The Evolution of Instagram Influencers

There are half a million active influencers on Instagram today. Though it’s hard to remember a time when the app wasn’t dominated by glossy giveaways, sponsored content for luxury items and candid streetwear snaps, the term ‘influencer’ was only coined in 2016.

When Instagram launched 10 years ago, it allowed people to choose the content they wanted to see. Brands could easily work with influencers that aligned with their image and had a fan base matching their target demographic. In 2019 alone, companies pumped $8 billion into paying influencers to promote their brands, with Instagram being the main app used for campaigns.

Marta Canga, 27, a content creator living in London, started blogging in 2012 — before influencers started pounding the virtual pavements of Instagram. “You had a lot of blogs around [on] Tumblr and Myspace,” Marta says. “The main fashion one was lookbook.nu — that was kind of like the backbone of the whole blogger space.”

Lookbook.nu was where early fashion influencers shared photos. Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Around 2016, she noticed that influencers started shifting most of their content onto Instagram. Fashion blogs aren’t quite a relic of the past, but they are becoming increasingly uncommon for influencers. “Not a lot of people still read blogs,” she adds. “They just send me a DM like ‘Hey, what can you recommend for this?’ and you become like a personal Google.”

The aesthetic that reigned supreme on Instagram for years was twee and glossy: millennial pink, flamingos, avocados, balloons and bikini shots. In recent years, there has been a shift toward authenticity. Dr Rachael Kent is a digital health expert and Lecturer in Digital Economy & Society Education at KCL. “The wave of influencer culture went from really kind of idealised lifestyles to now trying to create a more authentic representation of self, of identity,” she explains. This change happened as Gen-Z started using the platform and the body positivity movement gained momentum.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

In 2015, Australian Instagram influencer Essena O’Neill deleted her account. The then 19-year-old had racked up more than 600,000 followers, sharing perfectly posed selfies and enviable bikini pictures. Essena described the app as “contrived perfection made to get attention”. “This was the reason why I quit social media: for me, personally, it consumed me. I wasn’t living in a 3D world,” she explained to her followers.

Since Essena left the platform, the public has become increasingly aware of the hyper curated nature of Instagram. The Instagram vs Reality trend emerged in 2019, where influencers shared perfect, smiling, edited images of themselves alongside less flattering shots, to highlight how the site often acts as more of a highlight reel than a realistic representation of life.

Social media has long been criticised for the potentially damaging impact it can have on the mental health of users, particularly young women. Dr Kent examines digital health and food cultures. She has seen a link between her participants eating and exercising habits and the way they use Instagram. “[One participant] would be doing a huge amount of exercise, under-eating […] and getting ill physically […] getting mentally very unwell through constantly feeling this pressure to mirror the diet, to mirror the lifestyle, and also then perform it herself,” Dr Kent explains. “If she wasn’t able to create these meals that looked visually pleasing, she wouldn’t want to eat her food.”

Photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash

Airbrushing used to be confined to the pages of magazines. This has all changed. We no longer need fancy cameras and expensive editing software to edit photos. The first version of FaceTune, a mobile editing tool, was Apple’s most popular app of 2017 and has sold more than 10m copies. It has become very difficult to tell whether someone has doctored an image or not.

In Jia Tolentino’s 2019 New Yorker article ‘The Age of Instagram Face’, celebrity makeup artist Colby Smith estimated that “ninety-five per cent of the most-followed people on Instagram use FaceTune, easily”.

In 2015, Snapchat filters were released; people could filter their selfies with cutesy puppy ears and cat eyes. We became gradually more accustomed to seeing polished, poreless faces on our screens. Blemishes were filtered out, cheekbones were raised, lips were plumped. In her article, Jia Tolentino describes the uniform features influencers have adopted: “The face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic […] catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips.”

The desired look presented across Instagram blends into one homogenous face, vaguely resembling Kylie Jenner, Ariana Grande or Emily Ratajkowski. Naturally, this impacts the beauty standard that women are expected to live up to. There’s been a huge surge in the popularity of nonsurgical procedures like Botox and fillers, particularly among young people. Over half (51%) of women aged 16–29 would consider getting similar work done now or in the future.

Photo by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash

With the increase in self-employment in the 2010s, came a new brand of millennial — the multihyphenate, or ‘slashie’. These people who have multiple sources of income are often creatives. So started the need for a ‘personal brand’. The intended purpose of social media — connecting with friends and exploring topics that interest us — became blurred with business pursuits. For many, Instagram is no longer about sharing pictures of your dog or a group selfie with your mates, it’s about showcasing your skills, products or potential.

In recent years, a new kind of influencer has been spawned — the micro-influencer. Unlike Instagram giants with hundreds of millions of followers, micro-influencers may only have a few thousand followers. They may be particularly influential in a local area or have a specific niche that appeals to a certain group of people.

The pandemic has disrupted the lifestyles of many influencers — trips have been postponed, pictures are being taken in bedroom mirrors rather than trendy restaurants or beaches. But Instagram continues to adapt to and dominate the online space. The app has launched a shopping tab, encouraging users to directly purchase items being promoted. The next generation of influencers live on TikTok. In the wake of its popularity, Instagram has launched its own short video function: reels.

Influencers are also getting savvier. In June last year, The Creator Union was launched, acting as the first union for digital content creators in the UK. Women of colour have spoken up about being offered lower rates than white influencers.

Love Islander Amy Hart encouraging followers to join a union

Love Island alum Amy Hart was even dubbed a ‘socialist icon’ in May when she urged her masses of followers to join a union.

In an industry worth billions, content creators are realising their true worth and adapting to the ever-changing landscape. They won’t be disappearing any time soon.

Writer/Journo in Glasgow. Twitter & Insta: @_clairehutch