The word influencer has a negative connotation these days. Influencers are the ones who duped a bunch of rich millennials into attending the disastrous Fyre Festival. Influencers are the ones who don’t seem to go anywhere or do anything that hasn’t been endorsed, hashtagged, and pre-staged. And, depending on who you ask, they’re also singlehandedly responsible for ruining fashion. “Before the rise of the internet and proliferation of social media, the bar of entry into the fashion world was much higher,” writes Highsnobiety’s Aleks Eror. I think the bar was higher for everything.
Before social media, people in my generation still aspired to have legitimate careers. I know what you’re thinking—being an instaceleb is a career. And you’re right—if we’re defining a career as something that pays money, and we’re not tacking on any other expectations. The most popular Instagrammers can net anywhere from $6,000-$20,000 per post. Yes, per post. I grew up in an era where the only famous people were actors, singers, and athletes who had superhuman talents and attracted legions of dedicated fans because of it. But this new type of fame, which is controlled by an app and dependent on the strength of your looks and curating skills, is more attainable. Not anyone can get 10 G’s for a selfie. But this type of fame is essentially something that anyone can have.
When I joined Instagram, I was there for the same reasons everyone else was. I didn’t see it as a business opportunity. I viewed it as a visual platform for self-expression and yet another way to keep in touch with friends, family, and acquaintances. As the younger set started to ditch Facebook, I knew it was a place I needed to be. Once I launched my fashion blog in 2014, I quickly saw just how influential the platform really was. Even with just a thousand followers to my name, I was getting offered free clothing and collaboration opportunities. At one point, I had a closet backlogged with “collaboration” gear. Sweaters, jeans, hats, bags, you name it. My Instagram, and my blog, became a billboard for these companies. I’m not gonna lie—getting free clothes is cool. But just how authentic and fulfilling is that self-expression when every post and paragraph is being dictated by other people?
This year, I’ve found myself face-to-face with this problem again. I’ve successfully transitioned my fashion blog into a personal essay collection, where I explore universal issues through my personal lens. I’ve embraced the long form blog post, and I’ve used my photoshoots to tell more complex stories. When I look at my work, I think it’s clear that I’m no longer a fashion blogger. ‘Dear MTA, What The F*ck’ literally has nothing to do with fashion, unless the sweat from non-air conditioned trains counts as an accessory. Yet still, because I have an Instagram following that sits just under 7,000 followers, I continue to field offers.
I’m not tooting my own horn. None of them are monetary. It’s all free merchandise, or offers to join influencer networks, or offers to help streamline my Instagram to make it more desirable (read: generic) to advertisers. I even gave in last month, with a 2-post commitment for Frank + Oak—mainly for the free t-shirts and linen shorts. But even those two posts made me feel like a used car salesman. And it reminded me of why I have a voice, and why I’m so particular about how I use it.
I have nothing against influencers. I don’t find their societal contribution to be particularly noble, impactful, or useful. But I respect them for finding and maximizing income opportunities in this new space. It’s a bold, emerging form of entrepreneurship. But for me, if I have 7,000 people paying attention to what I’m saying, I want to make it count.
This is a feeling I grapple with often, and it’s a topic I explored in detail back in January. As a writer, I have no choice but to be a digital entrepreneur if I want to find an audience. I need that audience in place before I find an agent and/or score a deal with a publisher. I need that audience to read my blog. If you’re reading this, know that I need you.
But that being said, I am not an influencer. Perhaps some of the things I write and share influence other people, either positively or negatively. But I hope that influence comes from the words I write and not the image I’ve presented. When I think about what’s going on in the world: the white supremacist madness in Charlottesville, the looming threat of war with North Korea, the continued lack of diversity in Silicon Valley board rooms—I can’t possibly say yes to a free t-shirt promotion when I should be reading about, writing about, and talking about those things.
To be an influencer is to assume that your life is interesting enough to serve as entertainment for other people. To be an influencer is to assume that you can only use your platform to sell stuff and generate income. To be an influencer is to get this unnatural high from being followed and praised by complete strangers. It serves this undying need to sit at the popular table in the cafeteria. When I open Instagram, or any other social media app for that matter, I don’t feel those things.
I feel a need to engage with people about what’s important. I want to have a conversation. I don’t want to pretend that this photo of me pretending to be caught in a candid moment wearing @thisbrand while dining @thisrestaurant is more important than what’s happening across the country or around the world. Being an influencer seems like a powerful way to use your voice. But the bigger that voice gets, the less of it you get to use.
I’ve found it impossible to say nothing about Charlottesville. And I try my best to avoid being too political on my social media accounts (and this blog). I usually opt for more artistic ways to express my thoughts and feelings vs. direct commentary. But now, I find myself moved to write even more important things. Do more important things.
How can you have this platform, with anywhere from 30K-1 million people following your every move, and stay silent about what’s happening in your own country? Your #ootd, your brunch, and your vacation are more important than the freedoms of your followers? I get escapism—that the influencers and the followers alike are looking for a distraction from the bleakness of reality. But this isn’t even good escapism. Give me a scripted series with superior acting, directing, and production—not a bunch of filtered photos that look exactly the same. It’s not escapism—it’s turning a blind eye. It’s cloaking yourself in privilege because you’re not directly affected by what’s going on.
I can’t, in good faith, consider myself part of this group of people.
I’m a writer. And my endgame is creating books that live longer than any app or influencer account. That has always been the endgame, and it always will be. All this influencer stuff is just a distraction from my goals.
I am a writer. I am a social media manager. I am an editor. I am a husband, son, and friend. I am an avid music lover and reader and movie watcher. I’m a holder of strong opinions. I am so many things.
But I am not an influencer.