A hotel in Ireland has banned social media stars, after a blogger with 87,000 subscribers on YouTube asked for a free five-night stay. “I would love to feature you in my YouTube videos/ dedicated Instagram stories in return for free accommodation,” wrote Elle Darby, 22. In a strongly worded reply that has since gone viral on Facebook, the hotel’s owner wrote: “Maybe I should tell my staff they will be featured in your video in lieu of receiving payment? PS. The answer is no.” The support for the hotel owner and scathing criticism of the blogger’s perceived freeloading, led Darby to upload a tearful YouTube video called “SO embarrassing” where she insisted: “As a 22-year-old girl running her own business, I don’t feel like I did anything wrong.” Complaining about criticism for not getting a freebie — in public — seemed like the absolute height of entitlement. It has prompted angry reactions across industries about bloggers’ overinflated opinions of what the world owes them, for a few thousand likes or retweets.
For the uninitiated, a social-media influencer is someone who has a large following online and has managed to use that to convince brands to pay them for cutesy captions of their product. Typically, they are in their twenties. A corollary is she/ he becomes a Deepika Padukone at a much lower level since not all brands can afford a celebrity. To be clear, this has been an accepted practice for years, an integral part of brand strategy, to pay ordinary people for a mention in social media posts.
No surprise then, the internet is full of how-to guides on “how to become a full-time Instagrammer” and convert a social media addiction into a career. The biggest issue, though, is authenticity. As Darby clearly indicates in her mail, she would have praised the hotel only if she got it for free. Contrast this with traditional media. There is a process in place when businesses need publicity from newspapers, TV channels or magazines. A PR/ marketing company is hired to hold press conferences and send press releases. If it interests a journalist, being featured in a story in a national daily adds so much more credibility for the brand vis-a-vis an influencer who has no expertise and hasn’t done the real work of writing a piece.
Most interesting though, and admirable at some level, is the audacity to think that a social media post is work you deserve to be paid for. Though, it’s usually in kind, the amounts are questionable and fast dwindling. Yet, an entire generation enamoured of ‘likes” is struggling to monetise self-promotion, realising slowly that irrespective of how creative your content, it can’t be your main capital.
Some months ago, I found myself in the company of a 32-year-old Mumbai-based influencer who’s cultural cache came from being in Sonam Kapoor’s inner circle. Her profile read, dreamer-wanderer. She spent the day clicking herself in silhouette, filming anything she found interesting. Invited by a five-star hotel to experience their hospitality, and caption it, crushingly enough, “in 20 words because nobody reads more”, the swooning comments she received (entirely in emoticon) were instant. But in the saturated space of online validation finding enough advertisers, regularly, to make a living is a challenge.
Designer Suneet Varma, who has 1,00,000 followers on his handle @suneetvarmaofficial, recalls how an Instagrammer with 30,000 followers recently called him requesting an outfit for “a big-ass wedding”. “Those were her words. When I asked her, it was for her cousin’s function in Surat,” says Varma, adding that just because pictures look glamorous and somebody has lakhs of followers, it means nothing. “You must understand, everybody follows everybody, especially if they’re not wearing a shirt.” Varma, however, acknowledges the power of Instagram, where, he says, he gets 30 enquiries a day, of which at least a quarter turn into sales. When business owners are bloggers themselves, the value of an influencer becomes immaterial. At least the narcissism of our time, of everyone posting about themselves will eventually wane, since it’s clear that Twitter stardom doesn’t pay bills.