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Influencer culture is everywhere – even in academia

The number of prefixes that can be added to “-fluencer” knows no limit. Among the “side hustle” hyphens that have hit the headlines in recent weeks: pharma-influencers, ag-influencers, doctor-TikTokers, and fin-fluencers (a portmanteau of financial advisors and influencers). According to some accounts, these professionals-turned– Internet personalities fulfill a commendable public service mission. More often than not, they are denigrated as superficial, performative and, at times, unscrupulous.

Such stories confirm the general public’s contempt for social media self-promotion and the career examples it spawned: YouTubers, TikTokers, Instagrammers, etc. Influencers are particularly vulnerable to the fame-shaming of “misbehaving stars,” rife with thinly concealed gender bias. It’s no coincidence that the influencer’s pop culture caricature — one-shilling produce at Coachella, demanding free meals and preening for her Instagram boyfriend — is unequivocally feminine. But instead of mocking those who are brave and lucky enough to make a career out of social media, we could fruitfully turn the critical focus on our own pursuits.

Several years ago, while writing a book on social media work, I noticed how the accounts provided by aspiring YouTubers and Instagrammers resonated deeply with my experiences as a then-junior academic. These social media hopefuls had an acute need to stay “on brand” and a shameless pursuit of metrics. As an academic, this felt all too familiar. Their media kit was my tenure record, except that “likes” and “views” were traded for Google Scholar citations and h-indexes – both indices of our “impact”. I felt compelled to be prominently visible – much like the pressures on influencers to “play” the algorithms or increase their engagement.

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In the lingering wake of the pandemic, the pressure on academics to promote themselves has only intensified. Hungry for opportunities to share our latest findings at in-person conferences, we turn to Twitter, Instagram, or perhaps our email signature to promote our new books and articles. Some have even joined the ranks of #ProfessorsofTikTok or more discipline-specific communities like #twitterstorians.

These social media hopefuls had an acute need to stay “on brand” and a shameless pursuit of metrics. As an academic, this felt all too familiar.

Of course, the self-promotion directive extends well beyond academia. Earlier this year, after Steven Perlberg chronicled the rise of “journalist-influencers,” a fierce debate erupted on Twitter. And it seems not a week goes by that a business feature doesn’t inspire executives to rebrand their own brand, although authentically.

The question then is Why so many of us feel compelled to emulate influencer practices, even while wringing our hands about it.

Job insecurity is, for many, a driving force. Admittedly, the uncertainty we casually associate with work in the age of COVID kicked in long before March 2020. But the pandemic has exacerbated job insecurity as employers bleed resources and social safety nets went from fraying to rope. Widespread unemployment has been compounded by continued gig-ification of nearly every professional sector, including higher education. Parallel agitation as a risk-limiting strategy, namely the fight against unemployment, makes sense in this context.

But raw labor market statistics only tell part of the story. Changes brought about by work-from-home culture — particularly the demand to be “always on” and the metonymic “algorithmic boss” watchdog mechanisms — have caused a growing wave of worker dissatisfaction. Given the state of the conventional job market in my students’ lives, it’s no wonder these so-called Gen Zers find the seed career of a YouTuber or live streamer much more attractive than a proverbial 9 to 5. The lure is less of a pure celebrity than we think. More often, they desire the autonomy and flexibility that an entrepreneurial career promises, if only superficially.

For those in paid employment, the quest for social media visibility likely has a different impetus, namely staking claims in our areas of expertise. Misinformation and disinformation run rampant online, and declining trust in public institutions is both a symptom and a consequence of this din. Expert-influencers – particularly in the fields of medicine, science and health – are therefore important arbiters within decentralized knowledge networks. While the efforts of digitally enabled thought leaders may be in the noble spirit of public engagement, they are also swayed by the demands of employers and funders. Jefferson Pooley, for example, described how academia is increasingly configured by a “‘metric tide’ imposed from above”, meaning that the obsession with metrics that signify engagement has spread from employers to employees.

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But above all, university researchers and scientists who “show off” are – just like influencers – ready targets for criticism, hatred and harassment. As Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, the fine line between visibility and vulnerability is particularly fine for women, academics of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its dodgy history, members of marginalized communities are particularly intimidated by Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter, a platform that, as Jean Burgess recently argued, is “essential infrastructure for journalists and academics.

The relentless pressure to be visible also has another catalyst, which all too often fades into the background: the burden of platform companies. These companies, which exploit users’ content and free labor under the guise of connectivity, depend on experts, educators and facilitators in various fields. And so, the more company spokespeople on Meta and TikTok force us to orchestrate influencer-level self-promotion campaigns, the more data and attention they have in their arsenals. As Nancy Baym cogently argues in her book on working and promoting in the music industry, “social media money flows between site owners, investors and advertisers” far more than between creators and the public.

It’s easy to blame flippant narcissism for a marketing orientation that has configured nearly every professional field (yes, even religion). And there are undoubtedly individuals seduced by the scintillating promise of social media fame. Naïve exuberance can distract them from the rigged nature of the creator economy, including staggering social inequalities. But more often than not, the burden of social media promotion is thrust upon us and seems, to many, to be the best worst option for exposure, opportunity, and meaningful engagement.

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