Mon, 26 Aug 2019

When Love Island returned to screens in the UK for a fifth season on June 1, alongside the usual discussion of who was going to couple up with whom - which is, let's face it, what makes the show tick - the employment status of islander Molly-May Hague prompted a bit of a stir on social media.

Within her introduction video and during her date with boxer Tommy Fury, Hague described her job as a "social influencer" who "does social media ... Instagram". Immediately, viewers took to Twitter to discuss her job role, with many claiming that a "social influencer" was simply a more acceptable way of saying she was unemployed. Others defended her "influencer" profession as a legitimate form of work.

Given that the show has an estimated audience of 13.3m on ITV2, it's not a bad platform for someone with that job description. But this debate around Molly-Mae's job shows how we need to think about the growing trend of social influencers and whether what they do constitutes a new and emerging form of 21st century work.

2019: year of the influencer?

Millennials (people born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s) do not respond to traditional media advertisements. Instead, they tend to use social media to communicate how they feel about products and businesses. So in order for businesses to capitalise on these online conversations, an entirely new approach to advertising is needed. "Influencer marketing" is emerging as one of the main solutions to this need.

The main premise of influencer marketing is that brands identify and pay social media celebrities - individuals with a large enough fan base to interest advertisers - to advertise products to their personal social media following. The idea is that consumers trust these "influencers" almost as friends and are more likely to have a positive reaction to a brand or product recommended by someone they trust in this way.

So, for example, the dress Kylie Jenner wore for her 21st birthday resulted in a spike triggered by her 137m Instagram followers - internet searches for "pink dress" reportedly increased by 107% in the 48 hours after she posted her picture.

Then there is her half-sister, Kim Kardashian. Awarded the first ever CFDA Influencer Award in 2018, Kim reportedly charges between US$300,000-$500,000 per single Instagram post. For longer-term collaborations with a brand, deals can reach into the many millions of dollars.

In a 2018 article, AdWeek magazine suggested that the influencer market would be worth over US$10 billion by the end of 2019. Within the UK alone, the allocation of marketers' budgets put aside for influencer marketing campaigns has nearly doubled to 40% in 2019.

But is it a job?

It's no surprise, then, that many are desperate to start a career in the influencer industry. Alongside traditional celebrities, social media has also enabled ordinary users to build their own fan base of followers and earn a living by collaborating with brands and creating content on social media.

But this new and emerging form of work brings new challenges and problems. Former Love Island Australia star Cassidy McGill recently used an Instagram story to outline some of the pressures of her social media career. The recent backlash directed at Molly-Mae shows the continued stigma faced by influencers and the dismissal of the job, as McGill notes, as simply getting "paid a shitload to do fuck all".

Through my own research working with bloggers and influencers in the travel sphere, it appears bloggers and influencers actually invest a large variety of online and offline work in order to successfully become an influencer.

Individuals typically work long hours building relationships and continually engaging with their fan base, alongside working to create and curate content for brands. This typically results in the transformation of spaces of leisure such as holidays or meal times into spaces of work, as influencers feel they have to relentlessly share their life with their audience.

As a result, influencers have to deal with the pressure of constantly being available and accountable to their followers and wider audience. Offline, this work spills over into creating and curating a desirable image of themselves, which can involve both unrelenting physical and emotional management.

The true realities of this form of work and its resulting pressures on health and well-being are central issues which prompted ITV to revise the aftercare for Love Island contestants to be more comprehensive and include bespoke social media training. This revision followed public outcry after the tragic passing of former Love Island contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis who both died by suicide.

Read more: Jeremy Kyle Show: a psychologist explains the risks in reality TV and how aftercare should be done

In a recent survey, one in five British 11- to 16-year-olds said they wanted to be a social media influencer when they grew up. This result, alongside the sheer value and scale of the industry, suggests that the influencer is here to stay. It's high time we recognised the amount of work that successful influencers invest in the role and acknowledged those working in this intense and precarious world.

Author: Nina Willment - PhD Candidate, Royal Holloway The Conversation

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