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Instagram influencers might be the most mocked professionals on the internet. But look closer, and they’re not just a crucial part of online retail. They’re a symbol of the future of work—independent, passionate, and economically vulnerable.

In the latest episode of Crazy/Genius, produced by Patricia Yacob and Jesse Brenneman, we speak to several influencers and consult two people who study them most closely— the Atlantic reporter Taylor Lorenz and the Cornell University professor Brooke Erin Duffy. Highlights include:

  • We speak with a small-time influencer who posts “fake sponcon”—regular posts that are designed to look like advertisements—in the hope of luring brands to sponsor her lifestyle.
  • Taylor Lorenz explains why Instagram wants to become the mall of the future and why influencers, rather than brands, might serve as the Macy’s or Sears of the social-media superstore.
  • Brooke Erin Duffy is concerned that thousands of young people want to enter a career that is defined by precarity, where pay is sketchy and government protections are nonexistent.
  • Building an audience on the internet requires mastering the elusive quality of authenticity—which is not necessarily the same as sincerity, but rather means the successful performance of sincerity. The trouble is that people can’t control how an audience of online strangers perceives them. As a result, the central paradox of online influence is that becoming an influencer often means allowing your self-worth to be influenced by crowds of people you’ll never meet.

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