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This is what it’s like to study social media influencers for a living

As a former journalist, Emily Hund found herself fascinated by the rise of social media influencers. Now she spends her days studying them at UPenn.

This is what it’s like to study social media influencers for a living
[Photo: bunditinay/iStock; Avector/iStock]

Emily Hund entered the world of magazines 12 years ago, as they started shedding their glossy veneer. “The industry was changing so rapidly,” Hund says. “I remember walking into the office one day and it being half empty because there had been so many layoffs. And [I just thought], Oh my god, what is happening?”

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Around the time Hund was an unpaid intern at Harper’s Bazaar, the magazine asked teenage fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson—then just 13 years old—to write a column. That’s when Hund was struck by the sway of influencers and bloggers. “I just thought to myself, this whole thing—the simultaneous dismantling of the magazine industry as we know it and uprising of bloggers—is way bigger than I can even grasp,” Hund says. “And this is totally changing how we get information and who provides it.”

It was a desire to understand that shift that eventually led Hund to graduate school. “I was dogged by the idea that this was not just a matter of my individual work situation not going the way I thought it was going to,” she says. Now, Hund is a research fellow at the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies social media influencers, and she’s also working on a book proposal.

As Hund applied for PhD programs, she positioned her area of interest as more of a labor issue that intersected with the evolution of media. “All these people [were] working for free, or trying to freelance, or trying to self-brand and make money off their brands—turning to social media to make a name for [themselves] and basically turn [themselves] into a media company,” she says. “What did that mean for work and labor and what it meant to be a worker? And what did it mean for the media and information environment at large that increasingly it was these types of people providing the information that people were seeing?”

Hund’s qualitative approach to her research isn’t a stretch from the work she did in her former life as a journalist. She does in-depth interviews with both influencers and regular users, along with talking to brands and executives and even attending industry events. “A part of it is my journalistic training and professional history,” she says. “I genuinely enjoy learning about people and talking to people and trying to make connections in our social world. I think that genuine interest is really what drives my work.”

To people in the beauty and fashion industries, the effects of the influencer economy are impossible to ignore. But even people who don’t religiously follow bloggers are touched by their influence, especially as Instagram becomes increasingly shoppable. In the fashion world, for example, brands take cues from what they see influencers posting and responding to. “That immediately feeds back into the decisions they make about design and marketing their products,” Hund says. “So that’s having a very direct effect on the clothes we wear and how they’re sold to us.” Influencers also frequently team up with fashion and beauty brands to release collaborations and capsule collections.

Given their footprint, it follows that for many women, being an influencer feels like a safety net or side hustle—a way to monetize their life in pursuit of financial security. (The breadth of influencers—from nano to mega—also lowers the barrier to entry.) “It’s gotten to the point where even if you work in HR or drive for Uber, there’s still this sense in the world that becoming some sort of influencer online is always an option,” Hund says. “I think it circles back to this sense of precarity that a lot of people feel around their jobs.”

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That’s particularly true for parents seeking flexibility and, perhaps, even creative fulfillment. For many of the women Hund has heard from, being an influencer feels like the only way to preserve work-life balance or become mothers. “I’ve heard from a lot of women who are mothers or want to be mothers in the near future who’ve told me, ‘This is the way I can be the kind of parent I want to be,'” she says. “We should be paying more attention to how working parents are [finding] workarounds to make life work for them.”

But Hund has found there’s more to this phenomenon than the dynamics of labor. Hund’s dissertation dug into the influencer industry—what she describes as the “ecosystem that has grown around the influencer,” from marketers to brands to social media platforms. “They’ve sort of made the rules for what it means to be influential online and, by extension, what it looks like to be successful online,” she says. Some of Hund’s more recent research hinges on the quandary of being authentic on social media. A paper she published with a colleague at Cornell studied what Hund describes as “the feminine nature of [Instagram]” and the “authenticity bind” that female users, in particular, are subject to. “They have to continually navigate these imagined constraints between portraying themselves as real enough but not being too real,” she says.

As Hund notes, the influencer effect is inescapable and industry-agnostic. The internet makes influencers of people who don’t aspire to influence, or puts pressure on them to fashion themselves as influencers in their own right, regardless of vocation. Everyone is subject to the pressures of the influencer economy, Hund says—even a researcher studying those very topics. “Academia is not exempt from the influencer logic,” she says. “You still feel that pressure to self-brand and present yourself online in particular ways. I don’t think any creative worker is exempt from that.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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