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What de-influencing tells us about the state of the creator economy

If you make your living telling other people what to buy online, “de-influencing” might sound like a direct threat. The trend of glossy videos advising users not to waste their money on Dyson Airwrap hair stylers, Ugg Minis, AirPods Max earphones or Olaplex shampoo has been hailed as a challenge to over-consumption and a return to authenticity. It is nothing of the sort. De-influencing is just as manipulative as any other social media performance. It is instead a sign of economic anxiety.

The polished, pampered class of influencers, people who make money from their online audiences and the brands they partner with, are part of an estimated $16bn market. Their reach extends beyond ad campaigns. Emily Hund, author of The Influencer Industry, points out that even the White House employs someone to work with online creators.

But the market they operate in is close to two decades old. The youthful sheen of vloggers who documented their lo-fi everyday lives for the sake of it is long gone. An entire generation of popular YouTubers have stepped away. Their replacements operate in a sector in which both brands and social media companies are more demanding about curated content.

The audience has changed too. Younger viewers have spent their entire lives online and are wise to the tricks of traditional marketing. Grabbing their attention requires something new. The most popular YouTuber in the US is Jimmy Donaldson, aka MrBeast, who uses money from brand deals to carry out spectacularly wasteful stunts, including blowing up a Lamborghini and giving away a private jet.

This year, the influencer economy reached an even more uncomfortable turning point. Audiences are huge but growth is stalling. Even TikTok has plateaued. The app reached a billion users in late 2021, then growth slowed. Daily active users of BeReal, last year’s social media app sensation, are down nearly 50 per cent from their high point, according to data from Business of Apps and Apptopia.

Companies are still keen to do deals with popular creators. Social media companies are building creator programmes and finding ways to make it easier for users to spend their money. TikTok and Instagram have integrated marketplaces that let users buy the things they see on the app directly.

But a downturn in digital advertising spend means payouts may be easing. YouTube offers one of the most generous programmes going, allowing creators to keep 55 per cent of ad revenue on their videos. Earlier this month, however, Alphabet reported that YouTube’s ad revenue was down almost 8 per cent in the final three months of 2022 compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, investment in companies that help creators make money directly from fans has evaporated. The FT reports that funding fell from more than $3bn in 2021 to less than $1bn last year.

If creators are fighting harder for subscribers and brand dollars, performing authenticity is one way to stand out. De-influencing videos are a way to prove autonomy and create a closer connection with viewers.

They also fit neatly into a broader shift towards more impromptu online posts. All across social media, users are trying to appear more casual and less guarded. So-called “0.5 selfies” uploaded on Snapchat, Instagram or BeReal are purposefully blurred or taken at odd angles. Videos on TikTok (later copied on Instagram Reels) are often made while someone takes off their make-up or eats breakfast. Others are filmed as if in a hurry. The phenomenon of someone grabbing their phone and hitting record before setting it down has been dubbed the “Gen Z shake”. It makes the video appear spontaneous instead of planned out.

All this is the equivalent of documentaries that show the supposedly candid moments in which an interviewee sits down and adjusts their jacket or attaches a microphone before the “real” filming begins. It is all a performance of authenticity from people who are extremely aware that they are being watched.

De-influencing is not a rejection of consumerism or social media. You can tell that by the fact that many of the videos follow up negative reviews with suggestions of things their followers should buy instead.

Instead, it is an illustration of how difficult it is to seem credible and trustworthy online. For many users, the objective of social media is not to share how they see the world but how the world sees them. Or how they wish it saw them. Being seen to try too hard is cringey. But appearing effortless is even more work.

elaine.moore@ft.com

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