The word influencer is ever-changing, both in connotation and in power.
I immediately ascribe “influencer” to the culture that I came of age in: skinny social media “stars” in which the term “shameless” barely covers their acts of self-promotion.
Even just writing about the influencer definition requires far more quotations than my personal preference just to assert the lack of ingenuity in the dictation. The term has not only drastically morphed to turn into this definition that I personally deem fit, but it has seemed to begin to change within the last few months- months filled with state-mandated stay-at-home orders as well as the biggest civil rights movement in world history.
Prior to the pandemic, I had the intention to write about the damage of LA influencers who think that they are DJ’s- the white ones we see spinning at New York fashion week for $1500 a gig with their music knowledge never surpassing a Spotify playlist scroll. That said, this damage has become far more detrimental as those with 1 million followers thanks to their selfie ring lights and email accessibility have had very little influence in dismantling systemic racism at the time when black and brown folx were fighting for their lives (not to mention during a time when they are disproportionately affected by COVID-19). So, as we see the evolution of the influencer aspiration, we must first examine one thing:
Who/what really makes up an influencer?
I was watching “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” earlier today when I heard the “i” word. “Jeffery was a man of power and influence,” they said. It made me laugh. Well, it made me cringe-laugh. The word to me is, simply put, icky, and this moment of the mini-series about the intersection of money and child molestation very much validated that. Let us pause here for a second. What the fuck. In the early 2000s, before social media marketing or even myspace for that matter, an “influencer” was someone with a platform, yet not necessarily a positive.
Influential people are often rich, often white, and often assholes.
And yet, we were all supposed to set our aspirations to mirror their successes regardless of if we could relate to them at all. From these assholes platformed in Page Six came women with an Instagram profile and gluteal augmentations, and year after year we continue to fall under the spell of wanting to be at the standards of people we don’t even really respect. I know my stance on the subject, but I wondered what the idea of influence was like before tacky tabloids and teenage Tumblr fame…
My father was born in 1956 in Hollywood and my mother two years later in New York. They both lead liberal lifestyles with an emphasis in the entertainment biz. They’ve seen it all, they’ve done it all, and they are here to tell those stories. So naturally, I asked them who they could truly say were their “influencers.” My feminist mother reflected on the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, mentioning Gloria Steinem, Abby Hoffman, Shirley Chisholm, and the entire Rock and Roll industry (she hated the disco era so all DJ’s to her were probably posers anyway). My father, a hippie, agreed with the above while also throwing in Cheech and Chong for good measure. In adulthood, they became influenced by The Obama’s, Anthony Bourdain, and the current household obsession is our queen, Padma Lakshmi.
In essence, the ideas of influencers actually being inspirations were obvious and innocent to them. This made me wonder: was the pure difference between the influencer assumption then and the influencers on Instagram now the fact that people used to read rather than scroll? What does this say about the glorified Gen Z and the Baby Boomers we have basically made a mockery of? And how can we revert back to political progressives being our #goals rather than Bang Energy Ambassadors and white boys whose parents paid for their mixing boards?
See, the optimist in me thinks we are on our way there. As support in the Black Lives Matter movement began to surface as a means of judgment in both personal and professional spheres, we began to see the impact of performative allyship and actual advocacy. We saw handfuls of profiles with a combined reach in the multiple millions post black squares with little to no thought behind it. You see, there is an immense overcrowding of influencers these days, and the choice to use their landfill-like digital space to crowd social media with blank and empty messages spoke volumes of this substance-less-ness. From this, we began waking up. Writers, artists, and audiences alike began calling for the platforming of a new kind of influencer: one who wants to educate and inspire without care for the capitalistic gain from bullshit brands. But, the cynic in me still questions the hill of progress we are climbing.
Some worthwhile “follows” that rose to internet fame in 2020…
As a woman born and bred from the land of cliches- Los Angeles of course- I have continuously seen people that I never wanted to be like become the “inspo” of thousands. This influencer power has brought opportunities and exposure to those born with pretty privilege and beyond. Hell, even I had to check myself in this. My career is writing about my two loves: music and marijuana. I used a fake ID for every concert that I was guest listed for and I have been writing about weed long before I was technically of age to smoke it. Admittedly, I too am part of the problem. I have been part of the gentrified cannabis industry while Black people are simultaneously being incarcerated for far less possession than I normally carry. I exist in the space where white people profit from dispensaries that are dressed up like Apple Stores while actively ignoring the injustices that are intrinsic to the entire industry.
I am a freelance writer, and I self promote on social media much like an influencer for Instagram may. I was gracefully given a platform to use a voice that is rarely quieted. And still, as much as it pains me to admit, I am jealous of the people who make more money than I do by posing in a bikini with an uninspired watch or those who convince the public eye that their social status and nicotine addiction equates to any kind of nightlife musical talent.
Although we are directly in the thick of it, it is hard for me to imagine a world that completely shifts the influencer culture as we know it. But, the baby steps we are making are in the right direction. I find myself spending nights scrolling Tik Tok instead of Instagram as of late. One of the major reasons is that on that app I am identity-less. I spend hours watching black, queer, body positive, and hilarious young people from my profile-picture-less account titled “user6201914716469.” The people on my “for you page” make me laugh, make me cry, teach me something that the news could never, and show me where to find my new favorite big pants tiny shirt outfit (and even which kitten heels to pair it with). I’ve seen young girls in their bedrooms get so much love on their original songs that they upload them to Spotify, and I sit back and watch non-cis/ non-white people take up some serious space. This new “influencer” is sprouting during this pandemic-centric time where we have nothing to do but watch them create content. They may not be front row at fashion shows or signing thousand dollar brand deals quite yet, but they are influencing a new generation in a way that doesn’t make my eyes roll. They aren’t being applauded for their power while running child trafficking rings or underpaying their workers in Bangladesh.
This new influencer meaning is just beginning, and we are starting to stare at them with googly eyes for the simplicity of being humans who content-create with a care for human rights.
We have a long way to go and we have a lot of work to do to even reclaim the “i” word, but this intensively anxiety-inducing year of upside downness is starting the conversation. We must continue to keep our eyes on the influencers with an impact and trick our algorithms to platform this new generation of inspiration. And please, for the love of god, let’s get some talent in the DJ booth.