It's hard enough to have to scroll past a self-described influencer’s pics in your Instagram feed, hard enough not to let your eyes roll into the back half of your skull when you see them trying to look pensive while pretending to shop at Kohl's or whatever. So imagine how intolerable it must be to have to actually deal with them on a business level, to have to read countless emails asking for free stuff in exchange for an @- on social media or a two-second shoutout on their Instagram story.
Joe Nicchi knows how much it sucks. At least once a week, some rando who thinks they're somebody because they have a four- or five-digit social media following asks for a free cone—or a lot of free cones—from his acclaimed Los Angeles ice cream truck, CVT Soft Serve. He's occasionally responded to those emails with, shall we say, salty responses (he's used "I'd rather vacation in North Korea" or "I'd rather stick my junk in a beehive"), but last week, he decided that he'd had enough.
"Last Thursday, I got an event request to do a party on a weekend for 300 people in exchange for the word they love to use, which is 'exposure,'" Nicchi told VICE. "I can't do that; I can't work for free."
He made a sign ("as kind of a joke") that said INFLUENCERS PAY DOUBLE in bold letters, and posted it on the truck when he worked at the Melrose Trading Post. He also shared the photo on CVT's own Instagram page. "We truly don’t care if you’re an Influencer, or how many followers you have," he wrote. "We will never give you a free ice cream in exchange for a post on your social media page. It’s literally a $4 item…well now it’s $8 for you." He punctuated it with the hashtag #InfluencersAreGross.
The pic of Nicchi and his sign was posted to Reddit, and quickly made it to the site's front page. "Trust me, I understand the irony of all of this that I'm mocking influencers and now I'm getting some social media credit as influencing non-influencers," he said. "I know that it's ironic and I get that."
Still, it's not surprising that Nicchi would be asked to give his ice cream away. He founded CVT Soft Serve—the initials stand for its three flavor options, Chocolate, Vanilla, and Twirl—in 2014, and it was named the best food truck in Los Angeles that same year. He also might be the only soft-server to score a mention in Rolling Stone (for hosting a Bill Murray ice cream social that Bill Murray actually attended); to get a thumbs up from the vagina-steamers over at Goop; and to have more than one shoutout from the LA-based foodies at Zagat.
"We work a lot of these [food truck] events on the weekends, and I'm not going to sound like a douchebag, but we have really long lines," he said. "It's evident that we're a popular business, but I've had many young Millennials who say things like 'I'm surprised that you only have 5,000 followers.' What does it matter? I have a line down the street. If Instagram went away tomorrow, I would still exist. It doesn't make sense to me that people are so concerned by that number."
If Nicchi sounds unimpressed by your number of followers, well, it's because he is. But he's also skeptical about how some of those so-called "influencers" collected all of those accounts in the first place. "Anyone can buy a following, anyone can buy likes and comments," he said. "I know people who have done it, and it's crazy. So why do these people hold weight? If you or I tomorrow can have 50,000 followers by paying $20 to a social media bot company, it doesn't make sense to me."
He's probably right to question it. Last March, social media marketing firm Hypetap analyzed the Instagram accounts of thousands of Australian influencers, and estimated that more than 13% of those users had purchased "more than 20%" of their followers. (In December, Instagram announced that it was cracking down on third-party apps that were used to artificially inflate some users' follower counts. "People come to Instagram to have real experiences, including genuine interactions," Instagram wrote in a press release, possibly proving that no one at Instagram has seen Instagram lately.)
So if you think of yourself as an influencer, it's probably best if you stay out of Nicchi's inbox. And if you go to the truck in person, you should definitely stop yourself from saying that particular i-word when you order. "The first 30 seconds of talking, they say 'Hey, I don't know if you follow me or not,' so they tell me their screen name and say 'If you want to hook me up with a cone, I'll post it to my story,'" he said. "I'm like are you out of your mind? This is a $4 ice cream."
Actually, for those people, it's gonna be eight dollars.