The Genre of You

Social media has made influence an aesthetic of its own

The demand for photographability has changed behavior, from increasing the amount people spend on events like baby showers and birthday parties to changing the design of restaurants to be better lit and full of signature elements for photos. It has also changed our relationship to ourselves. Influencers reflect and lead that change, modeling how we can find “joy” in the packaging of ourselves.

In the process, influencers are changing the speed of fashion. If Instagram is like a fashion magazine that is continually publishing — an agitation machine accelerating trends, expanding styles, and connecting them to identities — then influencers serve as both models and guides of that territory. In cultivating their streams of refined aesthetics and personal philosophies, they build their own world that absorbs and subverts the “taste-building” power of conventional hierarchies and gatekeepers — from fashion editors and art institutions to runways and A&R departments. Rather than fashion being dictated from above, it appears in Instagram as a two-way dialogue where users “vote” on aesthetics through the apps’ hearts, follows, and comments. The platform’s metrics and sorting algorithms feedback into the system, reinforcing its logic while mapping out the taste and trend landscape like a Mars Rover of material culture.

Influencers are both contributing to the dizzying sea of trends and acting as beacons of clarity in the maelstrom. They are both the waves and lighthouse

Trends become less a matter of top-down dictation and even more a matter of push and pull. This was always the case — street style and trend spotting and sales data were “pulling” as influential brands and designers were “pushing,” but Instagram has made the process more overt and concentrated. This process makes fashionability not simply a set of visual cues but a matter of tapping into virality.

The brand Fashion Nova, profiled in this Buzzfeed article, exemplifies this. Fashion Nova is happy to bypass the approval of fashion media gatekeepers, instead building what may be the most successful brand oriented around Instagram and influencer culture. In the four years since it launched, it has accumulated over 11 million Instagram followers through an operation that quickly turns customer tastes into products, generating new clothing samples in less than 24 hours based on trending fashions their social media team sees performing well on the platform. Within a week or two, new items are available for purchase — astonishingly fast, even for fast fashion. They add about 500 items to their website each week, working with about 3,000 influencers, most of whom are paid only in free clothing, to showcase their styles in what becomes a distributed online fashion catalog. As quickly as new looks materialize on Instagram, their success is gauged by user feedback, and they are manufactured and sold back through the networks of influence.

Influencers are both contributing to the dizzying sea of trends and styles and acting as beacons of clarity in the maelstrom. They are both the waves and lighthouse. They expedite the fashion cycle, but in the process they expand the motivations for “being in fashion” from merely looking stylish to accessing a sharable piece of influence, a new look to post.

“Influence” may seem like a self-explanatory term, but on Instagram, with its intricate economy of influencers melding the fashion industry and reflecting the aspirational fantasies of individual users, it takes on a different significance. Rather than being strictly a product of other styles, “influence” itself is an aesthetic that can be generated and consumed. It doesn’t simply indicate an ability to change minds about products or foment trends but is itself a trendy product that is best consumed through Instagram use, with influencers as role models in how to enjoy it. Accessibility is key to influencer relevance, as opposed to the inscrutability of old tastemakers, so they have a vested interest in making users understand and even grow from the influence they are selling them on. In many cases, influencers act as an advice repository, on topics ranging from fitness and body positivity to style and beauty and personal growth.

Fashion Nova’s appeal draws on this accessibility. It is based on a no-shame desire for cheap, trendy items, recasting disposable fast fashion as viral relatability. It draws on celebrity endorsement and influencer traffic to make its inexpensive items seem like a blend of high fashion’s exclusivity and low fashion’s accessibility, framing consuming the brand as a joy rather than a budget-based compromise. To quote one of Fashion Nova’s most famous supporters, Cardi B, from an Instagram post Buzzfeed highlighted: “My shoes Balenciaga but my fit @fashionnova THOOO Duuuuhhhhhh.”

The brand’s profile is boosted by the thousands of reality-TV adjacent celebrities and influencers that plug their clothes, high-visibility accounts whose stylistic choices in turn generate more new products to feed into the system. Fashion Nova invokes a sense of participation and accessibility by reposting about 30 customer images a week and likes and engages with any customers tagging them, an approach that is the opposite of other “hype” branding, like that of contemporary streetwear brands. Rather than attempting to exemplify “coolness” through tactics like posting infrequently, keeping the number of posts on their page pared down, and maintaining a strictly cohesive page aesthetic, Fashion Nova encourages users to share their look and tag the brand for a chance to be featured on their page. Of course, they largely repost model-perfect images from influencers who are likely receiving clothes from Fashion Nova, rather than any random followers, but this encouragement normalizes the notion that part of purchasing a look from Fashion Nova is posting it on Instagram.

Being in fashion means posting your fashion, a practice strengthened and encouraged by influencers with pages full of looks in flawless makeup and what, pre-instagram, were known as “going out clothes.” Former Australian vegan influencer Essena O’Neill, who quit social media in 2015 after declaring that “Instagram is not real life,” recaptioned her old influencer posts to point out that, despite all the going out clothes, there was no going out. The ritual of posting to social media supplanted going out as a means of showing off a look. If the night out was a wash, it’s no biggie, because the investment can reap more tangible returns on your profile in perpetuity.

FashionNova subscribes to the marketing strategy of “virtuous capitalism” developed by other fashion retailers like Everlane and Article, offering “transparent pricing” that undercuts standard retail margins. As Fashion Nova CEO Richard Saghian told Buzzfeed, “We’re trying to make the fashion industry play by the rules. I don’t think it’s fair for a brand to sell an item for $100 that they made for $20.” This approach often depends on tech-driven “innovation”: the smaller overhead costs associated with online businesses, plus venture-capital funding that allows companies to operate at a loss in the pursuit of scale.

Apparel is now made for and seen on the grid. The human labor behind them are obscured while the story constructed about them grows more intricate

Today, it’s easy to start a company that ships products globally without ever touching them. An Atlantic article by Alexis Madrigal detailed how this works: An enterprising individual picks a product on Alibaba’s site AliExpress, which has many vendors willing to “drop ship” items directly from manufacturer to orderer. The entrepreneur then sets up an account on ecommerce platform Shopify, connects an app, Oberlo, that pulls products directly from AliExpress into Shopify, and then most important, places attractive-looking ads on Instagram. This scheme requires no capital investment in goods or trips to the post office, only a working knowledge of Photoshop and targeted advertising. Madrigal reports that Oberlo claims to have processed over 85 million items, and Shopify has over 500,000 merchants, a number that’s grown 74 percent per year over the last five years.

As a result, apparel is made for and seen on the grid, acquired from the grid, and posted back to the grid. The flows of goods and hours of human labor behind these products are obscured, while the story constructed about them in online ads and influencer posts grows more intricate. Instagram makes it easy to create a contrived ambience and signifying value for objects; within its walled garden, a cheap item from Alibaba can be a hot new lifestyle product and a nonexistent music festival in the Bahamas can be a celebrity-filled paradise. As Carina Chocano put it in the New York Times Magazine, “the scam economy may be entering its baroque phase.”

It’s not that influencers are new with Instagram. For a long time, brands have emphasized how their products can help you be a better you, even a new you. Instagram advertising through influencers isn’t a separate thing from historical advertisers promoting products through a celebrity; instead, it is a deepening of the perceived intimacy of advertisement, enabled by the proximity of social media. Every brand online becomes a lifestyle brand. Some contemporary influencers, like conventional fashion models, thrive by unobtrusively showcasing products that they claim fuel their beauty — the latest Fashion Nova styles, waist-trainers, flat-tummy tea, and teeth whitening solutions — without their own individuality impeding the projection of viewers’ desires. For them to succeed, the fantasy must remain uninterrupted by their humanity – better to undershare than overshare from their point of view.

There is no stable “type” like subcultures of the past, only people in a space that demands a commitment to constant reinvention

An increasing number of influencers, however, rebuke the picture-perfect trend with an emphasis on authenticity, which is equally commodifiable. Well-developed, sympathetic influencer personas are judged capable of selling a wider range of products, their reviews informing consumption in the way a friends’ advice might. The relatively unpredictable appearance of goods within their feed more naturally integrates advertisement into the rhythms of “life” online; rather than the advertisement representing a break in continuity, like commercials, it is an extension of the story.

Just as influencers manufacture themselves by producing a stream of marketing content, users may refine their own notion of “selfness” by consuming the apparent self of others. Rather than stemming from a specific identity, “selfness” is triangulating yourself in the reflections of others, the identity of “having an identity” imbued through the construction of and participation in influence. The process of browsing Instagram, spectating in the arena of influence, produces a feedback loop of algorithmic encouragement. Likes and comments guide users on the efficacy of their content — styles, captions, angles, lighting, subject matter — letting them know what to do more or less of. There will never be enough: the self never arrives at a fixed destination; it is always further optimizing for what performs best, pushing the self toward more “selfness.”

But this selfness has nothing external and stable to anchor it — trends arise and are sold back to us in the blink of an eye. There is no stable “type” like the punks and nerds or other subcultures of the past, only people in a space that demands a commitment to constant reinvention. You are presented with an infinite stream of others to direct you, items to like or pass on, in what becomes a constant process of rating content.

Influencers, and consuming influence, provides reference points for the “genre of you,” reassuring buoys in a dizzyingly large expanse of possibility. Influencer accounts may seem as though they are nearly interchangeable, but that uniform ubiquity is what makes them effective as a whole. Their overall presence conveys a willingness to sell themselves constantly as a beacon of complete consumption and beauty. This is why even people with few followers may nonetheless mimic this influencer style standard: It demonstrates their own aspiration to attention and its economic workings. Influencers make sense of the world that social media make possible, one in which gatekeepers have less power and the self is opened to constant rearticulation. Their success reflects old gatekeepers’ failure to connect with consumers in a personal and approachable way. Whatever else one may say about them, influencers don’t achieve sway through making their followers feel stupid or helpless. If nothing else, they are there to help you be like them.

Isabel Munson is a multimedia artist based in New York City. She writes and makes documentaries examining relationships between technology, design, economics and behavior. She also produces music, DJs, and runs NYC-based record label Worst Behavior Recs.