“I was the first one who invented getting paid to party,” Paris Hilton once said in an interview. As Kimberly Drew, self-acclaimed “fire starter, art lover, and fashion person” points out, the socialite was—“for better or worse”—one of the original influencers. And that is—for better or worse—the image that most people paint when they think about influencing today: Someone who gets paid to have fun. With that skewed idea, it’s not surprising that, according to a survey from Morning Consult, 86 percent of people ages 13 to 38 have stated that they’re willing to try out influencing as a career (61 percent shared that they already post about brands, but aren’t being paid to do so, and only 12 percent consider themselves influencers). But the influencer space is changing and shifting every day, and while it may appear to be aesthetically appealing on the outside, the influencers we spoke to have differing opinions as to whether or not they recommend following in their footsteps.
Although #SponsoredContent posts have only started popping up in your feeds in the past couple of years, the concept of influencing isn’t exactly new, as former Refinery29 editor (and current influencer) Alyssa Coscarelli notes. “It's essentially a form of advertising, and brands having spokespeople isn't a new idea either,” she says. “Whether you think about Audrey Hepburn working with Dior or Jared from Subway, brands have always seen the benefit in associating a human being with their brand name.” These days, individuals who have built a community and an online following are the ones with the authority and the ones who brands want to work with. It’s essentially a new, 21st-century mode of marketing that largely makes up the influencing space today.
Coscarelli never intended to become an influencer. She first started her Instagram page when she moved to New York City for college and would post about her outfits, travels, and adventures while building a loyal following along the way. Coscarelli is well aware that influencing gets a bad rep, but she’s trying to help change the negative connotation that comes with the term—and that starts with being more responsible and holding herself to a standard. “‘Influencing’ automatically conjures this image in people's minds of photoshopped people pushing "skinny teas" and hair vitamins,” she says. “But like anything, there's a way to do it right and a not-great way to do it.”
Coscarelli adds that, especially in today’s world, you have to be aware of your responsibility. “It all comes down to trust and authenticity,” she says. “Be selective, build trust with your audience, and stay true to yourself and what you know and what you believe. That's how I think we can reclaim the word "influencer" and hopefully lead people to realize we're not all just walking billboards taking money from any brand that comes our way.”
As Drew notes, the concept of influencing has also evolved over the years; It doesn’t just include having a perfectly curated grid or partnerships. She first started out doing social media for The Metropolitan Museum of Art where she would post, raise awareness, and educate followers about art and different artists. Though Drew considers herself an influencer, she knows that she’s not the “typical” version. “People are like 'no, that's not influencing. You're just quote unquote sharing art.' But, no, what I want to do is influence people to have art experiences,” she says. “What is so wrong about using your platform to lead people to places?” Drew continues: “Of course, if the things that you're leading people to are shallow—or presumably shallow—great, let's have an ideological debate about that, but someone sharing music that they love or how to reduce [one's] carbon footprint, that's influencing and has a profound impact; a positive one.”
Chris Lavish, who started out influencing as a model and now serves as digital director for multiple fashion companies and non-profits, says he’s experienced first-hand the impact that sharing parts of his life outside of fashion—the good and the bad—can have. “Just by displaying my lifestyle I have had people tell me I'm the reason they've been able to give up drugs after 15 years, or [that] my vegan enthusiasm has turned them vegan and in return helped their intimate relationships grow,” he says. “After instances like that I've been more conscious of what I do because we never know the length of the ripple effect that our actions have.”
And young people are using their platforms for good. Drew points to young teen activists like Ms. Flint who talk about social issues. Then there are those on Tik Tok who have taken on heavy topics like wealth inequality, gun reform, and climate change. “I think that young people should utilize social media as both a research tool and also as a way of communicating the things that they're really passionate about,” Drew says.
Speaking of TikTok, while its impact is definitely felt, it’s hard to predict how the platform will affect the future of social media and, as a result, the landscape of influencers. “TikToks algorithm is very much still a mystery to me and probably every creator on the app,” TikTok user and Instagram influencer Olivia Huffman says. “Unless you have millions and millions of followers it’s hard to tell how well a video will do. I can post something and it could get anywhere from 40,000 views to 4,000,000.”
For that reason, she prefers Instagram since she has more control over her content and how it’ll perform. “I know exactly when and what to post and I can get a pretty good idea of how much engagement I’ll get, which makes it much easier to do collaborations with brands and sponsored posts.” That’s not to say TikTok won’t become the next big thing though; it just needs a few tweaks. “I think if TikTok can figure out a way to create a more reliable algorithm and make the app able for monetization, it’ll probably become the biggest thing ever, even bigger than the YouTube or Instagram space,” Huffman says.
Out of everyone I spoke to for this piece, nobody recommends influencing as a full-time career. According to Coscarelli, it’s not as easy as it looks. On top of “influencing,” she is also a writer, consultant, and creative. “On a base level, who wouldn't want a comfortable life with lots of free, new things and constant fun experiences? But there's more to it than that. It's running a business, and it's not all glamorous,” she says.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to support yourself on influencing alone, as Lavish points out. “Most young Americans want to be like these rich kids that make it look easy to live that lifestyle,” he says. “Unless you're a trustafarian (trust fund kid) or your parents have big businesses, it’s not easy ‘living the life’ without the proper finances.”
Emily Oberg, who started out as Complex and now owns her own lifestyle label Sporty & Rich, has a complicated relationship with the world of influencing and notes that relying on social media alone can often leave you unfulfilled. “If you want to make money off social media, that’s amazing; It's easy, takes little to no effort, and is a good side hustle. But it should never be anyone's main goal,” she says. “We all need a sense of purpose as to why we're here, why we do what we do. To live a happy and full life you need that, and I don't know how Instagram could ever provide any of those things for anyone.”
Lavish adds, “I tell people, if you want a career that will really impact the world, go be a vegan chef or yoga teacher—those people change and influence lives on a daily basis.”
Even still, Drew thinks it’s condescending to young people to pretend like social media doesn’t matter and can’t have a real impact. “I think, when you talk about it as a career, that's a whole different conversation,” she says. “But I do think that, if young people aspire to build a platform and put forth their messages, who are we as curmudgeonly old people to be like ‘no, be voiceless.’” Additionally, as Morning Consult’s survey further explores, the motivation for why people want to become influencers varies. While 60 percent of millennials say they want to do it for the “flexible hours,” 58 percent of Gen Z say they want to do it to “make a difference.”
If there’s one piece of advice that almost everybody I spoke to wanted to pass along to aspiring influencers, it’s to find your own voice; your own purpose. “What I support is young people who want to carve their own path, maybe be entrepreneurs or build something that's all their own,” Coscarelli says. “By all means, create a name for yourself if that's what you're motivated to do. But don't specifically chase fleeting Instagram fame.”