How Social Media Influencers Are Managing the Crisis
Life as a paparazzo these days must be tough.
I know, I know, there are many circles of our particular inferno to pass through before we get to celebrity shutterbugs, but they’re struggling too.
See, real celebrities (your Ben Afflecks, your Meryl Streeps) are well schooled in the volatility of public opinion.
Now is not the time to be pictured living a life of luxury. That time will return. Patience.
At the moment, the best press for them is no press.
Paps are paid by the snap, and right now they’re making do with snaps of moviestars going for a power-walk, at best.
There are other reasons they are feeding off scraps these days, of course.
The paparazzi really emerged in the 1950s as an antidote to the glossy, promotional images that movie studios approved for public consumption. People wanted to see reality; they wanted to see stars live like stars in a world of excess, but also to be flawed and vulnerable like the rest of us.
This picture of Jackie Onassis (title: Windblown Jackie) is a true classic of the genre.
The world’s most primped and polished celebrity, with hair all over the place. The shock! No matter how much money one has, one cannot stop the wind.
The photographer, Ron Galella, called it his Mona Lisa, which one can only hope was a sarcastic comment. He released a book of pictures of Onassis, coupled with remarks she made while he was taking the pictures. “Smash that man’s camera” is one quote that represents the overall tone.
That antagonistic, pap-celeb relationship exists today, but the balance of power has shifted.
In the olden days, celebrities were in a bind. The paparazzi would always track them down, and the worse their relationship with the photographers, the worse the pictures tended to be. It made more sense to appease the photographers, even to tip them off about their whereabouts to achieve some artistic control.
This manicured version of “reality” has extended to its logical conclusion today.
The fans get their fix by heading to Instagram, where the celebrities can hold the camera and manipulate the images to their own tastes.
Poor old Mr. Paparazzo is left out in the cold. Spare him a thought.
WHAT’S AN INFLUENCER TO DO?
Believe it or not, we are heading towards our old influencer pals through this circuitous route.
We are all using the same technology to capture and distort our daily lives: celebrities, influencers, normals.
There was a seedy glamor to the paparazzi age, now replaced by the intimacy of the selfie.
This democratization has allowed some normals to rise through the ranks to influencer status. An exalted few are now celebrities.
They lack the media savviness of real celebrities, however, and this has been exposed by the coronavirus crisis.
Ben Affleck knows not to be pictured heading off on vacation right now. His people would surely advise against sharing pictures of him walking around the town, meeting people and getting on with normal life.
In fact, I just looked him up to make sure I wasn’t putting my foot in it. For all I know, with my pop culture knowledge (Affleck is the world’s biggest star in 2020, in my mind), he could actually be the villain in the coronavirus story.
This is the first headline that popped up when I searched his name:
Ben knows the score.
Arielle Charnas (1.3 million Instagram followers), on the other hand, avails of no such wisdom.
Charnas normally creates harmless content about her life with her husband and kids, from what I can see.
She started to experience coronavirus symptoms a couple of weeks ago and posted on Instagram about each step of the testing process. Influencers gonna influence.
Charnas tested positive, which is obviously awful for her and her family.
So far, so sympathetic.
What happened next is a cautionary tale that should go down in influencer lore.
A few days after testing positive, she packed up the family and headed out to The Hamptons.
The following day, she posted pictures of the family out walking around a local town, likely spreading the virus further.
Cue public uproar.
Charnas was initially taken aback by the severity of the criticism she received (she lives on social media, surely she’s seen what people are like?), but then posted an apology.
Of course, it was a reckless decision. We can all see that.
The whole episode also demonstrated the true nature of social media influence in its pure, raw form.
As Charnas notes, she has built her career on letting people into her life.
In the process, she has built a bankable store of “influence”.
Her selling point to advertisers is that she can affect changes in the behaviors of her audience, because they trust her and will even imitate her. If she is seen to use a product, the audience will replicate the action by buying the same item.
This is not a tap that can be turned on and off at will.
If Charnas is truly an influencer, then her actions have consequences within a wide group of people. In this instance, her actions potentially had consequences for anyone that came into contact with her family.
She also set an example that the public health recommendations can be flouted, if the family fancies a trip.
Influencers, both “macro” and “micro”, trade on the conceit that the boundary between their public and private lives is porous.
Some would have us believe that the boundary does not exist. We are seeing their full, authentic selves, always.
The current crisis has revealed the fact that influencers are about more than just sharing their lives, and then maybe making some money as a by-product.
When it comes down to it, influencers are running a business and we are their saleable currency.
I can’t really put it better than Stephanic McNeal from Buzzfeed did a few days ago:
“Influencers are public figures with small but flourishing businesses who make their money based on the trust and devotion of their audience. Therefore, they have a responsibility to said audience and their advertisers. Influencers should probably use their ~influence~ for good. And if they don’t, they should be held accountable for their actions.”
Most businesses are in a quandary at the moment, including influencers.
Is it right to go about business as usual, at a time when everything is anything but usual?
Their responses range from the benign to the ridiculous.
This influencer has been held up as an example of how you should approach the situation:
I would offer that this isn’t particularly senstive, it’s just honest.
Either way, it’s still a lot better than some others can offer.
Some influencers are making do with their homes as a set for a photo shoot:
I mean, who’s buying a watch right now?
I do have a soft spot for this approach, though:
There’s an enterprising pivot to menswear, which is just textbook influencing, and a new hashtag that I hope takes off:
Lots to unpack there. Can we also have #sponsoredbutihateit and #onlyforthemoney?
A few influencers have been a little more inventive than just throwing on a tracksuit and revealing that they dislike most of the other products they push.
Some have started to run quizzes for their followers, which seem to be very popular.
Over on TikTok, the platform’s “most followed person” (strange how this has become a badge of honor), came up with a Distance Dance.
So, there are creative ways to do build an audience at the moment, without pressuring people to buy things.
After all, everyone is inside and a lot of people are on their phones.
According to CreatorIQ, an influencer marketing platform, engagement on influencer posts about the coronavirus has surpassed 2.9 billion impressions. That’s a big number and it’s pretty worrying, if we factor in how ill-prepared many are for this moment.
As always, it is easy (and sometimes fun) to pick on the cases where influencers transgress our social codes, but we should be aware that most are only waking up to the responsibility that their position brings.
The crisis has brought many businesses to a standstill, but influencers have no income protection if they stop posting. Their audience is a fickle beast and they will not want to risk losing engagement by taking a hiatus, either.
As such, many are trying to continue as usual, in line with what other small businesses are doing.
We may view this as insensitive and would be partially justified in doing so. However, there is still room to understand that these issues are complex and we are all figuring it out as we go.
A bit of honesty from influencers can go a long way and they should try to work within our new, shared context.
Which brings me to our final stop: wellness influencers.
Often, wellness influencers are not exactly qualified doctors, but they won’t let a silly piece of paper hold them back from offering medical advice.
In this ridiculous video, someone called Holly Dolke talks with misplaced authority about the vitamins you should buy to “help prevent the infection.”
(Sure, a stronger immune system can help fight a disease, but buying a box of vitamins from a YouTuber won’t prevent it.)
We are all so accustomed to bullshitting, and for our lies having no real consequences, that many of us don’t know any other way to function.
The big tech platforms have really clamped down on fake information about the coronavirus, but it’s much more difficult to monitor the individual lies these influencers may tell.
Influencers are now sources of public information.
As such, it matters that they act in a responsible manner.
I offer a simple initalism to keep their actions on track.
W.W.A.D: What Would Affleck Do?