"We keep saying it's an industry but it's really more than that: it's a lifestyle, it's a way of life."
That is how Matt Kirschner, the executive vice president of Talent Resources, spoke of the rise of the social media influencer in recent years, with YouTubers and full-time Instagrammers slowly but surely becoming an essential tier in the pop culture eco-system, becoming just as influential—if not more so—than the Hollywood elite.
Their weddings (legitimate or not) are live-streamed and watched by tens of thousands of people paying $50 to serve as witnesses. Their feuds are obsessively reported on. Their photoshop fails and other snafus are deemed headline-worthy.
For the last 11 years, Kirschner and his company have helped connect brands and talent, coordinating social media campaigns, appearances and sponsorships, among other things.
In that decade, he's seen the industry completely change, thanks to the rise of a new crop of celebrities on social media platforms—especially Instagram and YouTube, which major companies actively seeking out partnerships with influencers over actors, musicians and athletes.
"11 years ago, brands wanted traditional talent," Kirschner explained of the shift. "They wanted someone who was mainstream media-worthy, someone that weeklys [magazines] or mainstream media covered…the shift is so dramatic from then to now. There's no real comparison."
It's official: there's a new A-List in town and it's here to stay.
While YouTube is the most profitable of the platforms, it's also the most time-consuming and demanding, with Kirschner saying, "you have to really truly commit. I respect YouTubers quite a bit…it can be very cumbersome in terms of the content and needs."
But the greater the needs, the greater the rewards, as top-level names on YouTube are commanding paydays to rival that of major movie stars.
According to CNBC, vlogger brothers Logan and Jake Paul made $14.5 million and $21.5 million, respectively, in 2018, alone, harnessing the power of their huge followings. (20 million subscribers for Logan at the time, 17.5 million for Jake).
PewDiePie, the most-followed individual on YouTube, has amassed over 100 million followers tuning in for his video game playing and comedic content. (He also brought in $15.5 million last year). Famous beauty vlogger Jeffree Star reportedly made $18 million in 2018 and started a successful makeup company.
At just nine years old, Ryan of Ryan's Toy Review raked in $22 million in 2018, simply by playing with and reviewing toys for his then 17.4 million followers.
But it's not just YouTubers with tens of millions of followers turning their online presence into full-time careers as micro-influencers (who have between 1,000 and 1 million followers) are also proving to have macro-impact on their smaller-but-more-passionate followings.
This is why you might see a wellness influencer with 50,000 followers promoting a top brand's product over an actress with 5 million fans on the same platform.
"Her engagement might be substantially higher than the person with 5 million followers. While they might have less of an overall reach, their engaged following is far higher so the people looking at her content are actively involved in," Kirschner explained. "They want to communicate with [them] and they want to understand what she's doing. A brand is more likely to work with someone of that nature because there's a level of authenticity you can't buy."
That authenticity—or the appearance of it—is what has turned influencers into the elite, the feeling that you are friends with them, following them through their day, experiencing their highs and lows with them the same way you would your friends from college…minus the whole actually knowing them IRL.
"The most important thing these people are doing is they're taking a risk, they're putting themselves out there," Kirschner said of the influencers. "These people are posting things with a purpose and a message behind it. They're trying to develop a brand, so they're going out and taking a risk and a chance and deviating from the norm and doing something different."
But how authentic can someone really be when they are also monetizing their very existence on the platform as their full-time job, when a follower can't sometimes tell if a post or story is genuine or an ad (though there are strict FTC guidelines to protect consumers, many influencers often don't clarify an ad or a paid sponsorship), and every follower can represent a dollar amount.
One anonymous micro-influencer with about 40,000 shared that they brought in $500 per post with a well-known athleisure brand for three Instagram Stories try-ons, one per month for three months, bringing her payday to $1,500 (plus the clothes they were sent to try on).
$500 to just try on clothes—something you've likely done in the last month or so for exactly zero dollars—may seem laughable, but Kirschner was quick to defend influencers from the claim that their lives are easy or that they take selfies for a living.
"I can safely tell you by far that it is a full-time job. The life of an influencer is only glamorous on the page you're seeing it on. Don't get me wrong, for the people making money, there's great financial benefits from it, travel, perks, luxury, all these things, it's wonderful. But the reality is it's a job. It's a job to come up with content that's interesting and that people want to engage with," he said. "It's job to come up with a caption that's witty or open and honest and engaging. It's a job to edit, to do the actual styling. All of this, it's a part of a thematic narrative that you're telling on your page. It's almost an insult when people think these influencers aren't really working. They think they're posting pictures just for the sake of posting them. No, they've created a persona, a character almost, to a certain extent."
With that well-crafted and thought out persona, however, comes a pressure to maintain your follower count, keep up with the latest trends in whichever social media sub-set you are part of, to have your phone on and be on 24/7.
Lately, burn-out seems to be the new trend among influencers, with many of them announcing planned social media breaks to reconnect to their non-filtered lives.
In February 2019, wellness influencer Lee Tilghman (aka @LeeFromAmerica) announced to her hundreds of thousands of followers that she was taken a long absence from Instagram, writing, "The gift of keeping to myself seems like the biggest act of self care right now."
Five months later, she returned to the platform, saying she would be using it "in different way."
Recently, The Cut partnered with Lee to promote Asics, the athletic apparel brand for an interview talking about her new Instagram persona post-hiatus while also promoting their latest collection. (In July, The Cut posted about Lee's return to Instagram, with the headline: "Smoothie Bowl Queen Gets Bowl Cut, Returns to Instagram.")
"I'm looking forward to being online in a more sustainable way that feels authentic to where I'm at in my life," Lee said in the interview, which also featured photos and video content.
And when everything is content, including your lack of content, every facet of your life is open for criticism for your followers, many of whom aren't afraid to say exactly how they feel in the comments.
"I think there is an inherent anxiety among these influencers because people are almost judging you, the person. It's not as if, for example, an actor or an actress, if their character does something on screen that people aren't a fan of, they might attack the character, most people are not going to attack the person behind the character," Kirschner theorized. "But on social media, it's you. There's nowhere else to go. There's no one else to talk to or talk about, it's you. So for a lot of people that can be unnerving and overwhelming and potentially frustrating and upsetting as well. It's a very psychologically taxing process."
But it's a process many have found worth the risk, as the industry seems to be ever-growing with no signs of slowing down, even as Instagram toys with the idea of hiding likes.
"I don't think there's a way back and I don't think I want to go back," Kirschner said. "Social media has given people a voice. Can someone break in now? Absolutely."
Like Andy Warhol once predicted, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes...especially if they're on Instagram.