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Relatability Bubbles and the Sustainability of Influence

“77% of Black influencers fall into the nano and micro influencer tiers (under 50K followers) where compensation from brands averaged $27,000 annually (versus 59% of white influencers).”

This article originally appeared on pages 90-91 of the Spring 2023 issue of Coulture Magazine.

Influencer culture has shifted social patterns in the consumer world. From the way we relate to each other in online spaces to the way companies relate to their customers, the advent of influencers as prominent figures has started a new era of marketing. Companies save money, influencers are able to make money and the consumer is being reached by a figure that they feel as though they can relate to on a more personal level due to the parasocial relationships generated by the influencer’s online presence.

Recently there has been backlash with influencers reaching a level of success associated with the idea of celebrity that has its legacy left over from the early 2000s. Celebrities are figures that seem unreachable, while influencers gain popularity because of their closeness in connection with their audience. The rise in popularity experienced by these online figures seems to stand in direct confrontation with this “relatability” that gave them an audience in the first place. As influencers become more prominent, they begin to generate income, resources and opportunities that make them less relatable to the average consumer.

Online culture has encroached on certain physical spaces as well. Influencers tend to reside in metropolitan areas in the United States, such as Miami, New York City, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.. These cities are plagued with influxes of people moving into neighborhoods that are traditionally low-income, taking advantage of less expensive rent prices. 

Their spending power causes developments in the area which make the locations so expensive that locals end up being pushed out. This process is also happening online, and this newfound sense of  “virtual gentrification” ends with transplant creators generating wealth based on a location that they do not have genuine ties of authenticity to. This pushes out other individuals who would be able to give more realistic takes of what life is like in these places.

Maggie Wong is the managing director of 1893 Brand Studio, a marketing solutions agency in Chapel Hill,  and a senior at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She was born in China, but grew up and went to school in New York City and has seen influencer culture alter her hometown. The things that Wong remembers fondly about growing up in NYC are the abundance of community programs and opportunities for children in the city to experience dance performances, art shows and Broadway musicals.

“I went to a middle school where it was predominantly Upper East Side students who had doctors for parents,” said Wong, “their Instagram feeds were filled with weekend Zara trips or going to the Hamptons.” Even at this young age, the social media era ushered in a distorted perception of life in the city compared to what many others who live there had experienced.

According to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, their results suggest online influencer behavior has a significant correlation with effective rents of retail real estate in the case study area of New York. 

“From our estimation results, we find that the effect of influencing value is significant for both spatial and num-spatial models, which means influencers have an economically significant impact on effective rents of New York’s retail rental market,” the report says.

When discussing New York influencers specifically, Wong said, “I’ve seen a bunch of them come in, they’re almost worse than tourists.” Seeing these figures post about their brand deals and hopping around to the most sought after restaurants in the city has further progressed the idea that social media is portraying an unrealistic idea of life in NYC.

“They live very secluded lives in the sense that their experience is very different than most New Yorkers’ experience is.”

Wong grew up in Chinatown, a neighborhood in lower Manhattan that is close in proximity to Soho, a popular area for influencers and young people. When asked specifically about gentrification, she discussed Soho specifically, saying, “I watched it become what it is now. It really just means that people come in, they don’t care about the local communities who have been living in these areas for pretty much generations and they just displace them.”

When it comes to the business of influencing itself, there are disparities within, too. According to a report done by MSL, reveals a  pay gap between white and BIPOC influencers. 

Some of the key findings included: 

  • 77% of Black influencers fall into the nano and micro influencer tiers (under 50K followers) where compensation from brands averaged $27,000 annually (versus 59% of white influencers). Conversely, only 23% of Black influencers (versus 41% of white influencers) made it into the macro influencer tier (50K+ followers), where earnings averaged upward of $100,000 
  • Nearly half (49%) of Black influencers report that their race contributed to an offer below market value. Widen out to include BIPOC influencers, and 36% reported the same 
  • The majority (59%) of Black influencers (and 49% of BIPOC influencers) reported that they felt negatively impacted financially when they posted on issues of race versus 14% of white influencers. 

TikTok influencer Victoria Paris has utilized her platform and spoken about this issue in some of her videos. She discusses how there’s systemic racism in influencer gifting and receiving PR packages and 

“What I’ve experienced is that a lot of the girls who run the social media for brands are white women. Why are they white women? Because there is tons of prejudice in fashion, in fitness, in food …  So when you think about who sends out the PR, you have to think about the people at the companies who’s deciding the influencers to get PR and you have to think about their prejudices, what their For You Page looks like, the people they follow. There is so much inherent prejudice, racism whatever in even getting PR.”

When it comes to the market today, the total BIPOC market represents $4.8 trillion in buying power. Further, 48% of Gen Z and 43% of Millennials are BIPOC. Together these two generations account for the largest sector of the consumer market today, and, by the middle of the next decade, they will be the most economically advanced generation with a record number of disposable income than ever before. This translates over directly into influencing, meaning half of what will soon be the most valuable consumer generation in history will be reachable through BIPOC influencers and content creators. 
“We want to lift up influencers of color first and foremost because it is the right thing to do, but also because it’s what influencer media is – a representation of communities with shared experiences and interests,”  Bryan Pedersen, chief innovation officer at MSL, said.

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