from participation in an established industry like film, television, or radio. While influencers are known for building their audience from the ground up. They accumulate their following by creating and posting some form of original unpaid content (ideally on multiple social platforms) that helps them build an organic relationship with their followers. They share a relationship based on trust and therefore Influencers have the ability to connect with their audiences and persuade their opinion. That is what makes them ideal for promotional purposes. While there might be a lot of people with a huge following on social media, (celebrities, comedians, entertainers, etc.) they still lack this connection with their audiences. Therefore there is a very clear distinction between celebrities and influencers. Although there are some celebrities who still manage to blur the lines between being a celebrity and being an influencer.
Some of the most influential people on Indian social media stem from traditional media but were still able to amass a social media following and build a relationship with their followers. Influencers like Jannat Zubair Rahmani, Avneet Kaur, and Siddhart Nigam are actors turned influencers. Influencers like Bhuvan Bam and Prajakta Koli started on YouTube and have managed to gain followers across various social media platforms with their niche being comedy. Sejal Kumar and Komal Pandey also built a loyal following for themselves in the beauty and fashion community. Dolly Singh, popular for her comedy skits on Instagram was also able to accumulate millions of followers.
WHO ARE THEY INFLUENCING?
Most people using social media are teenagers and young adults who tend to be more tech-savvy than the older generations, so it would make sense that a huge percentage of the target audience of these influencers are teenagers and young adults. Therefore a lot of their content is targeted towards these audiences. Since most of their audience is young and impressionable, they have to be mindful of everything they post. People have already criticized influencers for talking to cameras while driving and partaking in really dangerous activities in front of their young audience. A lot of influencers are known for posting undisclosed sponsorships, which would be unethical considering their young audience. This leads us to the next topic of ethics and authenticity of these individuals.
AUTHENTICITY OF THESE INFLUENCERS
A lot of influencers were criticized for living fabricated lives. Many influencers have been exposed for photoshopping their pictures before uploading them on any social platform. Which sets up an unachievable beauty standard in the minds of the audience. Photoshopping does not stop at their bodies but also extends to all of their content. A lot of travel influencers were exposed for photoshopping clouds into their pictures to make the pictures look aesthetic. Beauty YouTuber James Charles was exposed for copying the makeup look from one eye and pasting it on another using ‘facetune’ another photo editing app.
Some are also known for getting cosmetic procedures which aren’t inherently problematic, but not disclosing it to their followers and then going ahead and promoting all sorts of diets, fit teas and vitamins is very immoral keeping in mind their young audience. It makes the situation worse that a lot of the times these influencers fail to disclose their sponsorships.
DRAWBACKS OF INFLUENCER CULTURE
Influencer culture has adverse effects not only on its users but on these influencers as well. A lot of them go through body image issues themselves. Also being constantly scrutinized in the public eye isn’t easy either. Influencers are constantly criticized for everything, from their bodies to relationships with their friends and families. These influencers live a very public life and therefore it’s easy for people to criticize their every move. This also leads to influencers constantly seeking validation from the public and can have a negative effect on their mental health.
Some of these influencers have previously been painted as a target by hate mongers, which consists of the general public and fellow influencers. Comedian Agrima Joshua was threatened with violence and rape when she made fun of the supporters of a proposed $408 million statue of a 17th-century Indian warrior, Chhatrapati Shivaji. The hate-mongering was worsened because Shubham Mishra, a youtube personality with close to 300,000 subscribers on his YouTube made a video threatening her. He was later arrested along with 3 other Indian YouTubers.
Influencers are able to gain a lot of followers due to their relatability but as their platforms grow larger, they seem to disconnect with a large section of internet users. A lot of influencers make content around the topic of women empowerment but fail to recognize the intersectionality between gender, caste, and class in their content. This in turn further enforces the stereotypes of the gender binary and fails to challenge caste and class structures in our society. A lot of their content revolves around what upper-class women would consider empowering and is exclusive of working-class women. A huge chunk of their content also centers on the idea of being empowering around westernization.
DOUBLE STANDARDS FOR MALE AND FEMALE INFLUENCERS
If we look at the criticism received by these media personalities, it is very easy to spot the gender bias faced by these influencers. Women are expected to look the best version of themselves at all times but men are given the liberty of not looking good at all times. Also, influencers who are not traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine are constantly questioned about their gender and sexuality. This is especially worse for men, you can see their comments section filled with homophobic slurs. The comment section of women is usually filled with countless misogynistic comments sexualizing and objectifying women. While homophobic slurs are limited to feminine presenting men, misogyny is experienced by all women existing in the social media realm.
At times a lot of valid criticism gets buried under these hate comments. Just mindlessly hating on these influencers allows the influencers to deflect from the actual criticism towards them, further deepening the disconnect.
We could say that being an influencer comes with its pros and cons. However, the pros drastically outweigh the cons. With the pandemic going on and people being forced to stay inside their houses, influencer marketing was one of the only professions which was able to survive the negative impacts of quarantine. In fact, people tailored their content to the pandemic to reach a wider audience. Many influencers came out of the quarantine with a larger following than they had while going into the quarantine. Being an influencer allows you to create your own content on your own terms and conditions and therefore remains to be one of the most sought-after professions.