The Influencer Oligarchy: Why Privilege is Imbedded Into Our Algorithms

The micro-influencer hashtag on TikTok has 132.3M views, with most videos provide tips and tricks to increase your following on social media. The first basic steps are lighting, hashtags, and consistency. Then in a matter of weeks, maybe even days, companies will be sliding in your DMs begging to send you free clothes or be cast in their fall campaign. It seems easy enough, especially since the barrier to entry is as low as 1,000 followers and even less, to be considered an influencer. Unfortunately, these myths have led many aspiring teens astray and have caused them to question their beauty or creative abilities. The truth is nine out of ten times, people with a platform were already in a position to have that platform due to systemic circumstances such as wealth, “beauty,” and privilege. 

Many popular ice cream cake decorating TikTok accounts make their videos at work, such as Cold Stone or Dairy Queen. Teens or adults often run these accounts who work for minimum wage at these establishments. On the surface, this narrative supports the idea that anyone can become an influencer and make some extra cash through the TikTok creator fund or brand deals. They are also supporting the common belief that TikTok’s unique algorithm allows for the making of instant stars, hopefully bringing about many “rags to riches” stories from future creators. Yet when you take a second and pull back the curtain on a lot of these accounts, you’ll notice that this narrative is nothing more than fiction. These popular TikTokers end up being the store owner’s child or close friend, such as @miladmirg, who gained 4.5M followers on TikTok while working at the Subway his parents own. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does show the privilege needed to make TikTok videos at work- especially in an environment where you are handling food. While an Ancaster teen gained TikTok fame from decorating ice cream cakes at the Dairy Queen her parents’ own across the world, another teen was fired from Chic-Fil-A for sharing drink ordering hacks. It extends beyond the food industry – a University of Ohio student was fired from Sherwin-Williams after his TikTok account amassed 1.4M followers from paint mixing videos. 

Unfortunately, social media is often a reflection and amplifier of our broken society. Of course, the owner’s son has no problem pulling his phone out at work, asking for help to record, and spending extra time decorating a cake for the sake of likes and views. A young teen that helps out with paying the bills wouldn’t dare to do that out of fear of getting fired. A mother who depends on her job to make ends meet wouldn’t even try. Privilege, nepotism, access to resources, and time have all leaked into our algorithms, not only creating digital glass ceilings but also contributing further to the wealth disparity in the United States.

In many ways, an oligarchy exists on social media where influencers are at the top. Kate Ann, CTO of MoveOn, explains how social media follows an oligarchical structure, “0.1% of users have the majority of followers, more than 100,000, typically. Then there’s a tier of folks below that, representing about 2% of social media users with 10,000 to 100,000 followers. Then everyone else, including myself, has maybe 500 and 700 followers or less. Social media is an oligarchy, too.” Historically, those who benefit from an oligarchy are those born with privilege or into money. This is similar to how social media is now where those with access and privilege have a much easier route to becoming an influencer. This journey is expedited by the connections that many of these influencers have.

Whether it be getting brand deals because your father knows someone at a company or sharing algorithm hacking secrets only to those with millions of followers as well, this is a common indicator of oligarchs; according to Kimberly Amadeo via The Balance, “Oligarchs only associate with others who share those same traits. They become an organized minority, while average citizens remain an unorganized majority.” Our disorganization as ordinary content consumers is highlighted during efforts to “cancel” celebrities. As of late, influencers such as James Charles and David Dobrik made a return to social media after several scandals. Comments on both of their return videos were a mixed bag, but overall, the lack of cohesion in the comment section allows wiggle room for influencers to return, make money, and keep some of their loyal followers.

Even for those who are content creators, unless you are in the 0.1%-0.2% of influencers, you may not reap the full benefits of your audience. This is especially true for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ creators. Oligarchies, in general, have a history of preventing new perspectives and diversity as well as restricting the economy. This is also a major issue in the current creator economy that reflects the state of the social media oligarchy. Bloomberg’s Businessweek found that “Black influencers are underpaid compared to white peers. Sometimes they’re even paid less compared to white creators that mimic their content, the report found. Black influencers told Bloomberg they would get paid in products as opposed to cash.” Bloomberg also found that Black creators are monitored and scrutinized much more closely than their white counterparts. Black creators can lose potential brand deals for saying the N-word or making a small mistake, while white creators can say the N-word and break the law and still be offered brand deals. Not only does this reflect the oligarchy our digital world is ruled by, but also the disenfranchisement and racism that plagues our physical world. 

Some may argue that micro and nano influencers disprove this theory that we are in a digital oligarchy. No one seems to consider the startup cost of being an influencer and the time you already needed to have available. Micro influencer Alexis Barber shared her monthly startup costs to create content in a space that is dominated by rich white women. She shares that it costs around $600 monthly in maintenance and expenses for her to create suitable content. Even without monthly maintenance costs, being a micro-influencer does not offer the same protection against scams as being a macro or mega influencer would. Multi-level marketing schemes, MLMs, often offer ambassadorships to stay-at-home “momfluencers” with limited opportunities for income, selling them dreams of money and independence. Vivian Kaye explains to Refinery29 why momfluencers keep falling for this scam, “MLMs wouldn’t be so tempting if mothers were paid equally, if we had access to the same network and the same resources.” Another influencer featured on Refinery29 said, “wealthy influencers get more wealthy from selling their FOMO lifestyles, and MLMs are the ultimate replica of that model.” Some people even criticize that the micro-influencer market, in general, has turned into one giant MLM scheme. Australian author, host, and Influencer @flexmami posted a TikTok stating that many micro-influencers who promote how to get free clothes from brands aren’t actually influencing anyone but just trying to appear more influential.  This, alongside the increasing use of engagement pods, has made the micro-influencer space unpalatable to major brands at times.

Creators of the 0.1% have the privilege of having managers or agents wade through scams and help generate the money. Unfortunately for micro-influencers, this is typically not the case. Micro-influencers are unprotected and unguided, which allows them to be easily taken advantage of by brands and corporations who want to send them free clothes instead of payment that would be beneficial and help them grow as creators. Micro-influencers are not a sign of a potential “rags to riches” or a “hustle hard, stay humble” story. They are often BIPOC, women, and or LGBTQIA+ creators who are being taken advantage of and disenfranchised in both the physical and digital worlds. 

We see an influencer’s rapid rise to stardom and wonder how that can be us. Most tips provided by influencers include being true to yourself, being vulnerable to your audience, and of course, good lighting. This type of advice is mostly given by lifestyle influencers- perhaps the most popular influencer type. They share their day to day, skincare routines, and Princess Polly hauls while being relatable yet quirky. Unfortunately, the key to becoming a lifestyle influencer or an influencer, in general, is to already have an aspirational life. What’s more aspirational than wealth, than privilege? Granted, most of the lives we see online are highly curated and not even close to real. With that being said, you have to have a certain type of lifestyle to be able to curate it at all. Maybe you love fashion but can’t afford to do hauls. You love makeup but can’t afford to do reviews of a new palette. Maybe you do have an aspirational life, but you are not skinny, pretty, rich, or white enough to gain followers or paid partnerships. In this digital oligarchy that we live in, the best algorithm hack, no matter the platform, is privilege.