The Influencer Industry Is Having an Existential Crisis
People who make their living by sharing content on giant social-media platforms have tried to strike, organize, and even unionize, but they don’t have much to show for it.
Close to 5 million people follow Influencers in the Wild. The popular Instagram account makes fun of the work that goes into having a certain other kind of popular Instagram account: A typical post catches a woman (and usually, her butt) posing for photos in public, often surrounded by people but usually operating in total ignorance or disregard of them. In the comments, viewers—aghast at the goofiness and self-obsession on display—like to say that it’s time for a proverbial asteroid to come and deliver the Earth to its proverbial fiery end.
Influencers in the Wild has been turned into a board game with the tagline “Go places. Gain followers. Get famous. (no talent required)” And you get it because social-media influencers have always been, to some degree, a cultural joke. They get paid to post photos of themselves and to share their lives, which is something most of us do for free. It’s not real work.
But it is, actually. Influencers and other content creators are vital assets for social-media companies such as Instagram, which has courted them with juicy cuts of ad revenue in a bid to stay relevant, and TikTok, which flew some of its most famous creators out to D.C. last week to lobby for its very existence. In some ways, their work makes them the peers of those in the broader platform-based gig economy, which includes anybody else whose income is dependent on an app—Uber drivers, DoorDash bikers, TaskRabbit handymen, etc. But though some categories of workers whose jobs are similarly reliant on apps have been able, to an extent, to get around their lack of official employee status and put direct pressure on tech companies to improve their working conditions, content creators so far have not. (Of course, the work is very different: Deliveries and car rides happen in physical space, with the attendant occupational hazards, and influencers have a lot more individual control over how they monetize themselves across platforms.)
Instead, online creators are facing a kind of existential crisis. They have never been more valuable to their home platforms, yet they’re still struggling to turn that value into meaningful leverage. For years now, the wide middle range of creators—the people who can make some money on social media, even if they have not attained superstardom—has complained about product changes, opaque algorithms with shifting priorities, and arbitrary content-moderation decisions that limit their reach. Will the relationship between influencers and the internet ever change?
Some in the industry are determined to prove that it could. They’re trying, not for the first time, to organize an incredibly diffuse group of individual personalities. And the attempt is, also not for the first time, going up against stark odds. This industry is all about the establishment and marketing of personal brands in unforgiving feeds—it would seem to forbid worker solidarity. But it is also at a crucial turning point. After more than 10 years of instability, clout-chasing, and competition, something has to give. As a creator, your market value is set by your metrics—but there could be greater strength in a different kind of number.
Some influencers even think they should unionize. TikTok creators started discussing the possibility last fall, and Emily Hund, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the online creator economy since its beginning, explicitly advocates for unionization in her new book, The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media.
Creators must “recognize themselves as the cultural laborers they are and organize accordingly,” Hund writes. She contextualizes the rise of influencers and the beginning of the social-media age in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, the cratering of traditional media, and the beginnings of the platform-based gig economy. As certain kinds of stable and reliable work disappeared for many, making money on social media became a viable alternative. “The influencer industry is both a symptom of and a response to the economic precarity and upheaval in social institutions that have characterized the early twenty-first century,” she writes.
To describe the type of work that influencers do, she draws on a range of academic papers that have proposed similar concepts such as “aspirational labor” and “visibility labor.” “Risk is shouldered by the individual,” she writes, “self-promotional, always-on work styles are the norm; labor is oriented toward nebulous future payouts; and inequalities of gender, race, and class persist.” The work is hyper-personal and amorphous, which makes it an awkward fit with the ranking and quantification that take place on a huge platform like Instagram or YouTube.
With these issues in mind, a TikTok creator who goes by JeGaysus is currently part of the effort to organize a TikTok union around pay and transparency issues. (He asked to be identified by his username because he’s previously received online threats.) So far, the group has about 400 interested people in an active Discord chat. “It’s kind of hard to say what revenue creators should have because it’s a closed book,” he told me. He said creators are frustrated because they have no recourse—they can’t call TikTok when they have a problem. “They have that email, firstname.lastname@example.org,” he said, “ but you can write to it and you’re never going to hear from them.” (TikTok did not return a request for comment, and hasn’t previously addressed the possibility of a union directly. “We look to our creator community for valuable feedback and continue to listen as we work to evolve our offerings to better serve their needs,” a spokesperson told Business Insider when asked about the would-be union last year.)
Although this would-be union is focused on the relationship between creators and the platform, influencers have also been incorporated into Hollywood’s Screen Actors Guild. Some creators have been hesitant to join, wary of things like union dues and eligibility requirements, but others have been enthusiastic. Anybody who makes videos for brands can use the guild’s “influencer agreement” to put their deals under the purview of the union. “Not a single day goes by, Monday through Friday, in which I’m not speaking to an influencer who isn’t yet a SAG-AFTRA member about covering their brand deals through our Influencer Agreement,” Shaine Griffin, the guild’s manager of contract strategic initiatives, told me. (SAG-AFTRA declined to say how many influencers had joined the union; Giselle Ugarte, a TikTok creator and talent manager, told me that she didn’t know anyone who had.)
In the past, when posters have flirted with unionization, it hasn’t been very successful or even particularly literal. In 2019, Instagram-meme creators received press attention for forming a sort of union, which they called “IG Meme Union Local 69-420.” Their Instagram account posted union flyers (a raised fist gripping a smartphone) playing off of retro aesthetics and adding modern messages such as “Smash the algorithm.” (One riffed on the then-popular “I’m baby” meme with the phrase “Alone we am baby but together we am united.”) The short-lived “union” wasn’t really a union, though—it was more like a club or a thought experiment. It was mostly interested in getting people’s deleted posts or accounts reinstated by the platform, and its goals didn’t have anything to do with pay.
A more serious previous effort, the Internet Creators Guild, was started by the popular YouTuber Hank Green in 2016, primarily with the intention of helping creators protect themselves in the “cut-throat” world of brand deals and confusing contract language. Green’s group met with YouTube to discuss its ever-changing monetization policies, but Satchell Drakes, a YouTuber and former member of the guild’s board, told me that nothing really came out of the relationship. (“The free catering was always good though,” he joked.) The Guild shut down after three years, citing a lack of interest particularly among the already successful. “Creators with big audiences often don’t feel the need for support from a collective voice,” a farewell letter noted.
In this way, not much has changed in the past few years. It’s still the case that the biggest influencers have nothing much to gain from joining forces with those below them. They have their own agents, managers, entertainment lawyers, and leverage. “They are small businesses on their own and they don’t need help from others,” Jon Pfeiffer, a Los Angeles–based lawyer who represents online creators, told me. “It’s only if you’re starting out or you’re a micro-influencer that you want to band together for strength in numbers.” He started representing influencers in 2015—mostly taking on clients in the 1-to-5-million-follower range—and said “not one client” has ever asked him about an industry association or other groups they could join.
In short, the recent history of influencer coordination has not been a series of victories. Even so, these efforts are emblematic of something: Influencers tend to care and complain about the same issues, and have for years. They’ve started to make modest progress with the public. Popular understanding of concepts like the “attention economy” has given them and their followers some language to express how performance translates into value for platforms. And they are beginning to test boundaries by experimenting, for example, with strikes of a sort.
In the summer of 2021, Black content creators on TikTok organized a protest against the pattern of white creators profiting off of dances choreographed by Black performers. They agreed to announce publicly that they would not be coming up with a new viral dance to go with the latest Megan Thee Stallion single. But as the New York Times story about the strike noted, as the industry is currently set up, if a creator doesn’t post new content for a day or a week, TikTok isn’t the party that’s going to be hurt by it. Only the individuals who give up views and their spot in the mysterious algorithmic ranking would be making a sacrifice. “That was obviously the most successful ‘strike’ in the space so far because they were able to gain a lot of visibility,” Hund told me. “But many individuals had very valid reasons for not participating and I think before there can be a more meaningful strike, there has to be more meaningful solidarity building amongst the influencers.”
When I spoke with JeGaysus about this, he said he wasn’t sure if a true TikTok strike would ever be possible. Even if his proposed union were able to persuade 10,000 creators to not post for some amount of time, the platform wouldn’t feel much of anything. “As soon as those 10,000 accounts step away for a week, there’s another 40,000 accounts making videos,” he said. “Even if you had Charli D’Amelio, there’s 5,000 other 18-year-old girls who are going to be doing a dance trend.”
What content makers require is a cultural shift, Drakes, the YouTuber, argues. This has already started—platform ad-revenue sharing is now a norm, while at one point the idea of creators being paid directly by social-media platforms was seen as ridiculous. But he’s still waiting for a crucial last step: for creators to be seen as workers and for them to see one another that way. That has to happen before the average person will identify content creation as work. “I think it’s really easy to draw an analogue between a cab driver and an Uber driver,” he said. “It’s a little bit harder for people to conceptualize their friend making YouTube videos as the same thing as a late-night-show host—and in many ways it’s not, but the protections should be similar.”
This type of labor may be looked down upon simply because everyone who uses these platforms is subject to the same flood of data. Maybe you’ve fretted over the number of likes you’ve received on an Instagram post; a professional influencer might do the same thing, though their concern comes from a different place. You’re being vain; they’re worrying about their livelihood. “People still roll their eyes at the influencer, creator economy,” Ugarte, the TikTok-talent manager, told me. But maybe that’s just a phase.