Notes on the impending influencer relatability crisis

If influencers trade in a currency, it’s relatability. The scheme that makes influencers profitable and popular is one that demands their fans covet the very products they peddle. Like any advertising, the viewer needs to be able to envision themselves as a person who does deserve to wear (and can afford to wear) that Reformation top, those Rouje skirts, that Mejuri ring. The influencer saleswoman may peddle a lifestyle as they peddle items, but the key to success is keeping an audience infatuated with your life, and being #relatable is the way up. 

The online influencer market has reached a high point. Nobody can name a blogger turned celeb who wasn’t immediately forgotten by 2010. Influencers are clawing their way into the mainstream, but saturation is a long ways off: Emma Chamberlain, an 18 year old vlogger from California, is the first influencer who has achieved anything resembling crossover success, with a cover on Cosmopolitan. The marketing opportunity presented to influencers is especially lucrative thanks to the parasocial relationships formed on social media, but most of these golden gooses live in relative obscurity. The number of people who cared that a handful of influencers made their way to the 2019 MET Gala are the four influencers that did, and the dozen or so magazines that ran skeptical articles dismissing it as aberration rather than a revolution in fashion representation. And the MET Gala is still a niche event, far from the eye of the mainstream of those who don’t religiously watch E! and keep a stack of Vogue magazines on their coffee table to seem cultured.  The number of influencers your dad could name is non-existent, as his response will be “what is an influencer?” 

But the influencer market is a cottage industry that thrives on its many little obscurities. Being able to keep tight creator-fan relationships makes your favorite influencer seem like your dirty little secret, your cinq à sept you get to keep tucked away from the world. Hundreds upon hundreds of these small-time content creators fill up the annals of YouTube and Instagram. And when the influencer market is so saturated with GRWM and What I Eat in a Day posts from nubile teens who live in perpetual summer, keeping up is hard to do. Rapid shifts in internet culture beget a TikTok dance craze every three days. By the time they’re covered on your local news by dorky anchors, it’s totally cringe. High school vloggers head to college; college vloggers get adult jobs; mommy bloggers become mom bloggers. 

It’s not that influencers need to stand out, especially since sticking to aesthetic regimes can place you in a favorable spot in the recommended videos list of someone who does your schtick but better. No, it’s that after years of spilling your guts on camera, you need to remain relatable. You need to remain relatable in the face of $10K per post #ad deals, Amazon partnerships, and sponcon that gets you a 10% commission every time a teen reaches for their parents wallet to buy what you’re selling. When everyone wants an @, how do you keep it from poisoning your relationship with an audience that does not see you as an untouchable celebrity, but as someone who’s livin’ life like they are.

The bright young things on YouTubeGram are reaching the limit of their relatability. Emma Chamberlain’s breakthrough was a fluke. The darlings of the algorithm are starting to lose their footing and stagnate in ratings. Though users like bestdressed still have a growing audience, their edge can’t hold out much longer. There is a looming relatability crisis, and it’s starting to take its first victims.

Bestdressed, worse for wear

The popularity of YouTubers like bestdressed is centrally located in their ability to connect with their fans candidly and honestly. They identify the same struggles as their fans (making money as a high school student, boy trouble, living under lockdown), and the followers roll in. Ashley Rous, bestdressed’s civilian name, is a perfect case study in what happens when you don’t have anything in common with your fans anymore. The bestdressed brand is built upon sustainable fashion. Ashley’s earliest videos focus on thrifting and repurposing thrifted finds to save money and the environment (here are a few of such videos). Years later, she’s got 3 million YouTube subscribers. 

But then came the tidal wave. After creating a content strategy centered around sustainability and thrift, she partnered with Amazon for a single video showcasing office essentials, from a company famous for its part in the hyper-consumption that marks the digital age. 

Despite deleting the video after backlash, it seems as though no lesson was taken away. Recently, she cut an #ad for Urban Outfitters on Instagram. Fans commented that it seemed a strange move for someone so vocal about feminism and anti-capitalism to make space of a company that is racist, is racist again, is antisemitic, promotes anorexia, steals from artists, and sells clothing mass-produced through sweatshops

Small dramas like these have led to fans finding ways to hold their influencer accountable. The now-deleted Amazon video had hundreds of comments gently asking Ashley to explain the logic behind the partnership. No flame wars, no attacks, no harsh critiques, simply genuine questions from fans. Six months later, the video was deleted from her feed with not a single moment spent addressing the little controversies that arose.

This isn’t to say creators must bend to every whim their fans have, but even her most devoted fans have noticed her tendency to delete any critical comment on YouTube or Instagram. Complaints of over-moderation and “censorship” split her fan subreddit, causing users to flock to a second one, with a greater mix of praise and critique. 

In the beginning of May, a handful of callout videos started emerging. Videos like “WHY BESTDRESSED IS PROBLEMATIC *not clickbait*”, “the problem with ashley/bestdressed (pt 1) 🧚💕”, and “ASHLEY/BESTDRESSED ~nOT LIke OtheR GirLs~ (or influencers or youtubers)” aren’t meant to strictly attack, but are meant to hold Ashley accountable. She is not the first influencer to have #tea videos about her, Justine Biticon, Emma Chamberlain, Haley Pham, and James Charles can count themselves among the esteemed few. Entire channels are devoted to videos of the genre. Other videos like “RESPONSE: bestdressed feminist theory”, “the bestdressed situation: its reflection on social media + thoughts”, and “is ashley aka bestdressed problematic??” slowly dissect the arguments or assertions they deem “problematic”, and respond with more serious critiques.

Disgruntled fans seeking accountability upload mirrors of deleted videos, like this re-posted version of Ashley’s Amazon collaboration: “OFFICE LOOKBOOK (DELETED Bestdressed Amazon Sponsorship Video)”. Whether this is done out of spite, or meant to hold a silent influencer accountable, well, that’s up for interpretation. 

But beyond accountability, there are places where ex-fans flock to rant about their failed parasocial relationships. Websites like Guru Gossiper are home to hundreds upon hundreds of threads devoted to picking apart influencers. Threads are filled with petty qualms, speculations into the personal lives of vloggers, with a smattering of legitimate critique. Sister sites like Pretty Ugly Little Liar, Lolcow, Get Off My Internets, and BlogSnark are full of amateur detectives, critics, armchair psychologists, and speculators preempting the downfall of the influencer du jour. As Amelia Tait for Vice notes, these “forums can quickly descend into cruelty.”

Even outside of dedicated gossip sites, rumor travels fast. As callout videos surface, big name fans are asked for their opinions–does this shake their faith? An account dedicated to posting links to shops to buy clothes worn by Ashley weighed in: they’re also feeling the malaise. Perhaps peer pressure, perhaps independent conclusion, but when word of criticism circulates a small fan community, it circles quickly. 

Small fan communities define the influencer economy. That fundamentally separates them from big named actors or models who have studio and agency backing, who can hire expensive PR doctors to scrub social media of rumor and scold. Influencers, for the most part, are their PR, management, scheduler, producer, and more. They are responsible for every aspect of their presence, and cannot shift liability among parties. They are naked in that regard, and a lack of transparency makes the little armor they have more fragile. Netizens are voracious, even when it comes to their faves.

That distinction—the independence of the influencer—can make a lack of accountability hurt in a way that wouldn’t even scratch a mainstream celebrity. “Cancelled” celebs still rake in the dough, they are allowed to thrive and make money, sometimes making more from the outrage. But influencers are nothing without subscribers and followers. If no one wants to click an affiliate link, your revenue dries up. So as quickly as influencers rise, they can fall.

Since writing this article, the country has erupted into protest. Thousands upon thousands have flooded the streets, despite a global pandemic, to make their outrage known. For some influencers, the fight against police brutality and entrenched racism is the perfect backdrop to an Instagram post. For other influencers, the hollowed out, smashed windows of a T-Mobile are stained glass, and they are the Madonna adorning it. To secure their brand, influencers will debase the cause

But with influencers flooding feeds with singular black squares, denouncing their privilege in ritual, reposting #8CantWait when #8toAbolition exists, the strikes against them rack up. Their young audiences can see through the performance. They want to see purses emptied, bail funds flooded, and policymakers publicly humiliated. The audience is taking note, and soon they may defect in droves. 

The influencer industry is duty-bound to promote conspicuous consumption. If you want to be like me—beautiful, loved by all, high on life—then you must buy. They package their identity as part of the product. But when that identity, the very being being, is called into question, who is going to want to shell out money for a product to become someone they can no longer stand?

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