You grab your camera and head out on the road. Travel the world they tell you, promising riches and fame — or at least a free scarf from Abercrombie & Fitch. Amass a legion of fans and you’ll rake in the cash claim the handlers, the company representatives, and possibly your own family and friends, hinting at what can happen when the sponsorships finally arrive.
Of course, not everyone can be Kylie Jenner. In fact, most of us won’t ever crack 20,000 followers on any platform, judging from a quick check through multiple feeds. And, by most of us, I mean 99% of the people who try to find fame and stardom on platforms like Instagram, who post videos constantly on YouTube, or try to garner some status on TikTok.
It’s far more typical to have a few thousand followers, if that. We’re all destined to toil away taking photos of mountain vistas or posting selfies with friends and watching as a mere 20 or 30 people like our posts.
I’m one of them, actually. While I’ve worked as a journalist for the last 20 years, my social media feeds are a drop in the bucket. I haven’t cracked 1,000 followers on Instagram yet, and my Twitter account has a paltry 19,000 followers — a low sum considering I’ve been using social media for over 10 years.
Honestly, influencer marketing has never been the most reputable profession. Suddenly, someone with a million followers starts championing Tide laundry detergent for no apparent reason or mentions an affinity for a certain skin lotion brand. We keep clicking, and that makes us all part of the problem, but I would argue it has almost come to an end this year.
The Gabby Petito case (read about it here) raises new questions in my mind about the allure of influencer marketing as a legitimate pursuit. One report mentioned how Petito traveled in a van because she was trying to gain more followers. Her account has since exploded in popularity, but before her death, she had only a few hundred Instagram followers.
What makes us want to gain followers in the first place? That’s a really important question for our age. Back when I first started using social media I thought it made perfect sense to keep raising my numbers. There was even an app way back when called Klout that added another layer of notoriety (as if we needed one) on your own influence.
A few years ago, I stopped trying. And yet, I keep posting. Originally, I was telling myself it was helpful to others, when in reality, the goal was to share links like everyone else. I wouldn’t say this makes me an influencer, because the truth about trying to actually gain celebrity status is that you first have to expose everything then expose even more, a vain pursuit of something that is elusive and unreal.
Social media sleuths have poured over Gabby’s still open account, looking for clues about her state of mind. All I see are brightly lit photos and a real sense of sadness over what could have been. I haven’t seen any reports about how many likes her posts had when she was still alive, long before she was making headlines, but my guess is that they were in the dozens. Your likes are always a percentage of your influence.
I’ve also heard reports, some whispered by unnamed sources or divulged by company reps who do not wish to be identified, that the fastest way to amass a following is to pay for it. (There’s even an app that can give you an estimate about how many fake followers someone has.) For those in a “pre-fame” state, it leaves you a bit broke.
So where does this leave us?
For starters, it’s time to ask tough questions about influencer marketing and what it means for everyday people like Gabby Petito trying to gain a huge following. If the allure of social media stardom had not existed, would she have tried to build her following in the first place?
Of course, anyone has the right to seek more followers, and I’m not even against the sponsorships. It makes me wonder if there is any real accountability or support from the social media companies for the thousands or perhaps millions of people trying to pursue the influencer lifestyle, travelling without an entourage or even good health insurance.
The promise is that you will find sponsorships, and the sponsors will wait patiently for you to become famous, but in the meantime, it feels like a recipe for disaster.
For Gabby Petito, it definitely was.