We’ve always been told that if we work hard and follow the rules, anything is possible. So why does everything — from home ownership to the dream job — feel further and further out of reach? SCAMbition is an exploration of where we live right now; it’s the stark reality that we can’t afford a deposit while we’re paying student debt, that the dream job might be no job at all, and that ambition might just be the biggest scam of all. Of course, the only way out of a scam is through it and so while the future might not look like we thought it would, we’re ready to reshape it in a way that benefits everyone, not just a select few.
515,100. That’s how many pairs of eyes are on Marissa Meizz at any given moment. As a full-time content creator, she can fully support herself through her channel and brand deals thanks to this large following — but it’s not exactly easy.
“Trying to determine your entire income on engagement from strangers on the internet is a really difficult process to mentally and physically try to keep up with,” says the 25-year-old. Meizz, who is based in New York City, went viral on TikTok in 2021 after responding to a video of two former friends talking behind her back. “Within a few hours [of posting], I gained 100,000 followers,” she says. “And it just went up from there.” Because of this massive (and immediate) response, she was able to create the organization No More Lonely Friends, which hosts meetups for people looking to make connections and friends in cities across the U.S., and start influencing full-time. “A lot of people think of influencers as these awful people [who] ruin everything,” she says. “I think that can be the case, but there’s also people who just want to make the world a better place with their platform.”
Meizz is one of the many, many influencers, bloggers, online celebrities, public figures — whatever you want to call them, although Meizz prefers creator — who exist in the world and make a living selling, well, themselves. For many, it’s the dream job.
A 2019 poll by Morning Consult found that 54% of Americans between the ages of 13 and 38 would become an influencer if they had the chance — which is no surprise, as the influencer industry is projected to be worth $15 billion (£12.5bn) this year, with top earners raking in millions. For young people, actor and rockstar are no longer the jobs worth dreaming about. Influencing is the sparkly new goal, one that feels more attainable than the traditional path to celebrity and one that can propel us into the spotlight by just being — or at least, appearing to be — ourselves.
The past few years have thrown the traditional job market for a loop. Amid widespread disillusionment with corporate culture, the COVID-driven Great Resignation and an overall desire to escape the hamster wheel, being an influencer has never been a more appealing job prospect. TikTok’s algorithm — which is able to catapult an ordinary person to stardom — has changed the game. Influencing not only looks like an easy, extremely lucrative and glamorous career path, it also feels like a middle finger to traditional, exploitative capitalism. To its disciples, influencing is an alternative path where workers can exercise more control over their lives and carve out their own way to success without the pressure of a soul-sucking nine-to-five looming over their shoulders.
However, while this perceived freedom might be the case for some who make their living on social media, there is a dark underbelly that we can’t ignore: the ramifications of instant fame, confusing likes for validation, a lack of privacy, a blurry line between work and real life, impending burnout and, more often than not, heightened issues with mental health. If your life, your likeness and your personality are all products that can be bought and consumed, is it really a life worth living?
Part of being an influencer is entertaining your audience, but when your audience is made up of millions of strangers who watch and judge your every single move, it can feel insidious.
Kennedy Eurich, a 22-year-old creator based in Austin, Texas, creates an array of lifestyle videos — many of which bring her audience into her personal life — which have earned her 1.4 million followers and counting on TikTok. Although she tells Refinery29 that ultimately her career has been rewarding, allowing a staggering number of people into her life can be draining. “Everything about my life [is] overanalysed and people who don’t know me think they have the right to scrutinise all of my mistakes and growing pains,” she says. “I’m very vulnerable with my audience about what I go through because if I can help just one person feel less alone, it’s worth it to me to share my stories. But simultaneously, it’s still really difficult to block out the noise and repercussions that come with vulnerability. I go through very normal things that other people my age experience too, but I’m judged on such a public platform and someone has an opinion on everything I do.”
Christiana Moore, a 29-year-old creator who specialises in fashion content with almost one million followers on TikTok, has also had to grapple with her audience overstepping. “I’m in a lesbian relationship and I’m not masculine presenting or anything like that, so people kind of assume that I’m straight until they know otherwise,” she tells Refinery29. “When I announced that I was engaged, that was when the prying came into place. [The questions] were all over the place and I had to pump the brakes. [I decided] what I’m willing to share, and what I’m afraid to be judged on I don’t share because the internet will judge you. They will pick everything apart.”
When your closest relationships are being held under the microscope by strangers, it can be even more distressing. “It was difficult because when there’s something that you hold so near and dear — like your family, like the person you love, like your child — it’s very easy to be triggered when somebody says something negative,” Moore says. “In that moment, I realised I had to limit the access that the internet has to my relationship because I will easily be triggered.”
Despite how difficult the scrutiny and fear of judgment are, an influencer’s followers are at the very heart of their career — without them and their engagement, these high-paying brands wouldn’t come knocking. Creators must embrace their audience, because losing them isn’t an option.
Without an audience you may no longer relevant, and becoming irrelevant is a constant fear for creators, including Moore. “I’ve never even really thought that I had anxiety before this job, but I am constantly fearful of falling off,” she says. “It’s the only job where you get an instant report card. You post your content and it does well or it doesn’t, and you’re constantly on a high and low of being validated and unvalidated based on how your content’s being perceived. It’s so draining.”
“I have a really hard time sometimes because my content is personality-based,” Meizz explains on the phone. “Say I’m having a really bad week, it’s like, okay, I don’t want to post really sad stuff or just go dark for a week. I have to post something. I’m not a singer. I’m not a dancer. [My content] is based on my chaotic life. If my life isn’t chaotic, I’m not getting content. It’s a little difficult because you can get lost in that.”
Unfortunately, this seems to be a side effect of the gig. “I think that it’s natural for any person to have self-doubt and to experience imposter syndrome throughout any career at any point, and I think influencing falls within that category,” says Jaimee Arnoff, PhD, cofounder of BFF Therapy. “I don’t think it’s an exception.”
The mental health ramifications of your job are even more sinister when your work is dependent on whether or not people actually like and accept you as a person. “It’s so closely tied to your self-worth because in a regular job, you do your work and for the most part you can leave it there. You might get a quarterly or yearly review or something. It’s not necessarily a reflection of who you are as a person,” Moore says. “But on social media your personality is everything, so if it’s not being received well you have a tendency to feel like you’re not good enough.”
Adding to that anxiety is the constant wave of ever-changing trends on social media — just look how quickly we’ve forgotten about Adult Swim bumps, the girls of Alabama rush, Noodle the no bones dog and even the corn kid. “That volatility of our industry makes it really difficult to continue feeling fulfilled,” says Kati Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist and YouTube creator. “All of those things compounding the intense amount of work and the intense amount of feedback from people, it’s almost like the perfect storm for burnout,” Morton says. “If it’s left untreated or if we’re in our fight-or-flight a lot … it’s very common for those things to turn into depression or anxiety disorders.”
Experts have pushed the idea that the true antidote to burnout is finding meaning and fulfilment in your work and your life. That feeling may be hard to come by when, as an influencer, you essentially turn yourself and your life into a commodity, a miniature media company whose job is not only to connect with your audience and be authentic but to sell them things, too.
Influencers make money by getting their audience to trust them, and using their authenticity as a selling point is an ethical issue within the industry — but it’s not something that we should blame individual creators for. “Like most people, they are just doing what they can to get by in this world,” says Emily Hund, PhD, author of the forthcoming book The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media. “Authenticity as a concept is constantly being renegotiated — that is the nature of authenticity. It is a social construct, it’s something that is always decided upon by groups.”
Dr. Hund calls the kind of authenticity that’s being sold online an “industrialised construction.” “This idea that influencers are truly, truly authentic is very persistent,” she says. “Again, I don’t mean to criticise individuals because in my research I talked to a lot of [influencers] and I think that the vast majority of them are genuine people who want to do a good job. But the fact remains that they are kind of caught up in this system of where they have to fit within certain rules or boundaries that are often decided by others.”
This can be hard for influencers to deal with, let alone reckon with. “When you’re growing that following, you’re growing it because of you, not because of brand deals,” Kate Lindsay, cofounder of the internet newsletter Embedded, tells Refinery29. “And then the brand deals come and no matter how much creators try to make it a seamless integration, you’re always going to be compromising yourself a little bit because you probably wouldn’t be talking as much about a product in your everyday vlog, but now you’re getting paid to. I think that’s ethically very difficult.”
And because influencing as a profession is so new, there isn’t exactly an employee handbook on the “right” way to do things. It’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of messing up and a lot of deciding where you’re comfortable compromising.
Some of the biggest frustrations that come with influencing are around getting paid — especially getting paid on time. “I did a brand deal last December and it’s October now and I still haven’t been paid,” Meizz says. “You never know when you’re going to get paid and you never know when your next opportunity will come.”
Lindsay compares influencing to freelance work — not the compensation per se, but essentially the pay structure and the uncertainty in exactly when you’ll see that money is similar, and anyone who has experienced that knows managing your own salary isn’t easy. And while the idea of working for yourself instead of an exploitative company is a dream in itself, Lindsay points out that there need to be a lot more mechanisms in place to protect influencers, just as you would want to protect any worker. “SAG-AFTRA is one of the few unions that allows influencers to work with them. They get money put away for healthcare and for a 401k, and it adds a little bit of structure,” she says. “It’s not enough, but we can put in safety nets.”
Moore also says that lots of structures — specifically, banks — don’t see influencer income as a real income. “Qualifying for an auto loan or home loan or anything like that is really difficult when it comes to proving income, especially if you’re newer to [influencing] and you’re full-time. For me, this is my first year filing taxes as a full-time content creator,” Moore says. “I was trying to provide my content creator income [to get a car loan] and it was not valid enough [for them], but a job that I hadn’t started yet — just my offer letter — was enough. My income as a content creator was three times the amount. I think it just was very representative of how much the world does not see content creation as a real job.”
With this in mind, is a job that’s so tightly wound with your personality, your intimate life and even your looks one worth pursuing?
In Dr. Hund’s PhD dissertation on the commodification of authenticity, she asked whether being an influencer is ultimately more empowering or exploitative for those who pursue it. “Are [influencers] the newly empowered subjects of a democratising fashion industry? Or the industry’s new pawns, subjected to the disciplinary dictates of self-monitoring and self-promotion, so intrinsic to the logic of neoliberalism?” she asks. “And is there … any conceivable difference between the two?”
Just one month ago, U.K.-based content creator Brittany Bathgate decided to take a step back from her influencing career after almost six years to pursue a regular, non-content-creating job. “I feel as I’ve watched the internet grow, especially social media, and become what it is now, I’m at a crossroads,” she says in her vlog. “I see what other people are doing, I see people with books, I see people with podcasts, I see people with brands… and none of those things I’ve particularly wanted. I’ve thought about those types of things as the next step as a content creator, but I can’t say those are things I want. I thought about a brand, but does the world need another influencer brand? No.”
“I don’t want to keep going forward, chasing an algorithm and being a vessel for brands,” she continues. “I feel like, morally, a lot of what is happening on social media now just doesn’t sit quite right with me, just with things like the economy here in the U.K., constant talks about going into a recession, the cost of living crisis, all of these things, and this kind of industry feels a bit icky to me now and I just think I’d be so much happier selecting a few brands to work with and doing my job.”
Meizz has tried to take breaks from creating, but tells Refinery29 that it made her feel even more lost than before. “I’m self-employed. That five-to-seven days that I went without posting, it’s going to hurt me. People [and brands] are going to look at that and be like, oh, she hasn’t posted in five days,” she says. “That’s when a spiral happens, because you’re, again, basing [your worth] off of other people’s opinions and the reality is that they haven’t noticed. I have taken time off from posting, and it almost makes you feel worse.”
So is it all really worth it? Most of the influencers I spoke with said yes, that they love their jobs, they love their following, and they realise the privilege that comes with the position. But Lindsay pointed out that influencers tend to get a lot of backlash when they’re caught complaining about influencing — a recent example would be beauty influencer Mikayla Nogueira’s “controversial” complaints about her tiring work schedule. “I just wonder if that contributes to why you’re only hearing that it’s amazing,” Lindsay says.
Monet McMichael, a 22-year-old lifestyle content creator based in New Jersey, says she felt for Nogueira when that specific controversy was taking over the internet. “I feel like everyone has that moment with a job,” she tells Refinery29. “A job is a job no matter what it is, whether you love it, whether you hate it. It’s work, it’s energy, it’s effort, and I think we all have the right to have our own struggles, and I feel like it’s never fair to compare workloads.” McMichael recently graduated from nursing school and has chosen to pursue influencing as a career — for now, at least. “It was a hard moment, choosing this over nursing,” she says. “I’m so glad I went [to school] but I think right now I’m just going to put my degree up, be proud of it, and take this amazing path, this door that opened. [It] is such a passion of mine.”
Even if these influencers are living the dream, the majority of those who spoke to Refinery29 don’t see themselves creating content at this level forever. Many realise that their time is finite due to algorithm changes and fading relevancy, and, of course, there’s the burnout of it all. But before they can get to the point where they don’t need to be posting constantly, there need to be better regulations in the industry overall.
“[Influencing] is never going to be your full-time, from-life-until-death job,” says Lindsay. “It has an expiration date, whether people give it to you or you decide yourself.”
When asked if — knowing what she knows as a creator and a licensed therapist — she could comfortably recommend this career to someone else, Morton says absolutely not. “The creator space should be something that people should get into if it’s something they’re passionate about, and I don’t mean being passionate about being an influencer,” she says. “I mean if you have a thing that you want to do and to not do it seems painful. I think it is important that we let people know that it’s not this dream job, unless [the passion is there] for you.”
Digital influencing isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “I think it would behoove us as a society to better understand it, regulate it, normalise it and educate people about it because we’ve seen how financially, culturally and socially powerful it is in the last few years,” Dr. Hund says. “It is nothing to sniff at. It is a really, really big deal.”
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