Warning: social justice is nothing more than a branding tool for influencers | Rachel Connoly
Oho should be famous? There are people who are so brilliant and dedicated to what they do that their work makes the world bigger and more exciting. Watching them play, hearing them sing, reading their writing or seeing their art can make you feel like something inside you is waking up – as if there is more to life than work, bills and shopping. It really touches you. There are people who live wild and fascinating lives, full of stories that remind you that rules can be broken.
There are people so beautiful that they seem to come from another planet. You see a face like this and it stays with you. You find yourself, months later, in a supermarket queue, smiling and still wondering about them. There are very brave people. Who will do the right thing, whatever the personal cost, because someone has to do it.
Then there are the influencers. The typical mainstream influencer is conventionally attractive but not exceptional. They are accessible. They meticulously document the details of their lives: a parade of nights; Tupperware lunches; cups of tea (herbal after 5); cocktails in chain bars; Ikea trips; outings to the gym; books worthy of non-fiction; bland designer clothes (they know fast fashion is bad, don’t worry); and their political views – corporate brochure style progressivism. They are safe and unchallenging, a symptom of a culture of risk aversion.
As Natasha Stagg writes in Sleeveless: “A typical influencer today is basic – the opposite of avant-garde.” They are famous because they want to be. And often through a deeply random origin story – appearing on a homepage, buying followers, being tagged by a bigger influencer, accidentally going viral – or through their participation in reality TV.
Traditional influencers revel in their banality. The more they are, the more ordinary they tend to be. The biggest TikTok-er is Charli D’Amelio (135.8 million followers), a perfectly average suburban teenager whose talent is tap dancing. For a time his biography was a self-deprecating joke“Don’t worry, I don’t understand the hype either.” Social media has democratized notoriety and elevated banality.
My feeling is that this banality has caused influencers to conform to a narrow definition of a “good person”. A no-nonsense guy with brand-friendly progressive views, who lists his privileges and performs purely superficial gestures, like the tendency of white people to “confess” their whiteness (a usually obvious characteristic). If a famous person is not exceptional, the subject of his morality becomes more salient because he asks an uncomfortable question: why does he deserve his fame?
Earlier this year, Molly-Mae Hague, an influencer who rose to prominence as a contestant on Love Island, drew ire for an interview where she said, “We all have the same 24 hours in a day… If you want something pretty, you can achieve.” This was interpreted as a shocking revelation of her Thatcherite worldview. Particularly austere since she is creative director of Pretty Little Thing, a brand that has had a bad advertising by paying workers in Leicester £3.50 an hour.
The vehemence of the response was striking. It seemed exaggerated or inappropriate. Hague’s position at PLT predated that – and salaries were national news in 2020. You don’t need great powers of deduction to discern that Hague’s policy wouldn’t align with that of a rep. union. Was the question his point of view? Or that she didn’t conform to what was expected of her as an influencer? If she had listed her privileges in wood and castigated herself, while remaining at PLT, what difference would it have made?
As The Hague’s media storm raged, I fell victim to a concerted advertising campaign by Uber, using a YouTube influencer named Lucy Moon. “Safety matters with Lucy Moon,” read the tagline: “I love exploring the city. But as a woman, I also want to feel safe. Footage showed Moon sipping cocktails and riding around in a taxi. Uber has been beleaguered by issues over low pay for drivers, like Polly Smythe documentedand for safety reasons.
This ad appeared to be Uber’s attempt to alleviate these issues. I guess I saw so many because it was aimed at young women. It’s not the most sinister (or cunning) marketing strategy. But the influencer partnership struck me. Moon’s social media brand is familiar: a beige range of stock privilege cardigans, teas and warnings.
In posts from summer 2020, when the outcry over the murder of George Floyd made disavowal of racism a brand imperative, Moon (who is white) urged followers to be better allies and announced her own references by announcing that she was now reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. When I looked at his story on Instagram, it was a video explaining colonialism.
This conscious progressivism, practiced in partnership with a company that had to be forced by the UK Supreme Court to recognize workers’ rights, looks like maddening hypocrisy. But I’m not sure that’s it; I think it’s unconscious. The natural outcome of a policy proudly proclaimed when it is of personal interest but totally inconsiderate. Is this posture better than what Hague said? Or worse?
Moon looks like just one example of the cynical and deeply unserious way social justice operates among influencers: as a branding device. Melodramatic language (phrases like “taking a stand”) masks the fact that what counts as social media activism is inherently low cost and low effort. Even then, influencers are spineless. They frantically embrace support for causes that have mainstream support and ignore controversial causes. The black square against racism in 2020, for example, was ubiquitous. Expressing opinions on Palestine is rare.
Inconsistencies abound. Rejection of colonialism is common, but there was silence last month on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers shot dead 13 people during a civil rights march in Derry. Regular cases where a smear campaign (presenting itself as a crusade for social justice) is used to attract supporters and announce justice never involve personal risk. The recent West Elm Caleb Saga was so supportive of corporate brochures that a mayonnaise conglomerate was involved within hours. It’s all fake and silly.
None of this would matter if this progressivism wasn’t used to sell us something. Not just Uber or mayonnaise. But these people. These bland, ordinary characters. These symptoms of a culture that forgets the value of beauty, strangeness and freshness. Brave people. People who are very good at something that matters. To feel like something inside of you is waking up. A culture so risk averse that it has dumbed itself down.