Insta karma: who are we to denounce influencers’ selfie-obsession?


The Covid-19 pandemic era has been a strange one for influencers. While audiences are more captive than ever, marketing spend froze in early 2020 and has been erratic ever since. For those whose trade involves taking photographs of their thighs in front of ambiguously located infinity pools, 2021 doesn’t look much rosier. If you can take seriously the idea that “being an influencer” is a real job, you might spare some sympathy for these self-reliant freelancers, whose hard-won livelihoods on capitalism’s more exotic frontiers have met an ironic nemesis. Could a virus, the very thing that provided the metaphoric mechanism for their rise, also be their downfall?

In September of last year the journal Media International Australia (MIA) published a research article titled “Influencers and Covid-19”, which considered the impact that the pandemic was having on influencers across the Asia-Pacific. The article noted that influencers in the region were “called out for being irresponsible and ignoring social distancing advice, in their pursuit of fun and pleasure” and some Australian influencers were forced to “drop their fee” by up to 50%.

But there have been unexpected bounties, too. Last week, an FOI request from the media charity Full Fact revealed that the UK government has paid £63,000 to 42 influencers to promote its world-beating test-and-trace system. And, in recent weeks, large numbers of UK influencers have turned up in Dubai, where restrictions are looser, and one can relax by the pool or maskless in the cocktail bar at the end of a hard day of posting one picture.

Net profits ... Liam Williams.
Net profits ... Liam Williams. Photograph: BBC/Baby Cow

The Dubai posts provoked much scorn on social media, as such stories tend to. According to the MIA article, headlines about influencers have become “low hanging fruit … with the potential to evolve into trending online topics”. Don’t I know it? Why do you think the BBC have commissioned a third series of my influencer-focused satire Pls Like?

It is hard to muster much sympathy for the influencers. While there must be a fair amount of labour involved in getting to a position where you are paid £500 to say a candle smells nice, pathos doesn’t arrive in floods when that figure is reduced to, say, £250 – not while unemployment soars and many are excluded from the government’s support measures.

But is it a folly to dismiss influencers as a trifling distraction from genuine socio-economic concerns? Are they not just the logical expression of the new economy, an economy whose full realisation the Covid-19 pandemic has only quickened?

“Recently,” Susan Sontag observed in her 1977 essay collection On Photography, “photography has become almost as widely practised an amusement as sex and dancing.” Since then, surely the former has surpassed the latter two amusements in terms of the width of its practice (though with the advent of TikTok, dancing has perhaps seen something of a resurgence).

Pls Like.
’Gram dram ... Pls Like. Photograph: BBC/Baby Cow

We’ve arrived, finally, in the realm JG Ballard imagined for us, in which “every one of our actions during the day, across the entire spectrum of domestic life, will be instantly recorded”, where “in the evening we will sit back to scan […] our best profiles, our wittiest dialogue, our most affecting expressions filmed through the kindest filters”.

Even if we do not ourselves spend our days taking endless selfies – and who could blame us if we do – do we, the Zoom-mediated petite-bourgeoisie, not spend them staring at the feeds from our webcams, like Narcissus into his pool? Who are we to denounce the influencers’ self-obsession? And who are we – whose every click, whose every word, whose every waking breath near enough, is surveilled and captured and converted into capital – to scorn their source of revenue? Aren’t they just securing some remuneration from the forces that now devour us all? Pursuing fame – or even mere solvency – online may still not seem like a real job. But as a new age of austerity looms and automation hastens, what’s so special about “real” jobs anyway?

These are challenging times, but perhaps we can take a cue from the influencers and focus on the positive. As the self-styled “Lifestyle Creator” and professional twin Henry Wade put it in an Instagram caption to a recent Dubai beach selfie: “It’s easier said than done, but if you can leave a national lockdown even 1% better than when you entered, you’ll thank yourself you did that bit extra.”

Pls Like series 3 is available on BBC Three/iPlayer from 24 January