Feature Photo Courtesy of Broke-Ass Stuart

Can we build a connection beyond an affiliate link?


This may come as no surprise to many people, but I use Instagram a lot. Clinically, a lot, as in I’ve had to to disable notifications and set an app limit of 45 minutes on my phone. Though my Instagram feed only dates back to 2014, I have been on Instagram since 2012, from the budding age of 13.You could probably say that I don’t have a true, worldly consciousness that predates this particular platform. 

You may be wondering, why is my Instagram usage and age a matter of concern here? Unfortunately, I grew up on Instagram:it was my after school activity and babysitter, though it paradoxically lacked any form of adult supervision. To my parent’s dismay, I was talking to strangers on the internet every day, and building up a following of friends and followers alike.

In the 8 years since I’ve joined Instagram, the landscape has changed significantly. Gone are the days of undisclosed sponsorships, too novel to address or regulate; we’re now in the industrial era of #ad, #gifted, and #spon. To be frank, it’s a part of Instagram that I never thought I would be a part of.

But at the ripe age of 21, I did my first brand deal. It was for a skincare brand that is highly coveted on social media because of its celebrity and influencer endorsements and testimonials. When the offer arose, it felt like it was too good to say no to. Not only was I already familiar with and intrigued by their products, but they also were not available in the Netherlands, and, as perhaps the cherry on top of it all: I was going to get paid for it.

Little did I know, it wasn’t that simple. While I did get to receive and try out the products, and luckily did enjoy them, I had many restrictions and little autonomy for what I could post. Though I had creative liberty to create the visual aspect, I had no say in the caption, which felt disingenuous on my part. It is worth noting that the caption made no mention or promises of the products, and was only in promotion of their virtual event.

When my post was published on the designated day, I received a lot of nice comments from my friends, but I also received a lot of backlash in my inbox, with classmates and coworkers at my neck, doubting my good faith and integrity, thinking my opinions were now compromised because they’d been commodified. Though it was overwhelming, I do believe their concerns are valid, and I reassured them that I had tried and was still using the products, and could still stand behind them. 

While I do believe we have bigger fishes to fry, with influencers who would shill more problematic advertisements for Fyre Fest or SouljaGame Consoles without batting an eye, there is no denying the fact that micro- and nano-influencers work in a concerning spacetoo. Micro- and nano-influencers are anyone with under one million to under one thousand followers; if you have a following, advertisers have discovered and exploited, you are an influencer. 

I do believe the problem most have with micro- and nano-influencers is the capitalization of familiarity. The fewer followers an influencer has, the more we feel like we are just one of their friends. When we are encouraged to change our behavior, as a purchasing decision requires, this relationship can feel exploited. We can feel betrayed because we have become part of a transaction. 

When I look back at my choices in my first brand deal, I realized that many aspects could have been negotiated. Not only should I have fought to add my own spin to the caption, but I should have also fought for higher pay, something that was pointed out to me by all my influencer friends upon hearing the rate.

The influencing industry isn’t entirely new, but its rapid evolution has created critical cracks: old guard advertisers question its seriousness, legitimacy, and impact. As a result, we’re left to deal with the exploitation that arises when repackaged traditions of salesmanship spin out of control. Influencer advertising is almost obnoxiously meritocratic: anyone can supposedly make it, and we pondered the significance of this a bit too late. It’s a tricky space, but we should be able to make our fair criticisms on influencers and influencer culture without being dismissed and labeled as a ‘hater.’

There is an ethical way of being an influencer: not only is it important to only take on collaborations that align with your brand and beliefs, it should be the authenticity that strengthens the connection between you and your followers. I feel like a lot of brands and influencers are unable to hit it out of the ballpark because of their inability to create something authentic to both sides. This is especially evident when it is clear that the influencer had no control over their post.

As a consumer, I feel like it is more than obvious when the words are not coming out of the influencer’s mouth but rather through corporate mandage. I have instances where I have lost trust in an influencer and their recommendations because of how they choose to approach their collaborations. For example, Ashley Rous, best known as “bestdressed” on YouTube for her sustainability practices and thrifting videos, took on an Amazon Prime Wardrobe deal last fall. Not only is it a huge disconnect from her usual brand and character, but it also came off as “selling out.”

To crack the influencer code, I talked to Sabrina Chen and Rene van Steenbergen, two micro-influencers, and Sophia Jaramillo, an influencer on the rise to pick their thoughts on both being an influencer contributing to the influencer culture, and as consumers themselves.

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New York Sabrina :P

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Sabrina, 20, is currently a student at the University of Southern California, and has previously worked with brands like All Saints, Bonnie Clyde Eyewear, Mejuri, and Parade. Sabrina describes her brand as “being minimalistic and down to Earth.” She adds, “I like to make my partnerships genuine and present things in a very honest, this-is-exactly-what-it-is manner. I highlight my fashion sense and treat my audience like my friends and I think that’s what draws people in.”

“In my eyes, the biggest problem around influencer culture is the manipulation of the truth.” Sabrina has her share of concerns: “The most important thing for me is to stay honest about the things I’m promoting and let people make their own decisions about it. Unfortunately, I feel that the same can’t be said for the majority of the influencer community. I don’t think the point of promoting something is so you can convince your followers you’re somehow so much better off than them — it’s supposed to be about sharing. Social media is already so detrimental for people’s mental wellbeing and having influencers craft an image of false luxury (when perhaps it’s not) isn’t making it any easier to distinguish the truth.”

“People who aren’t so well-versed in influencer business or haven’t learned about the ugliness behind social media might start forming misconceptions about what life is supposed to be like. Many people then are just comparing themselves to a perfectly curated, fake reality.”

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Rene, 19, is also a student at the University of Southern California, and has previously worked with brands like Studs and Parade. Rene points out that fun and colorful brands with a unique message have always stood outto her. The juxtaposition of the cityscapes of Shanghai and Los Angeles on Rene’s feed makes each of her posts look like a scene straight out of Her (2013).

“I feel like sponsored posts from influencers with large followings can feel less genuine, or simply done as a part of their job,” she says.  “With micro-influencing, it’s more of a personal process, you have people who don’t have large followings at all, posting about how much they love a product and getting creative with their posts.” She adds, highlighting the benefits of micro-influencing, “I think [micro-influencing] is very valuable for an up-and-coming brand and gives customers a taste of what their products are like since their marketing team is essentially in the same demographic as their customers.”

“For me, the biggest problem around influencer culture is that it can feel detached from more organic forms of interaction on social media. Sometimes peoples’ feeds will be [so] filled with sponsored posts and product placement that it can be less enticing to follow them or engage with their content. I think the way around this is to think creatively about how you present any post, even if it’s an ad. And to make sure you’re showing your own identity through your creativity, rather than just acting as an influencer and ‘getting the job done.’ That’s something that I’m trying to do going forward!”

Sophia, 20, is a student at Loyola Marymount University, who has previously worked with brands like Parade and Starfac;, while her main platform is Instagram, she has expanded to TikTok as well. 

“I realize that I am an influencer, but I prefer not to use that specific term on myself.” Sophia rejects the label of being an influencer: “I acknowledge the fact that I do have a platform, and that people may look to me for inspiration or may become swayed to purchase something in a particular style or from a particular brand I promote. But I like to think of myself as more of an artist trying to make her way through the world, and if I can positively influence a following I have to support businesses and/or trends I love, then I think that’s great.”

Sophia also calls out those who contribute to the toxicity of influencer culture: “This unreal idea can see itself in over-editing pictures, flexing material possessions, and traveling extravagantly. Though many can realize this isn’t attainable or realistic, [younger audiences] don’t necessarily think the same way. It is a huge problem that should be addressed more.” 

At the end of the day, we are all influencers, and while we can’t stop any of us from choosing it as a career path, we can be smart about how we contribute to influencer culture.

If you are a budding influencer, a great resource and reference is @influencerpaygap on Instagram, an account that calls for more transparency and accountability from brands and influencers. There is an active community on there that will happily answer any of your questions. Know your worth and stand your ground;  money can move mountains but it shouldn’t move your beliefs. 

If you are a consumer or just an avid Instagram user like me, take a second look at the #ad, #gifted, and #spon posts on your feed next time, and always reach out to the person behind it to find out more. Above all, ask yourself: do they really believe in it, or are they just chasing the bag?