In a recent conversation among my circle, someone asked that question. As a publishing professional, I will share my insights.
Whenever “influencer” is mentioned, I usually see eyerolls. Influencers are perceived as self-absorbed douchebags who need real jobs. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. For every fool on social media, I can show a person on social media who keeps it classy. Just like anything else in life, respect is earned. It is possible to be a respectable influencer.
So what’s the deal with influencers? Join me as I think out loud and unpack the concept. Though “influencer” only recently entered the English lexicon, the concept isn’t new. The first documented influencer collaboration occured in 1760 when Josiah Wedgwood created a tea set for the wife of King George III, and he went on to market his products as having “royal approval.” Nothing has changed much. When Kate Middleton wears something, the item sells out as quickly as 30 minutes.
In the 1930s, socialites served as influencers. Companies would market themselves to well-known socialites to get that label of luxury. Celebrities endorsements are familiar to all of us. Then, there’s been a gradual shift to seeking endorsements and collaborations from people like us with a platform, aka influencers. Influencers are a great tool for small companies or individuals, and companies with a niche customer-base.
For starters, let’s replace “influencer” with “independent journalist”? Think of them as a solopreneur or maybe hobbyist who is starting her own solo media company that specializes in a topic.
Instead of choosing to work as a beauty editor for a well-known magazine like Cosmopolitan or sports reporter for a local newspaper, a person chooses to pursue something they’re interested in and connect with others in the community. Today, smartphones, as the Swiss-army knife of tech, allows anyone to pursue their interests. When the person builds enough of a platform, they can start monetizing or write a book. Companies give them free products to review and it’s no different from cosmetics companies pitching their newest product to the beauty editors of a women’s magazine.
How would your perception change if influencers acted like independent journalists rather than reality-TV star wannabes or know-it-alls?
In the pre-internet days, only a few people such as Martha Stewart or Oprah could create a lifestyle empire. There was a time when talk shows served as the popular watering hole for news, ideas, and entertainment in the same way we look at blogs or social media today. There was a time when many others followed Oprah’s talk show format such as Leeza, Jenny Jones, Phil Donahue, Ricki Lake. (Who’s old enough to remember them?)
Each talk show host was known for their personality. Whether we like to admit it or not, humans are emotional creatures who crave connection. We are drawn to certain personalities and respond emotionally to certain personalities. It’s our social nature. Some talk show hosts like Leeza had a positive, thoughtful style while others like Jenny Jones had a sensationalistic and provocative approach. They do it because they are trying to attract a certain type of audience.
During my teens, I started seeing the world change with the introduction of the internet and AOL. If you want to test someone’s true character, switch out their internet connection with dial-up connection circa 1995; then, watch what happens. I still remember that dialing sound and “You Got Mail!” Seventeen magazine started having online articles, chat boards, and chat rooms. There was a teen writers group where we’d talk about writing, critiquing, and chat rooms had poetry sharing. Then, there was a woman who started a email-newsletter called, “Anne’s Cosmetics Report” and she’d write up short pieces about new products and her writing was hilarious. Those were the earliest memories I had about the primitive internet. Geocities or angelfire websites anyone?
If you are a fiction author (like me) or an entrepreneur who specializes in nude lipsticks, wouldn’t you love to be featured on Oprah (that is if her show was still airing)? That’s a publicity dream. The reality is that it can be difficult to compete with other well-known authors or international beauty brands. Instead of Oprah or a widely-circulated media, influencers are a more approachable alternative if you are unknown or have a niche customer-base.
Anyone today can be an influencer. You don’t have to be a recent journalism grad looking to launch a career. Some people blog as a hobby. One of my high school classmates works in the 9–to-5 corporate world but loves experimenting with makeup and blogs for fun. I blog because it’s fun and a great way to promote my writing, and meet others who love to talk about books and ideas. I’m a fiction writer and editor.
On the flip side, narcissists and know-it-alls are also attracted to pursuing influencer roles. Narcissists love attention. The characteristics of a narcissist is: self-centeredness, attention-craving, entitlement, arrogance with grandiose and delusional view of themselves, and poor boundaries. Yet, narcissists can be very charming and create great first impressions. Narcissists can appear confident, charismatic, and know how to gather attention.
Knowing how to appear well in the public spotlight is a skill. That is a skillset and comes with experience and media training. Charisma is not a bad thing by itself. It helps in launching a blog, new ideas, or gathering a crowd. Not all charismatic people are necessarily narcissists. Charisma can be a great cover up for character flows. In the beginning, it’s hard to tell between a narcissist or a knowledgeable, outgoing person.
Narcissists who start a social media channel tend do well because they know how to get a party started, and appear likeable. It is important to be likeable and able to connect with others if you are interacting with the public. There is nothing wrong with desiring recognition or attention. That makes us normal humans. There’s no need to feel guilty about desiring success. When you are appearing in public, it’s ok to rehearse and think about how you’ll present yourself. Not everyone on the spotlight is necessarily a narcissist. Some people love being online and constantly on social media because they are extroverts. Extroverts just want to see what’s going on and love action. Knowing how to appear well in the public spotlight is a valuable skill.
However, narcissists are obsessed with themselves and spend their entire time thinking about how they’ll appear online. They spend a significant amount of time perfecting their image and keeping up appearances. They will say what they want you to hear. Getting attention is their “high.” They’ll fake themselves to any length to get the spotlight. In their eyes, they are the prima donna of the world’s stage, and the rest of us are casting characters or crew members whose only purpose is to make them look good or direct attention to them.
Boundaries are a narcissist’s achilles heel. I feel that in order to be a respectable influencer it’s important to honor boundaries and integrity. To gain credibility and respect, influencers should act like reporters not experts unless of course they have the actual qualifications.
For instance, if I’m blogging about psychology, I shouldn’t authoritatively give advice. I’m not licensed or trained. I read a lot and I could cite credible sources, interview experts, and make it clear that my posts are opinions. I’m not a therapist but a fiction writer (and publishing professional during the 9-to-5 hours) who studies psychology to create memorable characters.
Boundaries and Narcissism. Narcissists do not understand of boundariesa either because of their grandiose self-delusions; or, they willingly cross boundaries, because they feel entitled to undeserved attention and praises. The rules, decorum, and ethics don’t apply to them. Being interested in fitness and having a passion for health isn’t enough to qualify someone to be a personal trainer. That is why you’ll see narcissists acting like experts.
Projection. Another example of poor boundaries is projection. I’ve seen this with Rachael Hollis and Mark Driscoll. Both are problematic in their own ways but gathered plenty of attention. Both wrote about marriage and conduct marriage seminars, talks, and written about the topic. I do not recommend either of their books. One common trait is that they project themselves on others. They both assume that their personal experience is universal and what works for them should work for everyone else. This is a common pattern you will see among narcissistic influencers. There will be plenty of personal experiences and anecdotal evidence presented as facts.
Projection is common among narcissists because they cannot understand that people are different or have different preferences. Tell a young child that you do not like chocolate. The child is perplexed and responds, “But chocolate is yummy!” The child has no concept that just because he likes chocolate that does not mean that everyone does. Therefore, that child cannot even understand how it is possible for someone to hate chocolate. Narcissists operate with the same mindset.
Example, Mark Driscoll does not seem to understand that there are people who do not want a marriage with traditional gender roles and that people can have strong, successful, happy marriages without his prescribed formula. Rachael Hollis is unable to understand privilege and how her advice does not apply to certain people who aren’t having the same life situation as herself. Everyone else is an extension of themselves. Besides the obvious that neither are qualified, when they described their marriages in their books, I was horrified. Both these individuals need professional help themselves. They both have issues.
Lacking introspection and self-evaluation. Another form of projection is blaming the world or pointing out flaws in the culture instead of truly evaluating themselves. That is why you’ll see influencers trying to fix others with that self-righteous attitude. Rachel Hollis tends to blame others for their negativity and not choosing joy or choosing a good marriage with self-righteousness instead of examining her own privilege or looking into her own dysfunctional marriage. Likewise, Mark Driscoll has his own personal issues with sexuality and identity as a man, so he blames feminism and secular world. Narcissists will project themselves, judge others, and seem oblivious to their own hypocrisy. It’s always easier to talk about saving the world and fixing others than looking in the mirror.
It is true that life is frustrating and we all feel emotionally worn out by this fucked up world. Narcissists exploit that to get our attention. So we think they understand us and telling it candidly, but is that true? Pay close attention and you’ll notice that they make vague statements with high emotionalism, so that different listeners can fill in the blanks with their own interpretations.
Social media allows anyone to step in. However, there are limitations. When it comes to journalistic integrity, it seems to be clearer with traditional platforms. (Could be because I’m much more familiar with it and maybe my age?) For example, the line between editorial and product endorsement is sometimes blurred. That is why in 2014, FTC introduced laws about disclosures where bloggers have to distinguish between editorial and advertising, and if they have a relationship with a company. The laws for journalists, businesses, copyrights and fair use applies to influencers. The real question is: how are they enforced?
Social media still seems like the Wild West of the internet. Where is accountability other than us calling them out and lawsuits? Since there’s an influx of influencers out there, we need to be more demanding and discerning consumers. That can be tough. However, the good thing is that people speak out their minds and call out BS quicker than before.
Accountability is the bane of every narcissist’s existence.That is why you’ll see narcissists criticize everyone else but lose their shit when someone questions them. Narcissists will make a fool out of themselves. That is when we hear about influencers that we haven’t heard of before and what we focus on when we think of the negative influencer reputation. In a narcissist’s paradise, they can do anything they want without consequences only because they are above the rules, decorum, and even consequences. The rules apply to everyone else but themselves. I can see it when the term “cancel culture” originated. That is a narcissist not liking being called out and thinks only he’s allowed to criticize.
Narcissists avoid accountability such as seeking self-employment but do not realize that they are not free from the natural consequences such as losing book sales. Even so, they’ll turn into a whiny bitch who blames the media and cancel culture instead of their own shitty behavior that sank their own ship.
Take a talk show host from the 90s. She usually has producers who hold her accountable. A beauty editor of a magazine has a boss to hold her accountable. Likewise, in my job, I have a manager who oversees the social media posts, blogs, and copy that I write for the company. But who is there to oversee my personal blog here? No one but you, my readers. As I type, I feel self-conscious hoping that no one catches a typo or sentence error.
But what accountability do influencers have other than the natural consequences of being called out by readers, losing collaborations, loss in book sales, and making an ass out of themselves online?
There are blogger laws about affiliates, privacy, disclosure, and so on. Again, some people will post, “I’m not a doctor, see a doctor for medical issues” or the alike but then continue to authoritatively give advice. That line, usually in a inconspicuous place with tiny print, is just enough to avoid a lawsuit. Yet, the influencer continues that authoritative, self-righteous tone and keeps attracting followers. Take Mark Driscoll, for example, who’s more of a celebrity pastor than influencer but could technically be considered one or Jeffree Star, a beauty influencer. Despite their deplorable behavior, they still have people following them. That feeds their egos and assumption that they can do what they want without consequences,
It comes down to media literacy. I wish secondary schools and universities would spend as much time with teaching media literacy as much as they value teaching Charles Dickens or other dead white guys books of the literature canon. There is so much information online that as readers we become overwhelmed. When we’re overwhelmed, it’s easy to lax on our critical thinking. Or sometimes desperate people looking for answers find the deceptive promises from influencers tempting.
I do not read health blogs or follow wellness influencers unless they are qualified. Example, there is a difference between a Registered Dietician and nutritionist. I’d rather read Abby Langer’s blog and social media over those unqualified influencers. According to a study, 90% of all information given by influencers about weight loss and dieting are wrong. A study by a team at University of Glasgow found that just one out of nine leading UK bloggers making weight management claims actually provided accurate and trustworthy information. If you have an eating disorder, I highly recommend not looking online for information unless you know one or two credible. Please see a Registered Dietician with a good reputation.
Some say, “Everyone’s body is different…”
Umm, are you then of a different species than homo sapiens? Unless you are a space alien, you are human like everyone else and all our bodies function alike. If you have health conditions there are different approaches to be taken so you’ll need to see a doctor.
Why do we pay attention to assholes or negative conflict aka drama? Let’s admit it, drama gets our attention and can be entertaining when bored. Regardless of our intentions, why do we gravitate towards negative conflict? I’m thinking of cocky individuals like Suze Orman or Dave Ramsey. Arrogance gets interpreted as confidence. A condescending tone tends to get interpreted as honest and tell-it-as-it-is. And people tend to blindly be enamoured by personalities and influencers become personality cults when they get well-known. This saddens me. As society, are we a sick bunch with sadomasochistic tendencies? So why do we accept condescension? Is it not possible to be honest yet respectful and kind? Why is kindness seen as a weakness? What the fuck is wrong with us?
Identifying Toxic Behaviors. I didn’t understand narcissism or poor boundaries until later in life. I was groomed by a dysfunctional family that normalized toxic behaviors. Looking back, I put with too much crap that I should not have. When I was much younger, I didn’t understand narcissistic and codependent dynamics. I didn’t understand narcissists and why some people seem to dumbly follow them or kiss their asses? I’m starting to get it. But then, what do I do? I’m still learning that. I can’t speak for others but I wonder if there are other sources where toxic behaviors are normalized such as growing up in a cult-like religion, patriarchy through traditional families, and others.
When it comes to mass communication sources, nothing is new under the sun. Formats may change. But the idea is still the same. With influencers, if the roles were understood as independent journalists, it works better for everyone. I have a few questions that I’d love to pose:
- Are there blogger or influencer organizations where influencers can network and learn best practices and journalistic ethics?
- What about media literacy programs in schools, libraries, or consumer advocacy groups?
- What about legislation, laws, lawsuits? I’m a proud supporter of the first amendment. Freedom of speech and freedom of press does not mean anything goes without consequences. Libel, plagiarism, harassment, and threatening someone is illegal and not protected by free speech. Likewise, there should be consequences or laws for false advertising or posing as a doctor when you’re clearly not.
And as consumers, we should be expecting better by not blindly trusting anyone online. It’s important to take the time to check their credentials and question everything. Living in a society where there’s freedom of the press and freedom of speech is complicated, but it sure beats the alternative.
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Indu Guzman is a book marketer and publicist living in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Occasionally, she edits literary fiction as well. Before settling down in the Boston suburbs, she lived in 5 countries (India, Dubai U.A.E, U.S.A, Argentina, Singapore) and visited many others. Experiencing the larger world helped Indu see the universal themes among the human experience. In other words, we all have much more in common than differences. She explores third-culture kid experience, family dynamics, trauma and loss through her fiction. She can be found at the-penlife.com