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Pity the out-of-work influencers Don't mock their empty and decadent jobs: the Instagrammers were only trying to forge a new path

Influencers just have too much fun.


April 29, 2020   5 mins

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.


James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.

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Jerry W
Jerry W
4 years ago

The entire modern model of seeking out a job you love, rather than one that makes a proper contribution, is flawed. It seems very healthy to me to decry influencers and footballers. i don’t want to be unkind, but they are basically parasites, aren’t they? Good for them for making money from a hobby, but it is not real work… we should get back to valuing those who make a real contribution, like nurses and teachers, not to mention plumbers, masons and electricians, so we do not have to import them all from other countries with a better sense of basic value

sion du
sion du
4 years ago

really?
i’m tempermentally disinclined to admire people who’ve worked out a way of excessively profiting from others’ ignorance.
i’m sure that pyramid scheme profiteers are fairly happy in thier work too, it doesn’t stop me from begrudging them thier practices.
by all means strive to be happy or content, but as far as i’m concerned “the right to swing your arms stops where someone else’s nose begins”.
i’ll reserve my sympathy for the creatives, starving sweatshop workers etc, not so much about schadenfreude as moral disapprobation.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

A good, interesting piece. Of course, I have no interest in these influencers and I would never dream of looking at their videos or photos etc. But to the extent that I am familiar with them, it seems that their lives are astonishingly shallow exhibitions of vulgar and meaningless consumerism.

P C
P C
4 years ago

What is this ‘instagram’ thing? Does it make people happy? I prefer a decent pilsner myself.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
4 years ago

Interesting article; very true about many Brits wanting everyone to be as miserable in work as they are. Although Instagram and its ilk may be relatively free from nepotism, they still offer greater levels of opportunity to the moneyed. Clearly, many of the ‘influencers’ come from wealthy backgrounds and could afford their attractive, travel-filled lifestyles to begin with, which is how they have developed their followings.

Jimbob Jaimeson
Jimbob Jaimeson
4 years ago

I greatly value workers that create the necessities if life and have worked as such with enjoyment, but after years of well paid office toil I became a self employed artist and couldn’t be happier. Does that make me a shill for not contributing to the basic needs of man? Where is the line you cross from being worthwhile to frivolous?

hdmcl
hdmcl
4 years ago

good article! i do animation and have been marinating an idea around this, how the glamourous have fallen but we always need a king what will replace it, the King is dead long live the King!!

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
4 years ago

Have to agree.
Aside from re-labelling ‘paid shill’ as the somewhat less tacky-sounding ‘influencer’, the practice of making money using whatever physical assets nature has seen fit to bestow or fame and notoriety one has has been able to accrue has been around forever.

It may be more electronic these days but it’s a tried and true method that works.

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
4 years ago

Good piece. I will re-check my schadenfreude.

W. P.
W. P.
4 years ago

It’s a bit difficult to work up much sympathy for tarted up beggars with cameras. There’s no reason to encourage vapidity.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
4 years ago

I am very glad to say I have never held an opinion on “influencers,” and it appears I still do not need to bother doing so.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago

Nice try…. but no!

These people are currently stuck in their own special circle of hell – but it’s one entirely of their own making!

Mark Kerridge
Mark Kerridge
4 years ago

The “job” of an influencer is to push mostly useless and expensive “lifestyle” products.. It’s utterly facile.. There is no long term happiness to be found in owning an expensive bag or car etc. Craving after the unobtainable is arguably just as much a cause of suffering as working in a job that one does not enjoy or see no purpose in but we are all free to try to find another job that might give us more fulfillment at least.