In the mid-2000s, news anchors found themselves with a problem: They didn’t look so hot anymore. Their real-life visages hadn’t changed, but the technology that beamed them into millions of households had outpaced their faces’ ability to keep up. High-definition cameras proliferated, as did the enormous HDTVs that render blemishes, pancake makeup, and flyaways in larger-than-life detail. Local newscasters with limited budgets fretted over judgment from viewers. CNN’s Anderson Cooper considered plastic surgery. Makeup and lighting crews scrambled to adjust.
When the pandemic hit, the same thing happened to millions of Americans. This was hardly our worst problem in March, but it was a problem nonetheless. While people had been living their in-person life, blissfully unaware of their expression at any given moment, the cameras around them had been multiplying and improving. Once office work and socializing went online, everyone looked terrible. Americans had spent the past decade mastering the momentary muscle movements of a good selfie, but starring in a high-quality live video in front of co-workers or romantic prospects for hours at a time is a different beast entirely. People had no idea how to contend with broadcasting their own face—weird shadows, awkward backdrops, and under-the-chin shots from low-slung laptops abounded.
Things stayed like that for a little while, in the suspended animation of collective uncertainty. But looking at your own bored face during an interminable Zoom call is brutal. Once it became clear that a quick return to normal life wasn’t in the cards, many of those trying to look professional while working from home (or look presentable to their friends at a Zoom happy hour, or look enticing on a FaceTime date) began to search for help.
They found it in the tools and tactics of internet influencers. For years, YouTubers, podcasters, TikTokers, OnlyFans models, Twitch streamers, and Instagram baddies have stockpiled the best affordable, user-friendly tools to make themselves look and sound better—smartphone tripods, laptop stands, external webcams, microphones, and the like. In the first few months of the pandemic, some of these devices became as difficult to find as paper towels and Lysol.
Most crucial of all, though, has been the ring light, a glowing halo that sits atop a tripod or attaches to your phone or laptop. Ring lights are a quick-and-dirty approximation of a professional lighting setup. When positioned carefully, their glow evens skin tone, brightens eyes, and, perhaps most importantly, helps people create an aura of competence and productivity on camera while their kids or roommates wander through the background on the way to the fridge.
Online influencers have been working in the fishbowls of their own homes for years, trying to impress those peering in for a few minutes or hours at a time. The recent mad dash of those in the work-from-home class to crib influencers’ methods happened for a reason that YouTubers and TikTokers understood long before many of the people now haphazardly emulating them did: No one wants to look bad online.
Before the pandemic, if anyone could get you a ring light, it was Guy Cochran. In the early 2010s, Cochran started selling his own lines of ring lights through DVE Store, his Washington-based video-equipment company, to makeup artists with large followings on YouTube. As these beauty experts’ audiences grew, so too did curiosity about how people who seemed to be broadcasting from their spare bedroom managed to look so beautiful while methodically applying layers of eye makeup. In 2013, Cochran appeared on the beauty vlogger Judy Travis’s YouTube channel, ItsJudyTime, to explain her lighting setup to subscribers. He built some simple lighting kits that her fans could buy, and sales exploded.
This popularity with makeup influencers helped ring lights cross over to the mainstream consumer market, where they have since proliferated on Amazon, in electronics stores, and among home-decor retailers. Nothing, however, prepared Cochran for pandemic-level demand. DVE Store has been “pummeled” this year, he told me. Its stock of ring lights was wiped out by the end of April for the next six months, as people rushed to correct their pallid, shadow-distorted faces.
A couple of months ago, Cochran himself couldn’t even scrounge up a ring light from his supplier to give to his son’s third-grade teacher, newly ensconced on Zoom. The teacher, wonderful as she is, didn’t look so great on-screen. “She was just really dark and super green,” Cochran said. “The lights in her classroom must have been really off. Humans don’t see the green in person, but photographic sensors see it, so she looked kind of ill.” Before Cochran’s next shipment of ring lights came in, the teacher took matters into her own hands. One day, Cochran noticed that her lighting was much better, and there it was—the telltale circular reflection of a ring light in her eyes.
Similar decision-making processes have taken place in homes across the country, as people realized they weren’t getting off Zoom anytime soon. In the days after the election, I saw the same gleam in the eyes of local government officials interviewed on the news. I ordered one in a huff after logging on to a work Zoom on a day when the natural light in my apartment made me look inexplicably greasy. (I was not greasy.)
As working from home has worn on, some companies have told employees that they can expense a ring light for work meetings, along with things such as a desk chair and an external monitor. That’s the case for Asante Hatcher, who works in health care and says he’s been looking for ways to fiddle with his current setup to improve how video-conferencing software picks up his dark skin tone. “When you don’t have in-person meetings, a visual representation you’re confident in and other people seeing you properly can be important in making connections,” Hatcher told me. “Not everyone has optimal lighting where they’re working, or a stable workspace.”
People in all kinds of professions who have sequestered themselves in basements or odd corners of their apartment to avoid family or roommates have now had almost a year of Photography 101, and they have learned something important: You can’t rely on natural light every day or in every space. Since many workers spend much of their time on Zoom quietly inhabiting their own little box, telegraphing professionalism means controlling that space to the best of their ability. Little by little, many of those with the relative luck of being stuck at home—as opposed to those still required to show up to work in person—have constructed amateur video studios, even if they don’t quite realize what they’ve done yet.
Under the weight of the pandemic, the already crumbling barrier between traditional success and internet influence has all but fully collapsed. YouTube, with its readily accessible pockets of niche expertise, was just the beginning. User-generated videos have gobbled up more and more space on the internet in the past decade, spawning new services and features to encourage even more people to get in front of their camera for both business and pleasure. Instagram and TikTok have taken the phenomenon to its logical extreme, with their own celebrities, visual codes, and dance crazes that have helped mold the nascent aesthetic norms of a generation of young Americans.
For much of their existence, consumer-grade ring lights were dismissed as intolerably vain, and most famously embraced by people who relished that vanity. In 2015, Kim Kardashian, who once published an art book of her own selfies, endorsed an iPhone case that functions as its own ring light. But exposure is the enemy of revulsion, and people have grown comfortable with the necessity of stagecraft. In the atomized economy of internet influence, it’s up to individuals to make the entertainment that, in a different era, might have been produced by larger media companies. That includes the patina of professionalism that would otherwise be provided by the company’s resources and expertise.
As opportunities in traditional media wane and more people are using platforms such as YouTube and Twitch to strike out on their own, re-creating that sense of quality is especially important for people who want or need their creative output to generate income. On Reddit, Twitch streamers trade advice on their setups like people going on Zoom job interviews or logging on for performance reviews. They just want to look a little better, a little more credible.
Such is the case for far more people now than it was in February. Using online-image-enhancing devices such as ring lights might be new for lawyers or insurance salespeople, but many of them are making a living online now too. Given the limited time per day to make a direct impression on your colleagues and the people who determine your salary, working from home means being the star of the most boring YouTube channel ever, with the smallest audience and highest personal stakes. In this new reality, ring lights are just another tool in the pursuit of perceived legitimacy, whether you’re hoping to impress your fans or your boss.
As anyone who has tried to record a decent video or podcast for the first time has probably found, when you do it yourself, “you begin to realize what professional media content looks like and how it takes additional resources,” Lee Humphreys, a social-media researcher at Cornell University, told me. “It’s often something that we really take for granted when we consume it, but when we have to produce it, all of a sudden it becomes really quite apparent that our expectations are based very much on this hidden professional production process.”
Consumer-grade ring lights, tripods, and microphones give people a sheen of professionalism for gig-worker prices. As independent creatives, largely excluded from the structure and trajectory of traditional careers, have professionalized their work, the jobs of many professionals have also become more like those of influencers—less stable, less certain, more dependent on projecting a sense of well-managed competence from afar. The work of influencing has always been a direct product of the conditions of making a living in America, not an anomaly. Now, on some level, the pandemic has made influencers out of us all.