For about five minutes a few months ago, people seemed to genuinely believe that our culture was entering the age of “deinfluencing.” “Step aside, influencers,” wrote CNN. “A new breed of ‘deinfluencers’ has arrived, and they’re saying that materialism and overpriced trends are no longer in style.” The idea of the “deinfluencer” was that instead of encouraging you to buy stuff, the influencer would encourage you to ... not buy stuff.
At first, many videos tagged “deinfluencing” were genuine appeals to push back against influencer culture; people talked about how overspending and viral haul videos were part of an unsustainable and unethical system of capitalism that moved at the speed of TikTok trends, often including mea culpas about how their own videos had contributed to that system. It was pretty interesting, honestly, to hear people whose livelihoods depend on selling other people’s products reflect publicly on what their job has meant for the mental health, spending habits, and ethics of both themselves and their viewers.
What started as a rare glimpse into what professional salespeople truly feel and believe, however, immediately became a rather ingenious sales pitch once the hashtag caught on: Instead of influencing people to buy stuff, influencers who tagged their posts “deinfluencing” were simply posting negative reviews of products they didn’t think were worth the money, and — more often than not — telling you what to buy instead (one was captioned “showing you products that can potentially help with overconsumerism!”)
Did anyone really think a TikTok trend was the beginning of the end of capitalism? Probably not. In the months since “deinfluencing” faded from the discourse, TikTok has made consumption on its platform even more inescapable with the launch of TikTok Shop, a feature allowing viewers to buy a product shown in a video without leaving the app. TikTok Shop videos — recognizable by the orange shopping cart tag next to the description — are everywhere, and they are leaving people’s TikTok feeds “in shambles.” TikTok has always been full of product-hawking, much of it rather sneaky: You might be watching a video of someone doing their makeup and they happen to name the brand of mascara they’re wearing, or a lifestyle influencer is showing her newly renovated living room and suddenly all the commenters demand to know where she bought her lamp. (If she says no, that’s gatekeeping! Even the very language of the platform encourages consumption!) The app was already full of cheap, unethically made goods from sites like Temu or AliExpress, but TikTok Shop has made it even easier for people to buy them and much more lucrative to sell them.
Still, stories about how “influencing is over” have proliferated ever since influencers have existed. It happened when the FTC sent warning letters to influencers saying that they needed to include advertising disclosures on all of their sponsored posts, and the mainstream media predicted this would torch their ability to come off as relatable and authentic (the effect was the opposite). It happened when influencers were called out for promoting disastrous music festivals, it happened when Instagram added the option to hide “like” counts on photos, and it happened when the pandemic forced everyone inside.
Yet so far, nothing has come even remotely close to slowing the influencer economy. By all metrics, the industry is growing: The number of content creators is expected to grow at a 10 percent to 20 percent compound rate during the next five years, according to Goldman Sachs. The market is on track to rise from $16.4 billion in 2022 to $21 billion in 2023, and advertisers are spending less in traditional media and more on influencers because young consumers tend to trust influencers over brands and social media over national news outlets. The definition of “influencing” has continually expanded, not contracted; what started as the province of consumer categories like fashion, beauty, travel, food, and fitness now includes political activism, literature, music, art, corporate life, dating, and mental health. If it exists, there are influencers for it.
The result is that the internet now feels like a place whose sole purpose is selling you something. And it’s not going to change — in fact, it’s going to get much, much worse. That’s according to both the logic of growth-at-all-costs capitalism and also Michael Serazio, journalist and communications professor at Boston College and author of the new book The Authenticity Industries: Keeping It “Real” in Media, Culture, and Politics, out this November. In it, he explores the commodification of identity, why “selling out” has no meaning anymore, and why amateurs — that is to say, regular people on social media — make the most effective salespeople.
“The vast majority of content we consume when we’re on social media is by amateurs as opposed to professionals, and that’s a dramatic shift in terms of how we’ve gotten our media content over the years,” he says. “The notion of the amateur is that they’re doing it for love and not for money; they enjoy the creative expression, they have no ulterior motives. That has created the expectation in audiences that these folks are trustworthy, and that’s exactly what makes them valuable to then sell on behalf of marketers and corporations.”
Tech platforms, he explains, have long profited from the notion that their users are people who are only there because they’re having fun. Marketers for tech companies claim that social media is a more democratic alternative to traditional media, with its gatekeepers and top-down approach to information and culture (meanwhile, they gloss over the fact that they’ve simply replaced those human gatekeepers with black-box algorithms that no one understands yet govern everything we see). Highly visible and successful influencers complicate that image, which is part of why platforms and influencers have paradoxically always been at odds with one another. Marketers, however, love influencers, who have the sheen of “regular person just doing this for fun,” even when they’re making money at it. And whenever there is a cultural pushback against influencers’ “too polished” aesthetics or cynical cash grabs, it’s not as though the whole industry collapses: It simply shifts to accommodate whatever aesthetic takes its place. The attention and the ad money might be going to different creators or different platforms, but wherever people are supposedly being “authentic” on the internet, the money will follow.
“Advertising is geographically imperialistic,” says Serazio. “It’s always seeking out new spaces that it has not yet colonized. There’s a constant craving among users for something authentic, pure, and not trying to sell you something. But wherever you find that, it will wind up being filled in, a product will be inserted into it.”
It’s a never-ending cycle, he says, which has over the past few years led to a sense of disillusionment among audiences. “The internet isn’t fun anymore,” Kyle Chayka declared in the New Yorker recently, pointing to Google searches cluttered with ads and SEO bait, Facebook’s baffling quests to capitalize on the latest tech crazes, and whatever’s happening with the mess that is Elon Musk’s takeover of “X” (formerly Twitter). “The social-media Web [sic, lol] as we knew it, a place where we consumed the posts of our fellow-humans and posted in return, appears to be over,” he writes. Instead, it’s been filled by “anonymous trolling, automated recommendations, [and] runaway monetization schemes.”
With all of this degradation of internet spaces that once felt freer and more fun, it’s almost shocking that there really hasn’t been any widespread pushback. Sure, plenty of people have aired their grievances with social media and the worsening experience of being online, but they’re doing so on social media because on the current version of the internet, where else can you go and actually be heard? Similarly, as much as millennials and Gen Z say they distrust capitalism, are interested in anti-work ideology, and support socialist policies, in a cutthroat, individualist economy, no one without significant privilege can realistically opt out. “To complain about ‘selling out’ is a privileged thing to do,” says Serazio. “Once the music industry’s revenue model was completely decimated, you didn’t hear anyone complaining about selling out anymore.” The same is true for the labor economy writ large: For his Gen Z college students, Serazio says, the concept of selling out has no meaning whatsoever; the goal is to sell out, even though they may criticize the system it upholds.
Young people know that where there’s money to be made, people will find a way to make it, and if it’s not you, it’ll be somebody else (watch any of the millions of YouTube videos directed at young men on how to make “passive income”). Given the chance to shill a random company’s possibly useless product for a few thousand bucks, very few young people will say no. After all, it’s the surest way of becoming a professional influencer, still one of the most sought-after jobs among kids. Seventy percent of content creators say brand sponsorship deals are the top way they make money, followed by sharing ad revenue with tech platforms, affiliate links, and starting their own brands — all of which depend on selling products to consumers.
As long as this system exists, advertising and marketing will continue to fill in the gaps like weeds. And if we think the internet is colonized by ads now, it’s not going to get better. “Having studied this for two decades or so, I will say that whatever we think of as really commercialized right now, we will look back nostalgically on in five or 10 or 20 years as being so much less commercialized, so much more pure and Edenic,” Serazio says. “I know it’s crazy to think, but it’s just an abiding truth we’ve seen over time.” The influencers are just a symptom, and by virtue of the literal job description — make money by taking sponsorship deals from consumer brands — they’re not the ones who will be lighting the way toward an online anti-capitalist backlash. Instead, it will show up like wildflowers among the weeds, poking out in private group chats, niche newsletters, or studiously gatekept forums. An internet where everything is built on scale, where each pixel of digital real estate is up for grabs by the highest bidder, is an internet where only influencers, billionaires, and scammers win out. It’s an internet that will continue to suck until it’s not worth using at all.
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