As “influencer” becomes a popular career choice, a caveat about the creator economy

A 2019 poll found that kids would rather be YouTubers than astronauts. It grabbed the headlines and sparked a lot of grumbling about “kids these days”. But it’s no surprise that young people – up to 13 lakh in the UK – want to make a living creating content on social media.

The global influencer market was estimated at $13.8 billion in 2021. Individual influencers such as Zoella and Deliciously Ella are worth around £4.7 million and £2.5 million respectively. Some 3,00,000 people between the ages of 18 and 26 already use content creation as their sole source of income.

The lifestyles we see advertised on social media are appealing, but do they influence a viable career path? Beneath the gleaming exterior lie precarious incomes, pay inequalities based on gender, race, disability and mental health issues. In my research with travel influencers and content creators, I observed these impacts, which young people wishing to become influencers should be aware of.

Successful influencers will be the first to say that anyone can be successful in the industry. Love Island contestant turned influencer Molly Mae Hague has come under fire for saying everyone ‘has the same 24 hours in a day’ because in reality few people ‘succeed’ financially as influencers.

Social media economics expert Brooke Erin Duffy studies the careers of fashion bloggers, beauty vloggers and designers. In his book (Not) get paid to do what you love, she discovered a huge divide between those who find lucrative careers as influencers and everyone else. For most people trying to become an influencer, their passion projects of creating content often become free labor for corporate brands.

Pay gap

In an April 2022 report, the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee identified pay disparity as a key issue in the influencer industry. There are pay gaps based on gender, race and disability. The report references a 2020 study by MSL Group, a global PR firm, which found that there is a 35% racial pay gap between white and black influencers.

Adesuwa Ajayi, senior head of talent and partnerships at AGM Talent, started an Instagram account called Influencer Pay Gap to highlight these disparities. The account provides a platform where influencers anonymously share stories about their experiences collaborating with brands. In addition to racial disparities, the account also revealed the pay gaps experienced by disabled and LGBTQ+ influencers.

The report also noted a “widespread lack of job support and protection”. Most influencers are self-employed, who often experience inconsistent income and a lack of protections that come with permanent employment – ​​such as sick pay and vacation entitlements.

The risks of freelance work are exacerbated in the influencer industry by the lack of industry standards and low pay transparency. Influencers are often forced to assess their own worth and determine fees for their work. As a result, content creators often undervalue their own creative work, and many end up working for free.

Supply of platforms

Influencers are also often at the mercy of algorithms – the behind-the-scenes computer programs that determine what messages are displayed, in what order, to users. The platforms share few details about their algorithms, but they ultimately determine who and what gains visibility (and influence) on social media.

In her work with Instagram influencers, algorithm expert Kelley Cotter highlights how the pursuit of influence becomes “a visibility game.” Influencers interact with the platform (and its algorithm) in a way that they hope will be rewarded with visibility. In my research, I found that influencers were sharing increasingly intimate and personal moments in their lives, posting relentlessly in an effort to stay relevant.

The threat of invisibility is a constant source of insecurity for influencers, who are under constant pressure to feed platforms with content. If they don’t, they may be “punished” by the algorithm – having posts hidden or displayed lower in search results.

mental health crisis

A constant online presence ultimately leads to one of the influencer industry’s most pervasive problems: mental health issues. Influencers can connect to their platform’s workspaces and audiences at any time of the day or night – for many, there is no longer a clear separation between work and life. Coupled with the fear of losing visibility, this can cause influencers to overwork and face mental health issues such as burnout.

Online visibility also puts content creators at significant risk of online abuse – both in terms of how they look or what they do (or don’t post), but also negative perceptions of the influence as a career. The potential for online abuse can lead to mental and physical health issues, including depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders.

While becoming an influencer may seem appealing to more and more people, the dark undersides of the industry need to be made visible and ameliorated through strengthened employment regulations and industry-led cultural change.

Nina Willment is a research associate in the Department of Geography at the University of York.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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