Tanya Sweeney: ‘I am really rather jealous of influencers’

A cold war has been brewing between traditional journalists and influencers for some time

It probably says much about my advancing age, but until last weekend, I did not know who Jess Brennan was. Thanks to a Twitter storm on the internet, I was quickly brought up to speed.

Brennan's name was associated with scenes from Berlin D2 bar, where she hosted a brunch that appears to have become less and less strict with social distancing protocol as the event went on. One video went viral of a barman standing on a bar, pouring drinks into people's mouths. Brennan's invite promised "admish, your dish, a shot and a hell of a hooly" (sic) for €25, and I suppose no one can accuse her of not delivering.

Although the scenes in question were the work of many, online commentators seemed particularly gleeful about this influencer’s apparent moment of ignominy. For others it merely reinforced what they thought of  influencers as a whole; which is to say, not a lot.

If the influencer phenomenon has escaped you entirely, congratulations, but here’s a quick intro. Influencers are people who have built up such a sufficient online presence (either through blogging, creating YouTube videos or on Instagram/Snapchat) that they create content for their own following of “fans”.

They run a wide gamut of ages, genders and interests, but the typical Instagram influencer is young, female, attractive and living a life of pure aspiration; or at least appears to. Those with a sizeable enough following can make a living from “partnerships” with brands. At the very top of the league are the likes of Kylie Jenner; social media stars who can make a reported $1.27 million from a single sponsored post.

The influencer marketing industry was worth about $6.5 billion (€5.4bn) in 2019, and almost half of marketers spent more than 20 per cent of their budget on influencer posts. Got more than a million followers? Expect about $10,000 for a one-off Instagram post.

Obscene figures

The figures are obscene, yet marketers clearly deem it money well spent. Social media stars can mainline right into these brands’ target markets, impact consumer behaviour and exert an influence quite unlike any other form of media. Hence the nomenclature, I guess.

A cold war has been brewing between traditional journalists and influencers for some time: consumer journalism’s power has waned with Generation Z at roughly the same rate that influencers have commanded clout. Some journalists feel that the cultural space they occupied with hard-won, shoe-leather content has been under threat; invaded by pretty young women with the right kind of lifestyle, who can command their monthly salary with a single photo and a fraction of the spadework.

Full and frank disclosure: I am really rather jealous of influencers. I mean, can you imagine the heroic levels of self-esteem you must have to believe that you can build a significant fan base simply by being yourself? Have you any idea how assured you need to be to get ahead in this gig? To drown out the cacophony that says that it’s a meaningless, vulgar, idiotic faff, best left to gobshites in topknots?

It’s almost too easy and lazy to deem influencers as vacuous nonentities. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, too, to consider influencer culture wholly responsible for the rise of narcissism, eating disorders and low self-esteem among its young consumers.

To pin the ills of youthhood, or new motherhood, on influencer culture is an overly simplistic summation (and, I’d wager, one with a faint top-note of plain old-fashioned misogyny. Do Premier League footballers cop as much flak for making as much money from something every bit as frivolous? They do not).

The truth is inescapable; an influencer's life may look effortless, but it requires more than a smudge of Vaseline on the lens

To be fair, being an influencer isn’t just an accident of blessed genes, fancy backdrops and nice clothes. The very best of them have a great eye, a singular style and the editorial nous of a fleet of magazine designers. They built up a fan base for a good reason; they are creating charming and compelling content. Fine, they are shilling vitamin water/mascara/fast fashion, but then so does every glossy magazine on the news-stand.

Once upon a time, critics accused influencers of bias, as influencers enthused about many products that they procured for free, or were paid to promote. This was soon addressed within the industry, with the use of hashtags like #ad or #collaboration, which alerted the audience to a paid partnership with a brand. More recently, even the hashtags have become a blur. #pressample, for instance, indicates that an influencer got a freebie, but are they being paid to mention it? As someone much older than the target audience, I can only watch at a relative remove and try not to go cross-eyed figuring it all out.

Yet the truth is inescapable; an influencer’s life may look effortless, but it requires more than a smudge of Vaseline on the lens. There is a lot going on behind each Instagram post or Snapchat story; terse negotiations, a lot of money, and at least 100 snaps to capture the single moment we eventually see. The sooner we realise how many smoke and mirrors go into the artifice, the better.