Two years ago I sat down to write a post on the state of our Instagram culture, and how it was starting to make us all feel a touch inadequate. I’d seen so many conversations online about the damaging effects images were having on self-esteem, and how young women thought they needed a Gucci bag by the time they left school to be perceived as Instagrammable; as a thirty-something woman it was making me feel a bit shitty and like I wasn’t living my best life, so I could only imagine the impact on young (men) and women ten or twenty years my junior. I tried to verbalise what I was seeing, what I was feeling and what I thought the issue was in the best way I could: the result is this post.
When I hit publish on a Friday afternoon sitting in a local coffee shop, I expected a few comments of agreement and a discussion to be sparked over the coming few days – what I didn’t expect was the huge amount of resulting backlash, being blocked and mocked by some of the biggest bloggers in the business, and to spend the next three weeks (including the duration of my holiday) defending my opinions.
Rather than listening to what I had to say (whether they agreed or not) these bloggers all assumed I was pinpointing them (I wasn’t) and rather predictably called me jealous / bitter / out of touch. I’ve never had so much abuse sent my way simply for expressing an opinion, and two years later I’m still dealing with the fall out. Having recently read back the post I honestly stand by everything I said and don’t quite comprehend why the resulting backlash occurred; if anything, I think I had a bloody good point. But why talk about something that happened two years ago, I hear you ask?
Well, at the end of last week you couldn’t help but notice a tweet going viral and calling out Instagram as a ‘ridiculous lie factory designed to make us all feel inadequate,’ with one unfortunate blogger feeling the brunt of much frustration at the influencer landscape. The resulting conversations (over 100,000 people liking the tweet and nearly 30,000 responding directly) were focused on the ridiculous lifestyles bloggers were promoting, they disingenuous endorsements they were paid for and the hugely staged nature of a lot of the images that were ‘having a detremental impact on young people’s self esteem’.
Unsurprisingly it’s been picked up by many media outlets, but my opinion is that none of this debate (and often vitriol) is intended to be directed at one person or one image – it’s an amalgamation of long-term discontentment and simply a vessel for those conversations to happen. I don’t in any way condone online bullying or the behaviour that one young woman has been on the receiving end of, but I do think there’s a much bigger issue here that we need to discuss and reflect upon. Something I tried to start over two years ago, in fact.
Blogging became such a popular form of media because it counteracted the photoshopped, overly curated and super commercial content that we were seeing in newspapers and magazines; these were ‘real people’ living their real lives and facing the same difficulties and dilemmas as we were. However, over the years the industry has grown and we’ve seen a move towards beautifully shot almost editorial content and a focus on the luxury and aspirational – because that’s what sells. The majority of us love to see snippets of a lifestyle we could only dream of while eating our morning Weetabix or squeezing ourselves onto the Central Line, in the same way we love to flick through Vogue and dream about what it would be like to have the shopping budget of Beyonce.
I do believe there’s a desire for all types of content, just in the way that there are hundreds of radio stations catering for every musical taste. Not all of us have to like everything – because otherwise the world would be a very boring place. However, as influencers we do have to look beyond ourselves and pay attention to the impact (positive or negative) that are content is having on the wider world; we’re currently self-regulated so it’s vital that we listen to the wider conversation happening, making a conscious effort to ensure we’re operating ethically and understand that we have a responsibility to balance making a living with the satisfaction of our audience.
Creating flatlays, posing for fashion shots in the middle of a lavender field, making up a setting that encompasses our ‘morning routines’… It’s all part and parcel of being a blogger in 2018. We accept that images are curated, edited and posed to ensure the best possible shot, but when does it become damaging or down right ridiculous? Last year Amelia Liana came under fire for overly photoshopping and superimposing herself onto backgrounds of images she found on Google, as well as taking away scaffolding from the iconic Taj Mahal; followers, fellow bloggers and later media outlets pinpointed her as an example of influencers perpetuating an unrealistic lifestyle, but others celebrated her skills as just another expression of art. The important factor though was that she stopped so much of the photoshop and the fake birds / hot air balloons are now nowhere to be seen.
Personally I’m not here for bundles of balloons, beds covered in flowers and eating pizza in the bath – but I know that plenty of people are, and these accounts are the ones to grow at an exponential rate. I’m 35 years old and have never been a fan of overly pink things, so it’s no surprise that I’m not a fan of certain accounts that make everything seem like it’s part of a Disney movie or episode of Gossip Girl, but I’m not their target audience – like they’re not the audience of middle aged men and women who like to take every opportunity to bash young women down and pull apart the entire influencer industry they can’t get their head around.
However, I do feel that collectively we do have a responsibility to tone it down a little when we’re being paid to promote products and sell a lifestyle that’s barely linked to the images that are being used in conjunction with it. I asked Twitter what it thought about overly curated images and of the 541 votes that were cast, 50% said we should tone down the fakeness; 30% said they didn’t care, 11% stated they loved the balloons (and 9% were totally here for fajita pancakes.) The resulting conversation was very split, with many believing we should take everything online with a huge pinch of salt, but should we be held accountable when there are potentially impressionable individuals online?
@LadyLoves said: “The minute you have an audience hanging on your every thread you have a duty to really care about everything you put out there.”
@Sammi1203 continued: “I do think that there needs to more education around social media, especially for younger people, so they understand that what you see isn’t necessarily reality.”
@WhimandTonic stated: “It’s a complex situation – especially if you factor in what it means when the average person is bombarded with extremely unrealistic shots from bloggers (which you understand to be real people, not celebs or models playing a role).”
However, @WhatCorinneDid counteracted: “It is not influencers’ job to teach kids how to tell the difference between fake, staged and reality, but parents.”
I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong answer here, but I do think it’s vital to keep having these conversations and ensuring as influencers we’re as transparent as possible – especially as there’s no formal regulation in place like there is across other areas of more traditional advertising. I’ve seen many conversations that question why bloggers should be held accountable for ensuring their imagery is reflective of reality, including what @GemKendrick had to say: “Why is that sort of imagery okay if it’s more traditional advertising, but when it’s on instagram it suddenly isn’t? Ads have always been curated… essentially selling a feeling, not just a product.” But the difference is that traditional advertising is held accountable to specific rules and regulations which don’t yet exist in the world of influencer marketing.
Adam Walker (@MaleStylist) highlighted two in particular that ensure the ads we see are responsible. ASA Regulation 3.45 states: “Marketers must hold documentary evidence that a testimonial or endorsement used in a marketing communication is genuine, unless obviously fictitious, and hold contact details for person who, or organisation that, gives it.” Additionally ASA Regulation 3.11 states: “Marketing communications must not mislead consumers by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product.”
In my opinion it’s still often hard to determine whether or not you’re being advertised to and whether or not the commentary or insight is genuine; we’re in the midst of a huge commercial change and the dust has yet to settle, so until that point we need to be aware of how our industry is perceived by the masses and ensure we do everything in our power to promote influencer marketing as ethical, transparent and credible.
A recent survey found that almost half (49%) of people say they would like to see regulators enforce stricter rules for sponsored influencer posts, while a further 47% are ‘fatigued’ by repetitive influencer posts on platforms like Instagram. Guy Parker, the ASA’s chief executive, has previously said that people shouldn’t “have to play the detective to work out if they’re being advertised to”, while they’re currently investigating whether commonly-used indicators like #spon, #ad and #sp are clear enough. Something needs to change if we’re collectively going to weather the storm.
I’ve been blogging since 2010 and over those last eight years the industry has changed beyond all recognition; it’s now the norm to produce almost ridiculous content as a form of entertainment, or order four different breakfasts just for the benefit of the ‘gram. A survey conducted in 2017 found that over 52% of young people now claim to wait to be a YouTuber or blogger when they grow up, because they see it as a route to fame, fortune and Chanel handbags. We’re setting the scene for the next generation, and absolutely need to be aware of that.
What I find rather confusing and ironic is that we’re currently amidst a movement of positivity, realism and inclusivity (ASOS have stopped photoshopping out stretch marks, Cosmo have put plus size model Tess Holliday on their front cover and Black Panther was one of the biggest box office success stories of all time,) but our Instagram feeds are still filled with slim, blonde, 20-something women showing us how to live our best life. They’re the accounts that are highlighted and grow, they’re the accounts brands want to work with and they’re the accounts that are picked up by the media – even though the bloggersphere is so much more than them alone.
Would we be so offended by one picture if we had a more balanced and inclusive view of what’s actually happening online?
My belief is that we should all be free to create the content we want, but should also be held accountable. Brands need to step up and take responsibility for the ads they’re commissioning, ensuring they’re reflective of the lifestyle or product need that’s being promoted – because there’s a fine line between appearing organic and natural, and sticking a bottle of mouthwash on a bedside table. We need to keep these conversations going, and we need to work with regulatory bodies to ensure audiences are delivered content they can trust.
I’ll leave you with the words of @MaleStylist which sum up my feelings perfectly: “We need to decide whether we’ll listen to our audience or ignore them? Make our own rules or have them clamped down on us? Shun bad behaviour or exacerbate it? This is an industry in its infancy and we need to mature fast.”
What are your thoughts?