Why Does the Term ‘Influencer’ Feel so Gross?

Something about it feels dirty…

04.27.17
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In 2012, the Internet started spitting out think pieces about the end of journalism and the rise of a new beast, The Blogger, who was obliterating a sacred art form right before our eyes.

To be clear, a blogger is anyone who writes for the Internet. This person could have a Ph.D. He could be a tenured professor, she could have been allotted the MacArthur genius grant. If your writing appears on the Internet and no where else, you are, by definition, a blogger. And circulation on the global Internet is a hell of a lot more impressive than limited print circulation, so what’s the problem, really?

I mean, I know the problem.

From 2010 to 2012, so many fashion bloggers sprouted that the term became synonymous with us. If you called yourself a blogger, the assumption was that you were a full-time wearer of sequins, constantly posing ahead of a sunset. Old-guard editors and storied writers compiled takedowns heard ’round the world. They made the term feel so dirty. But just as soon as it stormed in, it disappeared from our lexicons, utterly eclipsed by a new word: the influencer. Which is equally, if not more, dirty.

In my opinion, though, the term seems honest. Influencers don’t necessarily have to display writing prowess. They don’t have to be photographers, they don’t even need to have a passion outside of developing a social following large enough to monetize their existence. It’s a tale as old as time. In 2002, we called the influencer a reality TV star. In 2008, he or she was a socialite. At some point, they became tastemakers — and here we are now, on Instagram and Snapchat or whatever, with legitimate data that proves a single person can be a publisher.

What's-So-Bad-About-Being-an-Influencer-Fashion-Man-Repeller

My personal Instagram account commands around 453,000 followers who, I am sure, come there not to read what I have written or to learn how to build a small media business, but because I am either an easy target (sometimes I really do look crazy, but enjoy making fun of myself) or because they like how I dress. Sometimes, I get paid to post things. It doesn’t happen particularly frequently, but I am eager when it happens, which I suppose means that I am an influencer. I do struggle with the term. This annoys me because I want to own what I am — to call a spade a spade, to be explicitly honest with myself and the Internet. The best replacement that I can muster is “person with large social following.” Too many syllables.

I keep coming back to the question of why? Why the negative connotation? Why does it feel so dirty? Almost every person I know who is considered an influencer cringes when they are called one. There’s an air of inexperience, of feeling like you’re a kid at camp among a group of bunkmates. Getting paid to do something prescriptive, something completely unnatural to what you are. You don’t always know if the people who are willing to pay you actually “get” you, or if you’re simply a tick they can check off their to-do list.

Most influencers, upon being called influencers, will say that they do so much more. That they are so much more. Perhaps this means we want to prove ourselves before being relegated to 2017’s equivalent of a reality star. This is where I find myself at an emotional crossroads. Even if you don’t do more, even if you are just a person with a large social following who has demonstrated an ability to both grow and sustain circulation — isn’t that extremely powerful in its own right? Why can’t that be celebrated?

For as offended as the Internet gets when Kim Kardashian (the ultimate influencer) does anything, it is remarkable that she is as famous and monetized as she is. It can’t be easy, either. I’ve seen her interact with fans, gracefully and with aplomb, never undermining her celebrity or their obscurity. So I’m not exactly sure what I’m getting at here. Do I want to take back the term? To better understand why people have such a problem with it?

Or, do I want you to ask me questions that might lead me down a spiral of answers that lend itself to a newly navigated sense of identity?

Probably.

So please, deposit your two cents.

Images and GIFs by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

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  • Hanna Lane

    +2c – I think the word “influencer” is so literal, and the business model is so personal, that it feels gross. We’re used to big ad agencies putting out “ads” and “commercials” and it feels like an old-fashioned courtship – they’re doing their best to catch our eyes, and we can decide whether or not we’re interested.

    It’s not true, of course. We all know that even traditional advertising influences our brain and makes us more likely to buy, but it still feels like we have more of a say in the matter. The word “influencer” feels icky because the implication less consensual, and it’s being given to people who aren’t that much different from us – they’re not big corporations, they’re more like the cool girls at school.

  • I think part of the reason why so many people cringe at the term is because in order to accept the idea of being an influencer, you also have to accept the idea of being a “follower” or having “followers.” The term follower has a negative connotation. Nobody wants to be labeled as a follower. Everyone wants to be a trendsetter, but the success of an influencer is dependent upon how many people they can get to want to be like them in some way, which, in theory, is quite narcissistic.

    This is probably why so many (hashtag not all) influencers come of as self-involved, and why so many have an issue with a label. Sure, nobody wants to be a seen as a follower, but nobody wants to be seen as conceited either. But how can you tout the latest trends and rave about the latest products without coming off at least a little self-absorbed (“look how great this lipstick looks on ME! Buy it so you lips can look as good as MINE!).

    It’s a tough title to tackle, but every influencer is also a follower to some extent. It’s one big circle of mass marketing.

    • Bo

      This is GREAT and is making me cook up all sorts of theoretical things in my head. The main one being, does Kim Kardashian consider herself a follower of anyone? Can she follow people? If she follows people does her position as Influencer Boss crumble? These are the important questions.

      • I’d say Kim’s style has definitely been influenced by Kanye over the years. I believe at one point she even confirmed he chooses her outfit sometimes. Does that count, since he’s her husband? He’s still an influencer, right?… that comes with the celebrity territory.

        so many important questions omg i can’t deal.

      • Serena

        Yes. BEYONCE.

  • Adelle Brodbeck

    Perhaps its just the ickiness of portraying yourself as an advertisement. The feeling as though you are commercializing and commodifying the stuff that makes you you.

    • Oooh, this is good. Word-of-mouth is arguably the most valuable form of marketing, but that’s because it’s historically been the most honest and genuine form. We’re all an advertisement for something to someone. However, the influencer culture has twisted word-of-mouth marketing so that sponsored recommendations feel genuine, even when that’s not the case. And that really sucks.

  • Seems pretty simple. People should just own what they are. Makes folks feel icky? Don’t do it. Or concede to the fact that what feeds you might also make you feel icky. Can’t always win. And you can figuratively scrub off that icky feeling by doing something which makes you feel clean.

    Overheard two people talking the other day about how much of it hurdle it was to “feel like what I’m doing isn’t helpful.” Okay, so, two forks in the road, no? Either a) start doing something that makes you *feel* helpful or b) continue to do what you deem unhelpful because you love it and *feel* helpful by performing other tasks/interests/etc in your life.

  • Mon Valdés

    I used to follow a lot of Youtubers a couple of years ago, and they started to use the term “influencer” and “guru” to describe themselves. That just IRKED me… especially because (even when I know it’s their job) they seemed to promote stuff just because they got it for free. I can’t count the amount of times they showed a newly released product, claiming it to be the best new thing, but never used it again in subsequent videos. It felt really fake, and I have that reference in my mind now.

    And.. off topic: can I say that I love the random linking to random articles through the MR page? Here we have the “tale as old as time” line linked to a Beauty and the Beast review form a grown man” haha BEST THING EVER!

  • Aliki F

    It seems pretty simple – and not dirty at all – to me: influencer is not only someone with a large social media following, but someone who *actually* can be “blamed” for said following’s choices; otherwise you’re not (or should not be) an influencer, but merely a popular internet persona. The fact that I want to look like you, dress like you, go to the places you go for brunch, or even write in a funny way like you do etc (and by “you” I mean any influencer, not just you-Leandra) does not make it bad or good, it’s simply a fact. As you very well point out, the role of the influencer has always been played by someone – it so just happens that in our time and age it is the blogger. Yes, I wanna be more creative with my outfits because I follow you and you are influencing me. The fact that you might make money out of it does not bother me at all. If you started getting dress in head-to-toe black because you were paid to do so, yes, that would bother me a lot and I would probably stop visiting the site after a while. So, there’s the difference – authenticity (whatever that means). Conclusion: influencer is not a “dirty” word (or even a word at all – every time I write it, the little red line pops up underneath it…..omg)

    worthlivinit.com

  • BarbieBush

    Mm well I think the influencer crowd you run in probably disdains it because they consider themselves artists and the connection to commercialism is distasteful. You want your art to be the focus and influencing piece and the idea that corps think you fit a mold enough to sell their stuff could be annoying. But also I think you are different, not just because I am super into this website (maybe), but because you are’t hawking like weight loss tea. You are partnering with luxury and sometimes artistic brands to either get a free car for a week or like promote the intersection of manrepeller and gucci. Soo in that way it enhances your brand or art or whatever. I mean you are a “blogger” sure but you are also a shoe designer? so I think the artist label applies.

    I also think youtube personality peeps don’t dislike the term influencers. Why would they? It is the entire point of their work..to get a crowd and have some semblance of power (influence). Not to compare you to Tomi Lahren but I feel like her entire goal in life is to be an ‘influencer’.

  • Yes!! This rings true! Especially as a teenager trying to grow my (largely fashion based) blog. I want my writing and content to be intelligent and unique, but so many of the ways to grow include the –influencer– category, and I’m not opposed to that! So a weird situation.

    http://www.outfitsandobservations.com

  • Adrianna

    I would go as far as suggesting that the backlash against influencers is sexist.

    What’s the biggest criticism against Kim Kardashian? That she’s famous for “doing nothing.” Bloggers? That photographing your own outfits and building a following is not “real work.” We automatically assume careers dominated by women are easy and frivolous.

    • Meg S

      I’m convinced that Kim Kardashian puts a lot of work into being Kim Kardashian. It doesn’t matter how I feel about her. She puts a lot of work into branding her product which is, in the end, herself. I can’t be bothered to take daily outfit snaps and lay things out nicely to post on instagram. It’s too much work for me, but some people love it.

      Just because I sit in an office and crunch numbers all day doesn’t mean I work any harder than female bloggers. I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around. We’ve taken different paths, and just because mine is a more conventional route doesn’t mean one of us is any better than the other.

      • Lil

        I think maybe because blogging is seen as an elitist career. You have to be pretty well off in order to have enough clothes to photograph and post. But then again with any business you have to spend some to earn some…

        • Serena

          THIS. You need to be a certain level of rich to be a run-of-the-mill influencer. But if you’re really tall, and really rich, you become a model instead.

  • Natty

    am i the only one who doesn’t think that “influencer” is a dirty word? to me it suggests power and skill in creative pursuits. maybe i would feel differently if i were an influencer to anyone other than my cat, though (and even she isn’t totally sold on my position as alpha)

  • I guess I’ll throw my two cents in!

    1. The name itself implies that what we do is somewhat nefarious. We’re “influencing” people – scamming them in some way – to spend money or change their behavior to our benefit. I know that’s definitely part of the territory, but it’s not the ONLY thing bloggers/creators/influencers do. To reduce our hard work to “you just make other companies’ ads for them” isn’t fair, and makes us feel gross.

    2. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the word because I feel like WE didn’t come up with it – someone else labeled us as influencers. It’s a tough problem to tackle because there is never going to be one title that fits everyone. I’ve seen people call themselves influencers, creators, bloggers, content mavens, creative directors, CEOs, freelancers, online writers, etc. Giving every person one title is another way of reducing the diversity of what’s really going on.

    There you go…I’d give you more cents, but I’d be here all day!

  • Molly D

    The fact that you’re even questioning its dirtiness means you have a soul, so hopefully that acts as some sort of balm!

  • kay

    so interesting!!! and people have written such different and fascinating ideas!! my first thought (although idk if i know what I’m talking about) is maybe it feels weird to the influencer both the unequal relationship you have with the influenced (usually they can’t influence you back, altho MR is amazing at creating a real community where i’ve seen leandra be influenced back), and the modern personal identity/brand blurring thing- when your influence is used by a company who pays you, who is the commodity, you-the-brand, or your community of followers? on the one hand you are selling yourself, since yourself is more or less contiguous with your brand, and on the other you are selling the eyeballs of your community of followers, whose consent to be sold is maybe implied, but not sought outright. you can consent for yourself so maybe that could feel ok, but maybe the less than explicit consent of your followers feels weird? even tho they can opt out at any time, they would also have to opt out of their genuine attachment to you, so influencers sort of trade on the high cost to followers of losing a relationship, sort of. idk. we all know how these sales work, so its hard to say as followers we are robbed of consent, but maybe thats why it feels weird to talk about “influence”. *such* a fascinating conversation

  • Shannon Buckley

    I always got the vibe that most blog readers looked down upon the “influencer” label (myself included), and that the bloggers themselves preferred the “influencer” label over “blogger” because it sounds more important and/or respectable. Am I crazy? I know I’ve definitely seen some bloggers refer to themselves as influencers, at least.

    • Inaat

      Agree, so many bloggers (and instagrammers) in my country has ditched “blogger” and replaced it with “influencer”. Such a fancy word, no? :p

  • Lanatria Brackett Ellis

    I have no qualms with the term influencer.Influence is powerful thing and can be great in the right hands and detrimental in orange ones.For me the only thing gross is the misuse or abuse of said ‘ influence’.I am a blogger with a small following/influence .I take it very serious and make sure to be honest, aware, and responsible with the fashion ideals and topics I discuss.Perhaps if you just do it for money or to sway people to believe what you want them to regardless of actual truth and facts (which I’m guessing happens more than not) is pretty yuck. Personally, I would feel like a cheap or maybe even high priced hooker if I did that.
    http://www.caribbeancowgirl.weebly.com

    • I have a small following too but I don’t like the word. I feel like I don’t have the right to say it because my following is too small, but even if I did have hundreds of thousands or millions of followers I think I’d still stick to plain old blogger. I don’t even like content creator. Idk, it just seems too broad and it kind of takes away from what the thing already is because everything is grouped under one umbrella. A photo is content and a video is content, but they’re different things that take different skills to create and they should be appreciated separately. It’s like calling all English the same even though each country has its own unique slang/phrases.
      I’m also careful about the things I say yes to. I have no problem saying no to things that I wouldn’t wear myself. I’m very aware that people might not think that so I try to be as honest/genuine as I can.

  • Rayna Tobin

    Maybe you are questioning/distressed about the idea of other’s being “influenced” by you? It can be a daunting thought that hundreds of thousands of people are looking to you for your opinion. I think the word and the job itself is so looked down upon because it is a field dominated by women. Our society discourages women from influencing others and being leaders. I think that we as women may cringe at the idea that we are going against these societal norms and taking pride in influencing others.

  • Antoinette

    I see the term influencer as a really honest description. People who have a large following on social media platforms have the ability to reach and ultimately influence tons of folks. Dresses have been sold out, because one or more bloggers have advertised them in the past. It’s the ultimate way to play into the new wave of consumption. Consumerism has been a big topic over the past few years, and we love to believe that we are aware and know when we are being tricked into making purchases.
    No longer will we (the aware) buy into mass marketing ploys. We won’t be swindled out of our pennies. But, bloggers we follow, who have amassed a great following with their personal style, that we have come to know and have some kind of affinity for, they are different.
    We will buy that lipstick, or that dress, and of course the purse. Because we feel like we know them through their posts, and we’ve followed them for years and watched them grow. We’re proud to say we’ve seen breakups, engagements, marriages, honeymoon pics, babies, puppies, and other intimate details of their lives. I’ve seen people comment on accounts that they have been there from the start.
    This is a new and dangerous way for us to consume because we are emotionally invested in the influencers, and feel as though they have our best interests at heart. I’m certain some do, and I’m not knocking those who do tons of paid posts, because although we are followers, we don’t all have to be sheep. We have a responsibility to follow those we like, while keeping an awareness about us, that helps us understand how mass marketing works, and how it changes, if we care about that sort of thing.

    The word may feel dirty because in the name of making money, how much personal style is left for some? And do they really love a lot of the stuff they are selling to loyal followers? I’d feel awful to get paid to sell something that I don’t personally care for.

  • I run a blog with a decent-ish following in my niche, which is regional. And yet I constantly find myself justifying that my background is in print and that I’m currently writing a book. I think that somehow the idea of being an online publisher carries the stigma of less legitimacy or, for those of us who publish on digital platform, the fear of that stigma.

    I will say that influencer is less repulsive than that minute around 2015 when everyone was a “Content Curator.” That still makes me gag.

    • Donna

      Or worse still the overuse of creative director.

    • Serena

      Less stigma when you’re doing something legit – so true.
      A good friend of mine is a “food blogger” but she’s a photographer first, so her posts seem less “here’s what I had for breakfast” and more “here’s a little insight into my life as a photographer” and there’s a difference there because: credibility

  • Bo

    I don’t know about anybody else, but to me the term influencer sounds arrogant. Like, the ability to influence others into buying things they probably don’t need. It makes me feel like I’m being patronised by a bunch of people who, in reality, have no idea of the sort of life I lead and aren’t even willing to truthfully display their lives (c’mon man, it’s not all cultivated and flatlays of perfect brunches and that one super annoying pose *every* girl does where they sort of look down at the ground whilst brushing their hair off their face and bend one knee a little? What is that?) I don’t need to be ‘influenced’ by people who aren’t even being honest about themselves.
    I like you, Leandra, because you’re honest about who you are and how you operate. ManRepeller doesn’t sneakily conceal its paid posts; they’re celebrated as collaborations to reflect the hard work that presumably went into them.

  • Emmanuelle

    I came accross this Instragram where a girl called herself a content creator instead of influencer and I was like ‘oh that makes sense’. I mean a content creator could be a writer, a blogger, an instagrammer, a youtuber, literally someone putting content out there. And in the end, I believe this is what an influencer is, a content creator.

    Also reading most of the comments, it feels like the word influencer is considered dirty because it is all about being paid to wear this or that. To me this reveal that among all the types of influencers out there, people only seem to apply this word to girls putting on outfits and make up. But really the landscape of blogging is not only about fashion. There are plenty of influencers doing an amazing job at ‘influencing’ people’s life through Instagram, podcasts, blogging or Youtube. And when I say ‘influencing’, I mean what they do has an impact on your life. E.g: I adore podcasts like Another Round and the Accidental Creatives as well as Pardon My French. All these podcasts have influenced the way I perceive life, I’m learning so much through them but at the same time I’m well aware they’re also promoting products out there. But no one complains about it because what they do is considered ‘deeper’ than fashion blogging.

    I’m a little bit tired hearing that what fashion blogges do is worthless compared to others. Of course you will always find that influencer who isn’t bringing anything to the table but you also have people like Chriselle Lim, Shirley B Eniang or Aimee Song doing a great job. To me they are influencers not because I want to wear their clothes but influencers in the sense that I know that visiting their site or social media I will leave having learnt something and with a smile.

    Emmanuellle
    http://www.thecuriousportafoglio.net

    • Serena

      This is a really valid point. The actual definition, someone who influencer your ideas or decisions to buy or consume something, is not equivalent to the appropriation of the word into something icky by the fashion community “haters”. I am as influenced by a podcast host as I am by Leandra

  • Meg S

    The way I feel about “influencers” is if I know what you’re doing and you’re honest about it, we’re cool. But if you try to fool me into thinking that “review” you wrote for a shady web site was anything but an advertisement sours my opinion of you. I’ve seen this happen time and time again with fashion bloggers – a web site will sponsor them to wear their clothes and write positive reviews in exchange for money or even just keeping the clothes. It rubs me the wrong way. I don’t shop from web sites that offer paid sponsorships (because, let’s be honest, they usually need it for a reason) and I don’t follow blogs that hide their paid sponsorships. The other thing that bothers me is people opening shops on marketplace web sites (like etsy or storenvy), marking up and reselling things they’ve bought from Taobao (a Chinese online store/marketplace).

  • Pham Phuong Le Anh

    I think it’s the problem that the English languague has reached its limit to express. So try search in other language.
    Or, invent yourself one.
    New words are born much in the fashion industry anyway

  • elpug

    Girl they may be bloggers and influencers but YOU are an ~~ICON~~

  • grace

    Leandra! I listen to this nerdy podcast called Lexicon Valley about language. A recent episode is about euphemisms and how words can develop nasty undertones over time so we replace them. It think you’d find it interesting, especially as it relates to the evolution of the word “influencer” and how/why it feels dirty. Strongly recommend you take a listen (the episode is called The Euphemism Treadmill) – would love to hear what you think.

    • Serena

      OH! That sounds like the Allusionist, I’ll add it to my listening list 🙂

  • Serena

    To be an influencer requires the right balance of being really rich (or able to afford expensive clothes, even though you can H&M your feed, people prefer a little Chanel and Celine more) lots of seemingly free time, and a specific dash of shamelessness — if I were to post pics of me posing and tag the brands I’m wearing my friends and family would disown me. So it takes a certain sense of IDGAF to post that way and build that following.

    But because you’re not just an Instafluencer but actually a writer first (that’s my experience of you at least) I have a different reaction when I look at your social feed. It’s much less morbid fascination “Oh god… is she serious?!” and much more “OH! Leandra is hilarious! Ooooh I love those shoes”

    I think the influencer pack deserves a little more segmentation and a little less generalisation.

  • declasse

    I just posted the below comment on the Kelly Rowland article, and it’s pertinent to this so I’m copying and pasting it here. To add, I’d like to say that this feels gross because it seems kind of sneaky and beneficial to you (and Emily), two women who are already powerful/affluent.

    It’s probably even the case that you guys really like Into the Gloss! It’s a great website. But the thing that feels icky is that this benefits you and your bud–the traffic of your friend’s website, and maybe then resultantly your friendship. Other people are hustling and working hard to make their work known, and influencers are already powerful and more easily able to increase their own power. Privilege, ya know?

    Original comment:
    So, I really like y’all and I really like ITG, but I have weird feelings about you guys continuously directing us to their site when it’s known that Leandra and Emily are buds but also happen to be heads of these websites that benefit from our readership.

    Manrepeller has directed us to ITG 4 times in as many months (http://www.manrepeller.com/2016/12/jenna-lyons-diet.html and http://www.manrepeller.com/2017/03/emma-watson-beauty-routine.html and http://www.manrepeller.com/2017/04/i-tested-celebrity-beauty-tricks.html and this article), which on the one hand is fine because ITG is very good.

    But on the other hand it smacks of manipulation and some sort of corporate partnership, or at least mutually beneficial friendship of two “girl boss” entrepreneurs.

    We know sponsored content is all over the place and this is what we get from reading websites that have sponsorships and work, in part, to make money and promote other products/services/sites. But maybe be super direct about it. Because this feels gross.

  • Be an influencer if you are an influencer! Or call yourself a fashion celebrity – it’s fairly accurate at this point 😉 I got into the influencer game specifically to influence people to change their habits towards more sustainable ones so why shouldn’t I call myself an influencer? Maybe I’ll say “sustainable influencer” for a little more validation.

    Whatever I say call yourself whatever makes you happy, the Internet already loves you for your quirkiness so they’ll either take it or leave it with the rest of the amazing shit you do <3