When influencers first emerged, they were met with some skepticism from advertisers. Compared to conventional celebrities, bloggers and vloggers were often positioned as risky and unpredictable, operating in a messy and frequently scandalous online Wild West. Disciplined in part by the precarious and ever-shifting work environment created by social media platforms, influencers learned to protect themselves and their content by anticipating and responding to algorithmic changes, researching optimization strategies to gather visibility. Reticent advertisers pushed influencers to embrace consistency, and they distilled their work into comforting and legible formats and genres: “get ready with me,” “story time,” and “challenge” videos and the like.
The job of influencer, in other words, involves learning how to constantly accommodate oneself to the means of establishing and maintaining visibility. That work, in turn, could be broken down into three core pillars: consistent self-branding (defined by sociologist Alison Hearn as “self-conscious construction of a meta-narrative and meta-image of self); self-optimization for platforms (organizing one’s content to be recognizable by algorithmic systems); and commitment to selling authenticity (that is, doing all of the above while remaining “relatable” and “real”). A quick glance at TikTok influencer Charli D’Amelio’s recent content, for example, shows the use of a consistent sweatpants-and-crop-top aesthetic (key tenets of her “girl next door” self-brand), cute stunts optimized for virality (e.g., buying her mom a billboard for Mother’s Day), and a canny documentation of authentic “backstage” moments (tidying her messy bathroom, falling during a dance move, documenting an unpleasant body rash).
Post more, respond more, share more. And as with mission creep, there is no apparent way out
Such concerns (and behavior) were once mainly the purview of hype-house members, beauty TikTokers, Twitch streamers, and the like. But it has begun to extend beyond those who think of themselves as influencers. Considerations about how to present oneself on platforms have become a part of the everyday routine for a broader swath of the workforce. In a recent piece for Salon, Brooke Erin Duffy detailed how influencer culture has become part of many careers, including journalism, academia, medicine and finance, even as influencers are still often singled out for their social media “hustling.” The expectation that one be “eminently visible,” as Duffy puts it, regardless of profession, is particularly salient against a backdrop of labor precarity, the gig-ification of sectors like journalism and higher education, and an always-on work-from-home culture. Remote workers may perform competence by organizing their work from home spaces into stylish, color-coordinated and highly “professional” Zoom backgrounds. Yoga instructors must take images of daring poses amid dramatic backdrops to build and maintain their following hoping that this online will translate to yoga-class attendance, which has slowed as people continue to work from home. House painters, carpenters, and vacuum-repair people can use their social media to demonstrate their skillfulness and trustworthiness to risk-adverse potential clients, who are nervously shopping around as we teeter on the edge of a recession.
Although the metrics being chased may look slightly different, what was once a matter of professionalization specifically for influencers is now becoming a part of professionalization in general. If the phrase “mission creep” describes how a campaign’s objectives gradually expand until they entail unanticipated and boundless commitment, we might likewise call the expansion of micro-celebrity practice “influencer creep,” both for how influencing creeps into more forms of work and for how it creeps further into the lives of workers. The mark of influencer creep is the on-edge feeling that you have not done enough for social media platforms: that you can be more on trend, more authentic, more responsive — always more. It lodges in the back of your mind: film more, post more, respond more, share more. And as with mission creep, there is no apparent way out.
Influencer creep can be felt most keenly in sectors that operate on freelance and insecure labor, in which individuals take on a slate of unremunerated promotional work in lieu of job security. This is not new: In a 2015 book, Gina Neff defined “venture labor” as an individualized response to corporate risk management, “a model of employee entrepreneurship.” Influencer creep is what happens when that entrepreneurial negotiation of structural risk plays out through social media platforms and their demands for visual stimuli, “authenticity,” and engagement. Boundaries between personal expression and entrepreneurship, between socializing and commerce, are eroded while the routine, mundane, and the everyday are painstakingly aestheticized. Workers must play to audiences, clients, bosses and platforms all at the same time, with no guarantee that any of it will pay off.
Influencer creep has a particular impact on artists, who in some respects resemble influencers: They both try to make a living by translating their aesthetic sensibility for audiences in distinctive or ingenious or familiar ways. But if influencers are often derided for seeming to sell themselves out and reinforce commercial values, artists tend to be idealized for seeming to drift above commercial concerns and pursue higher forms of expression for their own sake. Influencer creep jeopardizes that status, even as it takes cues from how successfully some artists have managed to market themselves as brands. As artisanal production, much like other kinds of precarious work, has been partly subsumed by platforms, artists have been driven to augment their existing means of professionalization with influencers’ practices. But as artists are driven to behave more like influencers, influencerization may pass itself off as making other forms of work “more artisanal.”
Over the past year, I interviewed 20 artists and artisans, including silversmiths, illustrators, ceramicists, and weavers, about how they sustain themselves in a platformized economy. When asked about platforms, most extolled the opportunities that Instagram has afforded them to share their work, connect with audiences, and make money. For some, growing a following on Instagram was what pushed them to quit day jobs and make art full-time. But reliance on platforms has come with a sense of anxiety about factors that remain in tech companies’ hands. The platform’s infrastructure can change or even disappear at any moment.
In “The Nested Precarities of Creative Labor on Social Media,” Duffy et al. describe how influencers must manage surprises and “fundamentally orient themselves to anticipate the incessant tweaks and oft-unforeseen updates of algorithmic systems.” To keep platforms happy, they must engage in time-consuming tests and ongoing discussions of platform mechanisms, learning to parse black-boxed systems and respond to incremental tweaks. They must also develop a cross-platform brand, creating content specifically attuned to the different platforms’ tones, genres, and vernacular without compromising their own consistency.
Artists who rely on platforms now must be aware of the same things and divide their time between making pieces and managing their social media visibility. They are obliged to produce both art and a portrait of themselves as an artist. This means trying to master forms of communication that may not have much to do with their primary craft. In my interviews, artists discussed the pressure they felt to learn how to use TikTok, or build up an email newsletter, or invest in their personal website. (This echoes complaints heard among celebrity musicians like Halsey, who recently described how her record label mandated that she create a viral TikTok before releasing new music.) A textile artist that I talked to wished she could create a physical version of her Instagram portfolio, despite the fact that her work already consists of material artifacts.
But it is not as though artistic practice was once somehow unstained by economic considerations before. The economic context of artistic distribution has always shaped who is viable as an artist and what works are classified as art. As sociologist Howard Becker explains in Art Worlds (1982), “since most artists want the advantages of distribution, they work with an eye to what the system characteristic of their world can handle. What kinds of work will it distribute? What will it ignore? What return will it give for what kind of work?” That system will shape which artists can become successful, what is perceived as “talent,” and what kind of work will be supportable.
The creep toward optimization not only shapes the work artists made but also how they went about making it
The “characteristic system” of art distribution in any given epoch derives from broader socioeconomic conditions. In the premodern era, artists shaped production to the demands of the church or the tastes of wealthy patrons, who in turn assured that the work would be passed on and celebrated. As the ranks of the factory-owning nouveaux riche grew during the industrial revolution, artists catered to their tastes, creating smaller works featuring landscapes, domestic themes, and subjects that mill owners and the like could identify with. The proto-influencer role of the art critic emerged to help solidify the legitimacy of bourgeois tastes outside the established conventions of aristocratic cultural authority.
In the 20th century, as artistic production diversified, the art world as Becker describes it began to coalesce. For evaluation, legitimization, and distribution of their work, artists came to depend on a world of galleries, agents, critics, and so on, all of whom were motivated and constrained by prevailing economic conditions (i.e. capitalist relations of production and the discipline of “market forces”) as well. These intermediaries created lucrative art markets and encouraged a rationalization of artists’ work to render it predictable, comprehensible, and palatable for audiences, especially the consumers who were willing to pay for it.
With the increased prominence of social media platforms and the rise of what Nick Srnicek has called “platform capitalism,” the nature of the cultural intermediaries have changed again, becoming algorithmically enacted and hyper-individualized. That is, each artist’s work is contextualized based on their personal profiles and not by their participation in art-specific institutions and practices. Consequently, social media platforms don’t merely rationalize art practice so much as optimize it, which media scholars Jeremy Wade Morris, Robert Prey, and David Nieborg have defined as “the process of measuring, engineering, altering, and designing elements of digital cultural goods to make them more searchable, discoverable, usable, and valuable in both economic and cultural senses.” Thanks to social media, production and content can be constantly monitored and adjusted to maximize their potential for visibility and engagement. Artists are beholden not only to art markets — from which they once could keep a safe personal distance even as they depended on it — but to the principles of search-engine optimization, as filtered through the successful practice of influencers.
When demands on artists are structured not only by the conventions of the art world but by social media’s affordances (and how these have shaped audience expectations), everything about an artist’s practice can be affected. Many of the artists I spoke to confirmed this, detailing how they optimized many different elements of their practice to be visible on Instagram, including their art’s content and form, drawing on research into digital marketing strategies, discussions about how algorithms work, and personal hunches based on their own experiments. For example, an illustrator said that she thought her stripped-back style “lends itself really well to Instagram and social media and that quick scrolling that people do … There’s not a lot of detail there to inspect or appreciate, and there’s not materials involved that maybe would be more appreciated in real life versus online.” At the same time, artists who made small, intricate pieces struggled to represent their craft on the platform. Another artist told me that she had moved toward portraiture in place of landscapes purely because Instagram appears more likely to promote images with faces — a commonly held theory that style blogger Tavi Gevinson once famously tested in a post hashtagged #myalgorithmjourney. Nearly every artist I spoke to said that they believed posting a selfie would reliably give them an audience boost.
But given that Instagram’s’ algorithms (likely bolstered by audience preferences) seem to favor images of thin, light skinned women, as Salma El-Wardany describes, this has problematic implications for which artists get seen. Artists and artworks that fit within the hegemonic bounds of beauty will get bigger algorithmic boosts than those that do not. One Black artist told me, “When I post light-skinned Black girls, the response is better.” A maker who produces handmade tights told me that she tried to vary the images of her product, but those that include professional models always “did the best.”
The creep toward optimization not only shapes the work artists made but also how they went about making it. Presenting “artist” as a lifestyle tends to do better on social media than artworks themselves, so artists experience pressure to present themselves as their content. One illustrator described how the time-lapse videos of her drawing she made by wearing a distracting and cumbersome GoPro would get thousands of likes on Instagram. Another illustrator rigged an overhead tripod camera in her studio to capture her process. Others explained how they developed an ad-hoc studio-visitation schedule to take “backstage” images of each other.
Influencer practices reflect how those imperatives structure what we do
All artists I spoke to engaged in self-branding, presenting not just their work but themselves as a commodity for sale. As one maker stated, “You have to sell your world.” To build a seductive narrative around her art, one artist crafted her small flat into an enviable Instagram backdrop for staging “shelfies” and “mantelscaping.” (She told me she was currently trying to push into “bedside tablescaping.”) A basket maker who uses homegrown willow explained that “it’s the easiest craft on the planet to represent because it’s so photogenic.” Photographers have repeatedly volunteered to take photographs of her process, and she was under no illusion about what she was selling: not so much baskets as the perfect, bohemian, linen-clad family.
As backstage reveals become more central to artistic viability, they could shape where art can be made and what kind of art is worth making. What looks best for the time-lapse? What is the most aesthetically appealing backdrop? If the process isn’t relatable or photogenic, it might not be worth an artist’s time. And as their “backstage” content is up for scrutiny, it isn’t really a backstage at all. Artists must share more and perform more as the spaces in which to retreat are steadily incorporated.
With trends toward growing labor precarity and the platformization of social and working life, the influencer creep touches more and more work: Walmart has opened their “spotlight” employee influencer program, in which a select group are compensated for producing Walmart “behind-the-scenes” content, including a cross-country “Walmart dance party.” Employees of Wendy’s, Sephora, and Dunkin’ Donuts have been made similar offers, inviting individual workers to take on the techniques pioneered by influencers, who serve as de facto role models or even consultants. (The gaming YouTuber MatPat has a consulting service for those who want to “up your game as a brand or creator.”) Anyone with any kind of job now can likely imagine how having followers and creating content around their workday could be beneficial, if those requirements were not already mandatory for them.
This is not really a new development; the demand to self-brand has been a central aspect of the neoliberalization of work since it began in the 1980s. In “‘Meat, Mask, Burden’: Probing the Contours of the Branded ‘Self’,” Alison Hearn argued that “self-branding illustrates how flexible corporate capital has subsumed all areas of human life.” But in the platform era, social media have become not just a leisure activity but an outsourced layer of management, an ever-present filter selecting for who is most likely to be successful and ensure that they take personal responsibility for “optimizing” how they do it. Influencer practices reflect how those imperatives structure what we do.
For better or worse, influencers make sense of the demands that the new platformed organization of work place on us and provide a kind of playbook for how to keep up. To the degree that artists adopt such responsibilities, they become further aestheticized: The extra work of self-branding is transformed into something that can appear as one’s personal artistic vocation. When the influencer creep is complete, every moment will have to speak to loving one’s job, as if no other sort of experience or emotion were possible.