Bearing a grudge against people who enjoy their jobs is a very British trait. Just look at the way we talk about professional footballers. They earn a great deal of money and so a degree of envy is understandable; yet considering the entertainment they provide, they seem to get it in the neck a good deal more than other high earners (ones probably more deserving of opprobrium).
Last week, the plight of an another maligned group — Instagram ‘influencers’ — made the news. “Influencers’ glossy lifestyles lose their shine”, reported the BBC. The story was received with a mixture of schadenfreude and undisguised glee. “Hahaha time for social media ‘influencers’ to get a real fucking job like the rest of us,” read one not atypical tweet.
These influencers have gained enormous sway over the past years. Their greatest asset is a large social media following, which they use to promote certain products and get paid for doing so. It’s a similar sort of thing to sports stars being paid to wear a certain pair of boots or use a certain bat. But with Covid-19 hobbling many ‘lifestyle’ companies and international travel coming to a standstill, content sponsorship is drying up and marketing budgets are dwindling. And so the sun is setting on the influencer grift and everyone — everyone who isn’t an influencer, that is – is ecstatic.
My own feelings towards influencers are mixed. It’s true, the superficiality of Instagram culture can be wearing. The platform presents people as having perfect lives while the personalities that dominate it thirst for round-the-clock validation and elevate the moral value of ostentatious wealth. Men with chiselled bodies lounge around infinity pools surrounded by a bevy of young and gorgeous women. It purports to be aspirational yet it is a filtered and photoshopped world that is unattainable to the majority of people.
And yet I cannot bring myself to celebrate thousands of (predominantly young) influencers losing their incomes almost overnight. All the jeering last week that they should ‘get a proper job’ doesn’t exactly feel like it comes from a wholesome place. And what is a ‘real job’, anyway? Must it be poorly paid and gruelling? I’m temperamentally inclined to admire those who’ve worked out a way to get paid for travelling around the world looking good.
Indeed, there is an attitude in this country that, as David Graeber wrote in his 2017 book Bullshit Jobs, “If you’re not destroying your mind and body via paid work, you’re not living right.” Get a real job is code for: get a job that makes you as miserable as I am. It’s a bit like the annoying auntie whose own marriage is the worst possible advert for the convention yet who constantly implores you to get married.
But of course, aspiration and envy are bedfellows. When the relationship between work and reward seems to break down, the scale tips towards envy. Many Instagrammers make themselves easy targets. It isn’t hard to hate those who implore us to #hustle and #grind as they do, when most of us know that the infinity pool and the $200,000 Birkin bag is always going to remain out of reach.
This was true before Covid-19; yet the decadent and glamorous lifestyles promoted by many influencers feel hopelessly out of kilter with the new reality of lockdown. We are heading into the mother of all recessions; death is everywhere; we are shuttered behind closed doors in our pyjamas eating comfort food and getting ever doughier. The last thing we want to look at is photoshopped fakery and motivational uplift, presented with a side order of avocado toast. Each day is a struggle; nobody is a failure for not doing 100 push-ups and reading three pop-science books before breakfast.
The trouble is, as well as all the pouting models posting provocative snaps for an army of thirsty men, influence culture is dominated by self-help ‘gurus’ and ‘entrepreneurs’ who promote a value system where failure is a consequence of one not working one’s fingers to the bone. A quick search of the popular Instagram #hustle hashtag throws up thousands of representative memes: ‘Nobody cares about your degree when you drive a Lamborghini’; ‘Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him’; ‘You will never see this view [another Lamborghini] by working from 9-5’.
This sort of pseudo-profundity is the digital equivalent of the ‘Live, Love, Laugh’ tat that hangs from the walls of some lower middle class homes, albeit with a neo-liberal slant. Materialism — fast cars, cartoonishly-sculpted women, jet-setting and bottle service — is the supreme value. It’s a value system that looks incongruent and rather perverse at a time when solidarity, compassion and collectivism are required to deal with a global pandemic. The perfect life was always unattainable. Now it is plain obnoxious.
Much of the online self-help genre had already come to resemble the old communist bloc billboards exhorting the proletariat to work harder for the rewards that were always just over the horizon. It encourages us to believe in the “imaginary universe” that the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu held up as an ideological tenet of neoliberalism, a world of “perfect competition or perfect equality of opportunity, a world in which… every prize can be attained, instantaneously, by everyone, so that at each moment anyone can become anything”. It is yet another incarnation of the meritocratic illusion that keeps the system going — and keeps you working yourself into an early grave.
Despite the glamorous image and ubiquitous capitalist uplift of the influencers, YouTubers and podcasters, this is a precarious world in which one’s income can quickly dry up. It is also a world in which influencers are frequently exploited by the big digital platforms. The fitness personality Joe Delaney — someone whose entertaining and informative content has helped a large number of people to get fit — recently detailed how he received just £4,697, over many months, for a YouTube video which clocked up over 4.2 million views.
The gig-slash-digital economy has repackaged older forms of exploitation — while in the media it has created a landscape that is more hospitable to fake news and demagogues. But it has given more people than ever an opportunity to follow their dreams. I’m an example of that myself: were it not for blogging I would almost certainly not be a writer.
Part of the appeal of the digital economy lies in the way it has undercut the power of stuffy establishment gatekeepers. Uber was embraced by cab drivers — despite its exploitative business model — because the algorithm does not discriminate (at least in theory). There isn’t the same degree of favouritism at any rate. As one private hire driver phrased it to me, under the old way of doing things if a [taxi] controller didn’t like your face or the sound of your voice “you wouldn’t eat that week”. Apps such as Instagram, along with other social media channels, have diversified the route to fame and recognition; nepotistic gatekeepers have been swept aside.
The era in which the baby boomers grew up has an obvious and lingering appeal: free education and healthcare, plentiful jobs, good pensions. But many younger people have looked at the lives of their parents — broken by fruitless toil in office cubicles and worn down by loveless marriages they got tangled up in far too young — and thought: no thanks. One manifestation of this is people forging their own path through the new social media platforms that have sprung up over recent years.
There is quite a lot that is wrong with the superficiality and validation-seeking that is ubiquitous on Instagram. Indeed, the lockdown has provided many of us with the impetus to take a much-needed digital detox. But those glibly celebrating the possibility that Instagram influencers will have to go back, cap in hand, to traditional employers are betraying their own limited horizons. Instagram’s hyper-capitalist porn may leave a bad taste in the mouth. But then, so does begrudging someone making a living doing something they enjoy.