Very OnlineQuarantine Is Changing Influencer Culture. Will It Last?

Photo credit: @shitbloggerspost

Influencer marketing is a massive industry: According to Business Insider, the industry is on its way to being worth more than $15 billion by 2022. And it makes sense. By and large, influencer marketing is about adding a personal touch to consumer culture. Rather than receiving overdone, heavy-handed ads from celebrities, who can feel largely out of touch and are in an socioeconomic class of their own, we’re sold to by influencers: When we follow people for months, and then, eventually, years, we become accustomed to seeing them and their content in our feeds. “This group is primed to receive messages from the influencer long before the brand comes on the scene,” Grey Geppert wrote in an article for digital marketing agency Convince & Convert. “When the influencer produces a piece of sponsored content, it’s part of an ongoing conversation the community is heavily invested in.” We feel a sense of connection to the influencers we follow. We trust them and their taste, so we don’t mind them attempting to sell us products; we’re even happy for them “getting the bag.” Peddling products is, after all, a job.

But during the pandemic, influencer marketing has begun hitting differently for some users and the practice itself has been tossed into harsher light. Emily Oberg, the 26-year-old owner of Sporty & Rich, was at the center of a mess around her wellness lifestyle brand, which sells expensive sweatshirts for an audience of influencers. The wellness industry, ramped up as it has during quarantine, came under fire, with Sydney Gore writing about the industry’s whitewashing problem in a recent article for Byrdie. Tie-dye sweat suits are everywhere. I can’t go a day without getting an Instagram Story ad for better (and very expensive) cookware. With lower rates from Facebook, and less ability to reach consumers in person, brands are investing heavily in social media ads. Facebook supports this shift, as illustrated by the fact that it has recently added a Shop tab to the platform and added a new update on Tuesday that further developed its e-commerce tools, including direct selling for all Instagram businesses.

Plus, many of us are spending more time scrolling, more willing to swipe up and click through considering that there just isn’t much to do otherwise. Looking through row after row of gold jewelry or dreaming about matching vintage glassware can feel like a much-needed break in an overwhelming news cycle. But our digital walks through social media are more akin to passive doomscrolling than usual, given the current context: 1,000 people are dying in the United States every single day, unemployment is at a historic high, and we’re now at the point—six months into quarantine—where it’s difficult to feel that same sort of warmth, or even just harmless disinterest, for people whose entire job is to show you just how great their life is. Some influencers have combatted this by being more honest about how they’re doing, discussing things like self-care during the pandemic or even sharing their own losses, whether financial or personal. In a BuzzFeed newsletter, Tanya Chen and Stephanie McNeal note, “I’ve noticed how seamlessly influencers and their sponsored partners have started to post quarantine or crisis-related things. It’s impressive, and it’s surreal.”

Nordstrom, for example, has used influencers to highlight new safety practices, and a Los Angeles-based influencer agency worked to create a partnership with a local government in Bangladesh to encourage people to quarantine. Meanwhile, some influencers remain shockingly insensitive, going on vacations, taking cross-country road trips, and even lounging about in vans and filming their “breaks” from real life. “Is the pandemic a vacation? No, but it’s business as usual for some of social media’s biggest oversharers, like fashionista Arielle Charnas and cooking queen Ali Maffuci,” Nadja Sayej wrote in an April article for Inside Hook. “Some are calling them COVID-idiots, and others have resorted to threatening and berating them for their reckless gallivanting, from packing up RVs and road-tripping through Florida to hiding out in bourgeois retreats in the Hamptons. It’s not hard to find evidence of this: recent travel photos are literally all over their social channels.”

Even when they aren’t taking such luxuriously dangerous vacations, influencers do need one thing from us: for us to consume. On May 15, two months into quarantine in the United States, an anonymous party created an Instagram account called @shitbloggerspost that highlights how repetitive influencer feeds are. The IG account also makes interesting notes on consumer culture, noting how many people post photos of the same exact products—and influencers don’t often use the products they’re being continuously #gifted. It harkens back to other tongue-in-cheek accounts, like @leopardmidiskirt, which spent 2019 pointing out the way that the leopard print midi skirt in its so-called “100 percent polyester” glory dominated Instagram feeds throughout the course of the year. @leopardmidiskirt, like @shitbloggerspost, is harmless: neither seek to cause a massive rift among influencers. Instead, these accounts seek to simply highlight the amount of sameness that plagues influencer culture.

During the pandemic, influencer marketing and its consumer culture has begun hitting differently for some users.

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Making use of Instagram’s album feature, @shitbloggerspost allows users to click through screenshot after screenshot of influencers donning the same exact product in the same exact light. It shows how everything from a leg lift to a bite of pasta has been commodified in the world of influencers, with bodies angled in the same way and everyone buying the same crisp white sheets for the sake of the ‘gram. One such collage calls out Byredo’s Gypsy Water, which is nearly $200 and, obviously, comes with a problematic name. The brand says, “Gypsy Water is an ode to the beauty of Romani culture, its unique customs, intimate beliefs and distinguished way of living.” @shitbloggerspost says, “for $180 you too can smell like a blogger.” The photos are minimalist, with white hands holding the perfume bottle up to a plant or simply taking a close-up shot of the bottle against a fluffy white blanket (or, on the aforementioned crisp sheet). Gisou, a brand backed by beekeeper and influencer Negin Mirsalehi, who has more than 6 million followers, is an often-photographed product highlighted by the account, which calls it “too aesthetic to actually use.”

Other examples are the famous Summer Fridays mask, hyperfeminine tennis court photoshoots, and fruit and flowers on toast. The captions highlight the expense of these purchases: of Chanel under-eye masks, @shitbloggerspost writes, “under eye bags are for poor people”; of Gucci tights, the account notes, “the ‘original’ Gucci gang.” It’s all as tongue-and-cheek as it is bringing awareness to the overwhelming sameness of influencer content. While @shitbloggerspost exists more to lightly drag influencer culture than condemn it, it does illustrate the bizarre nature of this type of influencer marketing. “Tonally, influencers are shilling like it is any other day in any other moment in history,” reads the aforementioned BuzzFeed article. “This is probably in high contrast to the everyday conversations or thoughts you may be having with your regular self and your regular-folk friends around you. In real life, nothing feels normal anymore. On social media, it’s literal business as usual.” COVID-19 is making influencers more essential to businesses. But consumers don’t necessarily feel that same gratitude. While we’re easier to sell to now that those of us who are privileged enough to be largely working from home are deeply online, we’re also watching more closely, and more willing to condemn those who encourage us to buy, buy, buy during a time where loss always feels like it’s just around the corner.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.