It’s 8.45 pm on a rainy Thursday in August, and I’m standing in the marble lobby of an obnoxiously expensive hotel in central London. The sweeping staircase has been cordoned off and the air is still. Sleek-haired staff hover, pawing at their iPads and shooting intermittent glances towards the revolving doors and the gloomy street beyond. A chandelier casts a champagne glow over the motionless tableau.
Perspiration is condensing in the curve of my lower back. I catch my reflection in a perfectly polished lift door and regret wearing trainers. We are not waiting on the arrival of an A-list actor, chart-topping popstar, minor royal or political leader. There are no paparazzi outside, nor will there be any press coverage in the tabloids come the morning. But the evening will be livestreamed in full 360-degree glory to over 100 million viewers waiting in breathless anticipation all around the world.
We’re waiting to welcome a new kind of celebrity: the stars of social media. A Who’s Who of top fashion and beauty influencers are congregating tonight for the UK launch of an LA-based fast fashion label — let’s call them Babe. The company — or more accurately, empire — has built a billion-dollar business from the power of social media influence. You may not know their name, but if you’ve accessed Instagram at any point over the last three years you will have probably come into contact with their particular brand of glossy, impossible aspiration.
Babe have come to be synonymous with influencer culture, and their feed is a feast of conspicuous consumption: branded swimming pools, candlelit Parisian dinners, hot air balloons, lavish trips to tropical locales, a private festival with performances from Grammy-winning rappers. Babe are more like a cult than a clothing brand: for many attendees, a partnership with them — including attendance at tonight’s event — represents their arrival in the upper echelons of influence.
Instagram has over a billion monthly active users across the globe — an eighth of the world’s entire population — and over 100 million posts are uploaded on the platform every day. In 2018, it hosted more than 3.7 million sponsored posts — by 2020, this number was estimated to have reached 6m. Instagram reports that 87 per cent of its users have been ‘influenced’ into buying something by a creator. The scale and speed of social media makes it impossible to pin down how many influencers there are exactly, but studies suggest there may be more than 50 million around the world: 2m full-time professionals — approximately equivalent to the entire population of Slovenia — and the rest amateurs uploading in their spare time.
That may sound like a lot, but the vast majority of participants are minor players — micro-influencers — with an audience of merely tens of thousands, hustling hard to generate re-grammable content and court brands in exchange for freebies and PR packages; vlogging and posting and streaming to a small audience of dedicated fans.
As influencers’ view counts and audience statistics tick upwards, they begin to attract more lucrative sponsorship deals with better brands, and savvy agents keen to capitalise on commission. The path to success becomes increasingly strategic: content cycles become ever more demanding, cliques form between creators, competition heightens, cancellation looms. Only 2 per cent of Instagram users make it to the top tier of social media stardom, achieving the magic million-follower count. With 1 million followers you’re not just an influencer any more: you’re a media empire and lifestyle brand, boasting fan accounts, a behind-the-scenes team, and lines of merchandise bearing your name.
The most successful creators represent a new class of the super-rich. Kylie Jenner, the highest earning influencer on Instagram, is reportedly paid around $1.2 million per post. In 2019, Forbes reported that the ten top gaming streamers — all unlikely looking, Monster-drinking millionaires in their teens and early twenties — had a combined 270m followers and earned a collective $121m.8
When Shane Dawson and Jeffree Star — a controversial conspiracy-theory vlogger and an ostentatious beauty guru, both of whom have spent over a decade accumulating their audiences on YouTube — collaborated to release an eyeshadow palette together in 2019, it sold out instantly, crashing Shopify and making $35 million in mere seconds. ‘Kidfluencer’ Ryan Kaji, a bubbly Texan who has attracted over 45 billion views to his upbeat videos unboxing brightly coloured toys, was the highest-paid YouTuber of 2020, earning $29.5m from advertising revenue and $200m from his merchandise line: not a bad salary for a nine-year-old. After that, the zeros start to blur together.
Tonight is for the 2 per cent. Tonight, the internet glitterati will congregate offline to gossip and gawp and ’gram for an online audience that will easily outnumber the entire population of the UK. But the industry is both cynical and cyclical, always on the lookout for the next big thing: the guestlist also includes a mix of ambitious smaller influencers snapping at their heroes’ strappy Missguided heels. Influencing is a reputation game, and attending tonight’s event could convert to contacts, contracts, and an influx of followers. At past influencer events I’ve tagged on my Instagram Stories, I’ve had DMs from strangers begging for entry or asking to buy my branded gift bag, presumably to post on social media and pretend they were there too.
It’s 9 pm and I’m jolted from my thoughts as, Uber by Uber, the members of the new media monarchy start to arrive and mill about excitedly in the foyer. There’s just one problem: so far, nobody’s going in. ‘What’s going on?’ I ask, battling to the front of the queue where voices are beginning to be raised. ‘Why aren’t you letting people through?’
‘Sorry,’ comes an West Coast drawl from behind an iPad, from a woman whose chunky gold hoops and silky blouse mirror the uniform of the crowd she is attempting to control. ‘We’re operating a follower policy on the door tonight. Only girls with a million or more are allowed in before ten. Do you wanna show me your Instagram, babe?’
I knew tonight was for the influencer aristocracy, but I wasn’t expecting the pecking order to be so explicitly policed. Neither, clearly, was the increasingly flustered crowd gathering at my back. Eyelash extensions are rolled, and bitter glances shot at the few who start to move towards the front of the queue. A voice over my left shoulder mutters after a passing figure: ‘What a joke. I’m nearly at 800k. I bet half her followers were bought anyway.’ I decide against pulling out my cracked iPhone to reveal my 568 Instagram followers.
At this point you are probably wondering who I am and how I’ve ended up here. I’m in the influencer business, working for one of the hundreds of digital agencies that have sprung up in response to what is often referred to as ‘the social media revolution’. My agency doesn’t represent influencers directly, but acts as an intermediary between them and brands, curating, casting, and engaging social media stars for marketing campaigns, launch parties, and photoshoots, organising elaborate brand trips to Iceland or Ibiza, showering them with freebies, creating customised and Instagrammable ‘brand experiences’, or helping them develop campaigns of their own. It sounds like a glam way to get paid, but parties are generally the exception; I’m more often found sitting on a beanbag in our office, 20 tabs open, hypnotically scrolling TikTok.
Although I’ve been in the industry over half a decade, when I first started, influencer marketing didn’t formally exist. Communities of online hobbyists had been accumulating since the dawn of the social internet, and commercial relationships between bloggers and brands had begun to formalise in the late 00s, but for all but the most forward-thinking brands, working with influencers was still considered experimental and risky until the mid-2010s. Brands were still learning to navigate the budding social media landscape, and those prepared to take the plunge grew swiftly.
Founded in 2012, the agency I work for got in early, in the days before we had the language to describe what we were doing or the regulation to tell us when to stop. Since then, we’ve shifted with the landscape, moving fluidly with trends and platforms, and watching as successive generations of influencers have risen to fame and fallen from it, made millions, launched businesses, or eventually burnt out.
Like most in the social media space, the company I work for is small and agile, staffed by fresh-faced creatives unencumbered by the wisdom of experience or the accepted ideologies of the traditional industries we are up against. We say things like ‘disrupt’ and ‘democratise’, ‘thumb-stopping’ and ‘older target audience’, usually meaning anyone over 25. We share reaction GIFs and influencer gossip on any one of several open channels of communication until the early hours of the morning; my phone rattles and battery saps with near-constant notifications.
We unite behind a gently rebellious manifesto: attention spans are shrinking, mainstream media is dead, content is king, and we represent the future. Brands come to us to understand this future and for help to get there first, or to sell their sports bras or sneakers or make-up or CBD-infused tampons to youthful demographics in the interim. No matter what they’re selling, the brief is usually the same: brands want to engage young customers, drive hype, go viral. They want to be woke, but not political; aspirational, but still authentic; to speak as if they are your friend and not a subcommittee of overworked social media managers reworking Twitter copy in a Google Doc for the seventh time that week. For them, influencers are a useful marketing vehicle: a digital proxy, a spend-efficient way to reach a generation permanently glued to their phones.
‘Influencers — the good ones at least — hold a strong combination of popularity, aspiration and authority,’ explains Marina Mansour, Global Head of Beauty Partnerships at Kyra Media, a Gen Z media company at the forefront of the social media revolution, who represent and incubate top TikTok talent. ‘Combine this with frequent visibility across multiple channels and the nuanced understanding of how to connect with their own audience deeply and powerfully, and it makes influencers arguably the most powerful marketing tool there is.’ Creator influence, she notes, extends beyond just selling. ‘The content and communities on social platforms are the hotbed of where trends are shaped, ideas are hatched and challenged and movements are sparked,’ Marina continues: ‘Creators ARE pop culture.’
The influencer industry of the early 2020s is, in many ways, reminiscent of the tech industry of the early 2010s. Though it’s been developing for over a decade, it’s still seen as a relative ‘wild west’, attracting a ragtag bunch of technologists, marketers, entrepreneurs, investors, and opportunists, all keen to capitalise on the rapidly developing landscape and relative lack of regulation. The industry still remains largely unstructured, un-formalised and un-legislated, leaving ample space for ambitious individuals to experiment, mirroring the ‘move fast and break things’ philosophy that originally underwrote its host platforms.
In 2014, five UK YouTube vloggers were reported to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) by a BBC journalist who had suspicions about a series of innocuous challenge videos in which people raced to lick the middle of an Oreo. It transpired that this wasn’t a neat piece of creative synchronicity, but an ad campaign briefed and funded by Oreo’s parent company Mondelez. The ASA banned the videos and introduced the world’s first influencer regulation, but new and innovative methods were soon springing up as fast as rules could be introduced: disappearing posts, brand trips, gifting, or simply sneaky wording that skirted around legality. Other markets take a more relaxed attitude: the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its first complaint against social media influencers for failing to comply with its Endorsement Guides in April 2017, whilst Australia only established a Code of Practice requiring influencers to disclose sponsored posts in 2020.14
The shiny new ‘creator economy’ — a slick Silicon Valley rebrand of the existing influencer industry, a spiritual successor to its previous invention, the gig economy — is at the centre of a digital gold rush. We are in the right place at the right time, flush with untapped opportunities, boundless attention, and venture capital (VC) funding. Our sector moves at the speed of algorithm updates and product ships: new avenues for revenue open up, new platforms emerge, and new types of content and operation models develop swiftly. It’s not unusual to wake up and discover a new feature, a new restriction, or even a new influencer scandal has blown up overnight, accelerating your progress, recalibrating your strategy, opening up new and obscure marketing channels or business models. Creator economy millionaires — of which there are many — are usually in their twenties, and are just as likely to have developed a winning piece of software, a new creator-based platform, or run a lucrative talent agency as to be social media stars themselves. There is no textbook, few rules, and many fortunes to be made for the fortunate or forward. I have learnt to expect the unexpected.
My job — like all jobs in this space — is a slippery hybrid, somewhere between creative and strategist, marketer and intermediary, helping brands to understand the internet landscape, and work out how to profit from that knowledge. More practically, it requires me to spend up to 16 hours each day logged on to social media, to track and interpret its shifting currents, translating the complexities and contradictions of online discourse into a language that’s understandable to brand managers, a set of ‘actionable insights’ and ‘consumer drivers’ that give them a commercial edge.
Working in social media is a strange way to make a living; I sit as an interface between the expansive and idiosyncratic landscape of creators, the all-powerful and monolithic platforms, and the corporate world of brands with competitive budgets and lucrative contracts. I’m in a front-row seat at the largest synchronised spectacle in human history unfolding in real time every single day.
It’s a position that gives me a unique perspective on the inner workings of the industry, but having a stake in both sides of the influencer game means I can sometimes feel trapped between two lives and two languages — a consumer and producer, a parasite and a host, simultaneously invested in and alienated by the industry’s core philosophies. Most of the time, however, I’m too wrapped up in unpacking trending topics or understanding ephemeral internet drama for any of this to register.
Tonight, my agency has curated a group of London tastemakers to attend Babe’s event; the mix includes models, DJs, fitness gurus, beauty bloggers, and a former reality star with gleaming teeth and a profitable side hustle in crystal healing. Our job is simple: get the ‘right people’ down to the party, ensure they have a good time, and make sure they post on Instagram whilst doing it.
The team has spent weeks meticulously orchestrating this evening of fun to appear as spontaneous as possible. They have stalked social media profiles, strategised, set targets. They have conducted audits to identify fake followers and trawled back through timelines to catch any embarrassing Facebook statuses or misguided tweets from 2012. They have sweet-talked managers and agents, pulled favours, booked taxis. I have changed out of my office-appropriate outfit, travelled an hour from our studio in east London to the centre of the city, charged several portable battery packs in preparation. But now we have an unanticipated problem: the million-follower policy.
This industry has desensitised me to any number of outlandish and outrageous requests, but it’s the first time I have encountered the mythical ‘follower policy’ IRL. Babe are keeping several internet it-girls waiting on a technicality. Patience may be short, but Instagram Stories criticising Babe and their party’s dodgy door policy to millions of potential customers are shorter: 15 seconds, to be exact. Influencers’ ability to propel a brand to relevance with just a few quick clicks is just as effective when executed in reverse: social media managers live in perpetual fear of being ‘put on blast’. Keeping these digital doyennes happy is our own personal marketing target for the night.
After considerable time spent skulking in the foyer, and several frantic WhatsApps back and forth, my colleague and I are rescued by the arrival of two friends whose 5.5m combined followers offer sufficient compensation for our lack of clout. Our flock of unimpressed influencers are eventually released from captivity and let into the party. I am desperate for a drink, but they ignore the bar and the dance floor and head first for the WiFi password. Within a few seconds we’ve all lost each other in the gloom, the bodies, and the noise; neon lights and palm fronds transform the hotel’s mirrored ballroom into a dark, throbbing jungle.
This is not my first influencer party, nor will it be my last, but I will never get over the sheer weirdness of it all. It’s extravagant, it’s excessive, it’s engineered for Instagram: it’s an event designed as much for the people who weren’t invited as for those who were, with photo-op backdrops and lighting that’s been carefully calibrated for flattering pics so the party looks as good onscreen as it does off. Semi-familiar faces made up in uncanny valley Instaglam loom left and right, eyes connecting with me for an instant before slipping past. Only having 568 followers might make me a nobody, but it also means I can head for the smoking area unchallenged.
Loitering outside in the relative tranquility of the terrace, I catch my breath. The sun has set, and sirens wail somewhere close by in Soho. It’s cold, but nobody seems to notice. Small seats have been thoughtfully placed at intimate, gossip-friendly intervals, planters providing privacy between whisperers. Guests linger, waiting to take pictures in front of a backdrop of pink-neon Babe logos, jostling to align their angles before squinting at playback. In the corner, a woman in a bold, patterned tracksuit is speaking animatedly into a camera held aloft at head height; she gestures wildly with her other arm and enthuses at the rectangle in her hand. We’re all watching each other watch ourselves: stealing small sideways glances or gazing expectantly into the middle distance.
I feel a now familiar, but still unsettling, sensation. Amongst a gaggle of impossibly glossy camera-ready stars in the uniform of the fashionably online, I’m scruffy and awkward, conspicuous by my insignificance. As predicted, I’m the only person wearing trainers. I wince as phones flash around me and duck out of sight: the last thing I want is to be caught in the background of a story viewed by hundreds of thousands of strangers. ‘She’s got 11 million followers ...’ my companion comments over her shoulder, warily eyeing an anatomically impossible Brazilian woman in a tight white vinyl dress and pointed sock-boots, who has just appeared. As if by some influencer herd instinct, all eyes have silently swivelled to the largest star in the room: ‘... and she’s definitely had her bum done.’
Uneasy posturing, submerged rivalry, and a shared goal of showing off online make influencer parties a bizarre and complex social ecosystem. It is perfectly possible to take each other’s pictures and swap Facetuning tips in the toilet queue whilst silently resenting that the person standing opposite has been paid double, or triple what you have to attend. The night unfolds as a semi-surreal performance of a ‘really good party’ put together by someone who’s watched a lot of other people go to ‘really good parties’ on the internet: the bar is free, the crowd is attractive and animated, and everywhere I look is logoed. Babe’s insignia is emblazoned across everything from food to loo roll, ensuring no moment in the partygoer’s life cycle remains unoptimised by our omnipresent sponsor.
Two semi-famous DJs remix 90s RnB and take turns filming each other behind the decks. I pull up their Instagram Live streams on my iPhone, dizzied by the inception-like effect of simultaneously watching them in the booth, and the rest of the room from it. A girl in a shiny snakeskin suit bumps into another, identically dressed attendee; they shriek with laughter, snap a picture, and avoid each other for the rest of the night. I am introduced to people by their Instagram handles, which I immediately mix up. The lurid neon lighting makes everyone look vaguely sick; I am disoriented, my developing headache perforated by the snap of photography flash panels improbably produced from the tiniest of clutch bags.
On my way to avail myself of the branded bathroom facilities, I pass through the corridor. The walls are lined with mirrors; the optical illusion is enough to stop me in my tracks. I see myself reflected again and again and again, stretching behind and in front into a non-existent distance; an image of an image of a woman clutching a pink drink framed by vinyl hashtags into infinity. Of course, I take a photo and post it to my Stories.
None of this is real, I think, philosophically emboldened by the three cocktails I have just downed in quick succession. We’re just the images of ourselves online, digital impressions on 100,000 phone screens, as many approximations of the original image as I am seeing now. The real thing isn’t the party, it’s our recording of it; those watching the event through us on their phones at home are more here than we will ever be. The thought is vaguely unsettling and I’m glad to be absorbed back into the endless succession of culinary quirks and visual spectacles put on by Babe’s event producers to vie for the attention of 200 distracted guests who go to events like this for a living.