On the 6th of October 2010, almost one year into a brand new decade, everything changed. That morning, a new photo-sharing app launched on Apple’s iPhone App Store: Instagram.
Designed by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the app was intended to be a location-tagging tool, like Foursquare, but its creators soon realised that there was a gap in the market for an image-led social media platform designed for smartphones, rather than traditional computers. They were right. One million users signed up to Instagram in less than three months, an Android rollout came in 2012, and the app was sold to Facebook for $1 billion. The rest is history. In June 2018, Instagram hit 1 billion monthly active users.
Perhaps more than any other social media website or app, Instagram has crystallised users’ ability to build and perform entire selves. On an app based on snapshots, you can project any image you want. For most people, that means posting a 'highlight reel' – holiday photos or sexy, strategically-posed selfies (god bless the thirst trap). For others, however, a financial opportunity presents itself. By 2016, there was a dictionary-approved term for those who use big Insta followings to sell stuff: ‘influencer.’
In the early days of social media, you had online ‘friends.’ On MySpace, your friend count was a marker of your popularity on the site. MySpace was closely linked with the rise of mainstream emo, and its most in-demand members were scene queens like Audrey Kitching. These candy-coloured princesses often had friend counts in the six-figure range (for context, my personal total was about 400), which marked them out as MySpace royalty.
Facebook, which launched in 2004, not long after MySpace, also offered users the chance to connect by adding others as ‘friends’ – but as social media moved on, so too did its language. The visual blogging platform Tumblr launched in 2007. Along with Twitter, which came in 2006, it was one of the first sites to turn ‘friends’ into ‘followers’. As we entered a new decade, social media moved closer to the language of fandom.
By the time Instagram came in 2010, the follower model was well in place, used now by most sites and apps. With a focus on images, however, Instagram gave popular users – including fashion bloggers, many of whom began in the late 2000s by creating blogs on sites like Wordpress – the space to turn their loyal followers into captive customers by partnering with brands and ‘influencing’ them into buying stuff. Reality stars like Kim Kardashian used this as a jumping-off point for an entirely new type of fame, but even on a smaller level, influencing became so prevalent that the Instagram influencer is, these days, a massive stereotype.
Overwhelmingly, she is a slim white woman of means, with a page full of images of herself – on sunny beaches, in exclusive hotels, outside pretty buildings. Her home is plushly furnished, and we see her in cosy loungewear, as well as in highly stylised 'looks.' She is usually polished and put-together, wearing the latest trends, and many of her posts are adverts sponsored by brands. Because the influencer is the creative director behind the images they share, they communicate the brand’s message to their followers in their own language. For brands, who couldn’t buy that sort of trust from consumers, influencers’ relationships with their followers are dynamite.
Dr. Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, a reader in Marketing and Sustainable Business at the British School of Fashion, explains how the influencer came to be so powerful in the 2010s. “The advent of social media democratised fashion in several ways, including access to content creation and who gets to be a fashion critic. The early fashion bloggers provided that fashion-outsider-but-expert voice,” she tells me. “As their followers grew, so did their potential for influence, and as fashion is such a visual medium, people came to identify with the look and style of fashion bloggers, which gave them more influence with fashion brands who came to collaborate with them.”
The blogger style that Dr. Radclyffe-Thomas refers to is one that was prevalent around 2015, when influencing began to actually be named as such – leather jackets not worn but draped over shoulders (still not sure why), pristine make-up and sparkling trainers or boots, always shot from below. In 2019, however, the range of influencers has expanded so much that while that ‘look’ still prevails for some (both fashion influencers and others), ‘influencer’ itself is a more nebulous term. These days, there are beauty, sport, food, and even cleaning influencers. Within fashion, there are countless influencing niches: fast fashion, sustainability, designer-wear.
Flora Beverley is a fitness influencer and blogger, and Instagrams at @foodfitnessflora. She blogged on Tumblr as a teenager, but it was on Instagram that she really built her following. During her final year at university, things stepped up a gear: “I felt I couldn't keep up with email and potential brand collaborations," she tells me. "Since then I've considered it more of a business, but of course I still primarily do it for the enjoyment. I got a full-time job straight out of uni (in science communications), but after 14 months, I decided focussing on blogging would be a good idea, at least while it still exists!”
Beverley’s scepticism about Instagram's lifespan speaks to a general sense amongst influencers – who know that they may have to switch platforms if they are to survive – that as we reach the end of this decade, things in this brand new industry are still in flux.
Freddie Pearson is also an Instagram influencer, as well as a model. He views the last decade, which birthed the influencer, as a bit of a guinea pig period. “We are currently in the middle of a testing phase, and all influencers are lab rats in a worldwide marketing experiment by large corporate companies," he says. "As Orwellian as that sounds, unfortunately that is the reality of it all – and we are currently experiencing the peak of social media marketing.”
As well as becoming sick of the ‘influencer’ label (both Pearson and Beverley expressed their disdain for the word), it seems that some influencers are uncomfortable with the total marketisation of something that, in the past, was about connecting with other people. Pearson hopes that “in the future, people will realise that we have an educational platform as well as an opportunity to build monetary value. I want to try and be a driving force for change in young people, and to inspire people to see the other half of the story than what is shown on social media.”
The proliferation of the influencer is often cited as one of the negative effects of social media, especially when it comes to users’ self-esteem (the influencer lifestyle, with all its brand-sponsored travel and freebies, isn’t really an accessible one). The next decade will show whether this can be in any way redressed, or whether, like many other products and tools of late capitalism (including the anthropomorphisation of brands themselves), influencing will simply become a further melding of the self with sales and products.
Hopefully, via the industry’s new emphasis on ‘authenticity,’ noble aims like Pearson’s will break through. Dr. Radclyffe-Thomas suggests that we might even “see a rejection of full-blown influencer marketing for some brands, especially as they seek to embrace more sustainable or values-based business models. So the influencers might change, as we have already seen – public figures like David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have become somewhat unlikely fashion influencers.”
Influence has always existed, but the way it’s exerted has changed forever, thanks to social media. And as we enter a new decade with an ever-evolving internet, who's to say how it will look in the next ten years?