Do I really want to be an Instagram influencer? — digging into virtual public shaming

This is going to be a real honest post, and will probably be even more poorly written than my usual posts — just a heads up.

The first time I joined Instagram, it was circa 2011 — about one year after the app was released. It was borne a place of cat photos and ugly dinner plate shots, illuminated with X-Pro II filters and those god-awful fuzzy black and white borders. Around 2013 I started taking my social media presence more seriously. In lieu of the not-yet-created ‘Archive’, I deleted all of my crap previous posts and my Insta became a haven of fitness and health. My new #fitfam adventure began on 27 November 2013, having just escaped a horrific relationship and I was keen to show the world I wasn’t a weak little girl but a strong one. One that could lift weights, kick ass and make perfect poached eggs in unison.

For a newbie with less than 400 followers, I was regularly receiving 250+ Likes, and 20+ comments. My hashtag game was strong, and this was long before pods and buying followers and other gimmicks became a thing. Back then, I took for granted how easy it was to nail a high engagement rate.

My growth stagnated over the following years as I focused on my career and had a brief short-lived stint in the army. Fast forward to 2016 and in one fell swoop my Instagram became travel related. I had always been into travel throughout my adult life, but had never really pursued it. I envied people who went couch-surfing through Australia, backpacking in Asia and hiking their way through South America. They were doing the stuff of dreams and no amount of stories of cockroaches and ‘Delhi Belly’ and malaria could put me off the idea that this was how life should be.

Alas, my life never became that. Instead I found my true love instead in the cobbled streets of Bruges, the cathedrals of Paris and the canals of Amsterdam. European city breaks became my arena and in the past two years I’ve managed to make it to 30 different European cities. I’ve blogged and Instagrammed and photographed my way through pretty much all of these, whilst on a shoestring budget. I’ve created promotional posts for countless hotels and cafes. And do you know how many ‘comped’ flights, accommodations and meals I’ve had? None. Nil. Nada. Big fat zero.

I mean, I’m still a newbie when it comes to this stuff. And to be fair, I haven’t once asked a company for a comp anything. Whilst all of my travels have been going on, I’ve watched countless “#ad” posts from hundreds of influencers across Instagram, all showcasing their amazing paid-for business class flights and premium hotel suites.

All I could think of whilst looking at these Instagrams was: I want that.

I’ve been a gullible sod, I admit. When I see these glamorous posts it is easy for me to immerse myself in the scene these advertisers are trying to create: the perfectly serene infinity pool. Breakfast in bed surrounded by fairy lights. The phenomenal views from the 95th floor, with the Instagrammer conveniently arriving when there are no other people there whilst wearing a pastel pink ball gown.

What I often forget about is the other side of the story. The 3am alarm calls, to be at that place when there are no tourists. The thousands of ££s & $$s the influencer has probably paid out of their own pockets to supply a full wardrobe of premium clothing and props, and hiring personal photographers. The hours spent late at night editing videos and writing blog posts that probably just feel like a constant churn of words. The pressure of having to look camera-ready all the time and not actually being able to enjoy anything, because every trip feels like work: after all, if you don’t get at least two videos and twenty perfectly-framed photos to use for content over the coming weeks, it’ll have been a wasted journey.

Now, pretty much all of the above sound like pretty shallow downsides. The worst part of being an influencer, I can imagine, is when everything comes crashing down on you because of a mistake you’ve made online.

I write this post off the back of an article I saw today about influencer @travel_inhershoes’s supposedly scamming those who purchased her 12 week ‘Insta growth success’ course. Now, I haven’t paid the $500 for the course, nor know anyone who personally has, so I cannot speak as to whether there was actually a scam going on (although by the amount of people coming forward with their own stories there is definitely a case going for it). Whether @travel_inhershoes’ Aggie actually meant to scam people, or whether it is a genuine, honest f*ck up, I’ll never know. She claims illnesses and lack of Wi-Fi, amongst other things, for reasons as to why she dropped the ball and didn’t respond to her customers. Is it possible she set out to scam people? I highly doubt it. The girl nearly has a million followers and I’d imagine earns all of her income via her Instagram activities, so she must’ve had the foresight to realise what a backlash could do for her profits if she scammed anyone.

The more likely story is that she became complacent. The money came rolling in ($500 a pop is not to be sniffed at) and the girl probably has a million other demands and deadlines in her life. It seems possible this “baby” of hers, this course she created, became a lower priority when brands came knocking asking for commitments (however this is no excuse to ignore customer’s DMs considering she could afford an assistant or two to run this for her – but, I don’t know the full story so there’s no point making assumptions).

Will this ruin Aggie and her reputation as a travel influencer? I have no idea. I genuinely hope not, because I wouldn’t want to wish that upon anyone. But it sure is a possibility, and for Aggie’s sake I hope she’s surrounding herself by PR experts right now, and if she has wronged all of these people, she needs to be looking to make amends.

Aside from the loss of customer money/her commitment to customers not being met, the scariest thing is how someone’s livelihood could come crashing down because of a series of mistakes, or even just one mistake.

The internet is a cruel mistress and consumers now have much more power than ever before to retaliate against brands and businesses.

Side note: These comments are not intended to invalidate anyone who are desperately seeking repayment for a course/session they’ve paid for that they didn’t receive and I fully respect that, if a brand isn’t responding to you, often taking it into the public forum is the only way to get heard. And there is definitely a way to keep this professional and keep personal insults out of it, which thankfully it seems most of the allegations against @travel_inhershoes are more on the professional/fact side of the coin rather than personal. 👏

Several months ago, I heard the tail end of a story concerning another online person of influence, Lux ATL — a powerhouse of female positivity and strength, a PhD who was a former stripper, a spokesperson for those who don’t have the platform to speak. The girl has been a real role model of mine. Lux regularly holds ‘Strip Retreats’ — empowerment sessions for any and all women to be able to be themselves, be raw and be naked.

There have been accusations from various attendees of these retreats who said they hadn’t got what they’d paid for. They accused these retreats of shady activities. Of being rip-offs. Now, again, I haven’t been to one of these retreats so I cannot speak of who is right or wrong. Perhaps there is no right or wrong, and it is all just perception. But either way, a woman who has built up an engaged online following suddenly had her reputation questioned and her platform earthquaked beneath her feet.

Who else?

Take Elle Darby. Remember all the news stories and Facebook posts from The White Moose Cafe banning bloggers and influencers from their hotel? It all started with Elle, a fashion influencer who had reached out to them, I assume as part of her ‘business as usual’ approach, to this hotel requesting a complimentary stay in exchange for her promoting the hotel and posting content free of charge.

The girl was virtually lynched. I cringed reading some of the comments people were writing about her on public forums, telling her she was a ‘useless waste of space’, ‘self entitled brat’ and to ‘drop dead’. Christ, the girl was 22 years old. She’d built up a following online of 100k+ engaged fans. When I consider myself at that age, I wasn’t anywhere near as dedicated to anything. And I would’ve melted under all of that scrutiny and cyber bullying. Elle Darby merely tried to attempt a business transaction with another company, and she was blown up online as a result. I’m not saying her approach to the hotel was appropriate (that, again, is perception), but she didn’t harm anyone or do anything wrong. There are thousands of online faces contacting brands every minute of every day, asking for comp services in exchange for promo. Elle Darby just unfortunately was in the wrong place and wrong time, to have invoked the wrath of the wrong company.

Virtual shaming is now everywhere, and it breaks my heart.

As much as I would love to become a media influencer for travel and clothing, it is the thought of being crushed under virtual shaming that truly makes me want to reconsider the goals of my Instagram. Not that I am anywhere near being an influencer, but with my steady growth, it is possible one day I may have 30k+ followers, being taken seriously by those who engage with my posts. I may one day approach influencer level — but what if I f*ck it all up? What if I post something that someone construes as racism, or homophobia? (even though I’m in no way racist or homophobic). What if I do something that inadvertently is cultural misappropriation and I cause offence unknowingly (ignorance is no excuse in anything these days)?

What if I start selling a product and someone feels they’ve been ripped off? What if their negative posts about me go viral and I lose everything?

These should be real worries of any current Instagram influencers. Influencers should not be complacent — either that or they need to build up very big walls to protect themselves. The internet is a scary and volatile place and we all make ourselves very vulnerable by posting our lives up, in real-time, online.

I have no real point to this post other than to highlight these vulnerabilities and to help us all realise what we’re capable of doing online — it is within our power to bring someone down, but perhaps we should resist the temptation to use that power to avoid condemning someone to a personal cyber Black Mirror-esque hell. If you are interested in this kind of topic, I just want to leave you with a book recommendation: Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Jon Ronson is one of my favourite authors and this book really highlights the extremism behind online shaming. There is one in-real-life story in particular that horrifies me: Justine Sacco, a nobody on Twitter, posted a controversial Tweet right before a long haul flight. Whilst she was on that flight, several people saw her Tweet. They were outraged and shared it. The post became viral and was the No. 1 trending news story. Upon landing, she turned her mobile on to discover she’d lost her job and thousands of people across the world had screenshotted her Tweet, meaning she couldn’t even delete its trace — a Tweet she’d made in the height of a moment, trying to be satirical/sarcastic and not meaning to hurt anyone. Whilst she’d been in the air, people had gone to the extent to track her flight path and several of these online trolls were there to live film her arrival when she landed, showcasing her shame to the world. Even to this day, having read that book years ago, I still can’t bring myself to post anything on the internet right before a plane departs. Mistakes happen. Sometimes your 140 character sentence is taken different to how you meant it, particularly since it is impossible to convey tone online. People get offended (which is their prerogative to do so). Imagine your world come crashing down whilst you’re powerless to stop it. All because of one little mistake.

It isn’t right to bully anyone and we should all take a long hard look in the mirror before posting something nasty online.

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