I’m picking up the pieces of what’s left of my fledgling career as an influencer.
Writing the original post detailing how I grew to 40k followers on Instagram was cathartic. I felt vindicated.
By the next morning, the excitement gave way to more self doubt than I could have expected. Sharing the truth, after all, was a form of social suicide. I’d not only lose my supposed community, but my friends and family would wonder how I got into this mess in the first place. Was I really so vain?
I needed to come clean, even if it meant alienating myself on both sides. This was me laid bare.
I agonized over every word on my Instagram post before finally hitting Share. Then, for the first time in over a year, I put my phone down and walked away.
No more comment pods, no more drop groups, no more reciprocating likes.
My son’s nine month doctor’s visit was a welcome distraction. In the waiting room, when I couldn’t wait any longer, I tapped the Instagram icon on my phone and gasped. It had been close to two hours and my post hadn’t reached 100 likes.
But then I noticed something else: real comments were coming in from people who weren’t expecting anything from me in return. Real, genuine engagement.
Words like trust, honesty, passion, and creativity came up again and again. 23 people direct messaged me to talk more about what I had written, where they stand, and the changes they’d like to make this year. My own family and friends reached out to say that they admired my candor and my honesty (one even called me a bad ass — a first for this nice Jewish girl from upstate New York).
CHANGING MY PERSPECTIVE
Relief replaced doubt. I finally figured out that 10 real comments were worth so much more than 100 fake ones. I’d made the right choice to open pandora’s box, to let some light into the dark places where I’d been lurking. In doing so, I also lit a spark under others in my community to assess their own behavior.
We were liars, after all. We were lying to brands, to our families, our friends, and to ourselves. I believed I had influence. I believed I deserved the paycheck, the free products, the partnerships. I was lying to myself.
THE NUMBERS DO LIE
The truth is I had way less influence than I thought I had. The numbers do lie. The truth is, a lot of influencers have a lot less influence than it seems. But it’s layers upon layers. This week, another giveaway account was outed for adding fake sponsor accounts to their roster as bait to get smaller accounts to pay into the giveaway. The sponsors had no idea they were added to the giveaway, they’d never agreed to it, and did not intend to post or promote the product. If it’s not an influencer falsely representing their influence, it’s a giveaway group falsely representing their sponsors and taking advantage of other influencers. There is a lot of money, product, and followers being exchanged, and it’s incredibly difficult to know what’s real. I’d venture to say that very little of it is real.
The ones with real influence are the celebrities, the reality TV stars, public figures, or honest-to-goodness bloggers who have spent years growing their following organically. Everyone else is doing a very convincing job pretending.
Instagram is tainted for me now. Gaming the system, getting hundreds of likes, thousands of followers was like a drug. I was playing and beating the system. When brands reached out to collaborate, I felt popular, desired, and important.
Psychologists have been researching the effects of social media for years. There are academic studies describing how dopamine is released in the brain every time we get a like on a photo we’ve posted, and yes, getting that like number up through growth hacking releases that same hormone. Was I addicted to Instagram? Maybe that explains how I managed to put my own ethics aside, and why others are unwilling to admit the error in their ways.
I kept thinking once I hit a certain number of followers, I’d be happy. But that number kept growing. Greed set in. It was never enough. So I found new ways to game the system and climb even higher.
AN ETHICAL DILEMMA
I would never pad my resume with fake experience to get a job, but I was doing that exact thing to get gigs, product, and payment as an influencer. How could I do that? I never thought of myself as someone who followed the herd. But there I was, another sheep following behind other sheep all the way to the slaughterhouse. Until one day, I pulled off my sponsored sunglasses and took a good look around.
While I realize it’s not their fault for leading the herd, I now look at the accounts I admired with disdain. I wanted their lives, their vacations, their sunsets. Now that the veil is lifted, I realize it’s all smoke and mirrors with better sunset presets.
The line between real influence and fake influence is incredibly blurred, and many in my community would like to keep it that way. But there are others, more than you’d think, who see the same cracks I do.
Maybe instead of keeping up the appearance of influence, of copycat travel itineraries and photos, they’ll start pouring that energy into what they set out to do (and yes, maybe some of them really did set out to get free watches, sunglasses, and peddle detox tea to unsuspecting 20-somethings). My guess is that many of them lost track of what they set out to do in the first place.
THE ROAD AHEAD
There’s a part of me that wants to start from scratch and another part of me that just wants this mess to go away. I could hit delete. It’s incredibly tempting to walk away, like filing for social bankruptcy. But I made my grave, and now I need to lie in it. I need to learn this lesson.
It’s time to press on. I feel compelled to right my wrongs for the few people who have been following me from the beginning, and for the new people who stumbled upon my post and who reached out to share their stories.
I have hope that a new community is forming. One built on honesty and trust, passion and creativity. This is where the real influence lies.
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