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Influencers and Content Creators are Burning Out

A couple of weeks ago you went on TikTok. You posted a video about a cool travel hack. No need to use a plane pillow. Just use your backpack! It was pretty funny. You got a lot of views, likes and followers. Buoyed by the response, you decided to post more. The views and follows kept coming in.

But then something happens.

You post another video. It barely gets any views. You keep your eyes on the notification icon, waiting to be informed of a new follower. It doesn’t come. Agitated by the lack of response, you rush to make another video, hoping the previous upload was one-off dud. The response, or lack thereof, is the same. What’s going on? Why is no one watching? Does the algorithm hate me!?

This experience is a microcosm of the influencer dilemma. Perhaps you’re familiar with the feeling of getting many views and shares when you post something. It’s an endorphin rush and you feel like you’ve achieved something. When you’re an influencer those engagement metrics won’t be in the tens and twenties, but rather in the hundreds and thousands. It’s the digital equivalent of getting high.

An influencer conducting a live stream
One can become obsessed with social media engagement metrics.

An influencer can very often find themselves associating their identities with their engagement performance. The problem arises when the metrics you once achieved are no longer doing as well as before. You start questioning yourself. Is it the algorithm or is it me? In a desperate attempt to regain their former success, influencers will try various strategies from clickbait to hopping on social media trends. They’ll even create content they’re not enthusiastic about just to get likes and views.

Stuck in a cycle of producing content they don’t resonate with, they find themselves on edge. One day you’re trending and getting the metrics you want, the next day no one will notice you whatever you try to do. If you are a full-time content creator contracted to an agency, there are few guarantees of job security. There are no days off. The almost-inevitable end result is burnout.

At first glance, the influencer and content creator path as a career looks appealing. Enjoyable work, flexible work environment and opportunities for collaborations and brand deals that lead to huge earning potential. But there is a dark side.

Like heart symbol
Getting likes can be addictive. For influencers, a lack of likes can lead to panic.

Maybe you’ve worked in or had a colleague working in a customer-facing role. It can be upsetting to engage with rude and patronising customers when you’re just trying to do your job. Staff are regularly told not to take things customers say personally. Don’t take it to heart. They are angry at the company, not at you. But we know this is easily said, not easily done. Now let’s magnify this experience ten times over. This is what an influencer experiences on a regular basis. Trolling, hateful comments, abuse. Influencers are advised to not take the comments to heart, but for some it’s not so easy to ignore.

Taio Cruz, a singer, songwriter and record producer from London, joined TikTok in late 2020. His TikTok journey didn’t last long. He shared an Instagram post that read, “I’m definitely NOT going back to TikTok anytime soon. My body was shaking and I had suicidal thoughts. I pride myself on being mentally resilient so the fact that I felt that way, shocked even me.” Behind all the glamour of influencer life, this is the unfortunate reality that many content creators face every day. Cruz finished his post with, “Social media shouldn’t be like this. Sadly it is.”

Fashion influencer showing a top
Influencers often have to contend with many toxic comments on social media platforms.

Traditionally, aspiring actors and actresses from around the world have come to Los Angeles in the hope of being discovered and breaking into Hollywood. More recently, however, people aspiring for fame are still coming to LA, but instead they are hoping to become the next big influencer. They join “content houses” or “creator collectives”, a term to describe a household of influencers whose main objective is to collaborate and create content for social media.

Content houses have been sprouting up in different cities and countries. Being accepted into a house could feel like you’ve landed your dream job. A feeling, perhaps, of almost guaranteed success. An equivalent comparison is an aspiring actor who has finally landed a big role. Or an aspiring singer who finally gets a record contract. There is, of course, a price for fame and many aspiring influencers are finding this out in the form of exploitative contracts, leading to burnout.

Along with the growth of influencers, influencer management agencies have popped up. They’re supposed to help influencers navigate the unchartered territory of social media stardom and to help manage brand deals. Think of these agencies as the social media equivalent of modelling agencies. Modelling agencies help their models find work and influencer management agencies help influencers in the same way. With so many young hopefuls wanting to become an influencer, the conditions are ripe for exploitation. 86% of Gen Z and Millennials are willing to post sponsored content for money. The saturation of the influencer market means that brands have almost unlimited choice in getting an influencer to do a sponsored post.

Influencer showing a headset while recording herself for social media
The majority of Gen Z and Millennials are willing to post sponsored content on social media.

If an influencer agency believes the brand isn’t paying enough for a sponsored post, it could reject the offer. But the brand will just go elsewhere and try its luck. The consequence is that influencer agencies are having to accept less money for brand deals and many times they put the onus on the influencers they manage. There have been instances of influencer management companies pressuring influencers to post multiple times per day, withholding payment and encouraging influencers to do free sponsored content for brands in the hope that the brands will recognize them and sign them up for a deal.

In some extraordinary cases, influencer management companies haven’t even paid for the utility bills of the content house in which influencers are staying. A New York Times article about influencer hopefuls describes how some influencers in a content house in Los Angeles had to use water from their swimming pool to flush their toilets because the water bills hadn’t been paid! This adversarial relationship between management agency and influencer can crush the dreams of young hopefuls and leave a sour taste in their mouth about social media as a career. Some have been burnt out by the stress of of the relationship and sever the contracts they were originally so happy to have signed. Hollywood is well-known for being a cutthroat industry and the influencer industry looks to be no different.

Perhaps PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg, said it best when talking about the journey of a content creator on YouTube. What goes up must come down. Every large scale YouTuber has a peak. PewDiePie puts his peak at around 2015. When views and engagement start to drop, creators think the solution is to pump out even more content to keep viewers interested. The thought of taking a break is frightening because you views will drop. It is a cycle of worst case scenarios. If your views drop, subscribers notice and even those who liked your content before will move on to the next rising YouTuber whose numbers are growing.

PewDiePie in 2015
PewDiePie in 2015, the year he calls his peak.

The pressure to keep your audience engaged encourages content creators to do more spectacular and extraordinary things – desperate attempts to maintain an audience, as PewDiePie says. However, there’s a limit to how crazy your videos become before you start entering dangerous territory. Sadly there are multiple stories of content creators who have lost their lives performing crazy stunts to get views and likes. On Instagram these photos are called ‘money shots’. Climbing tall buildings, hanging from a cliff edge, balancing on a sky-high structure. For many people, it’s just not worth it. But content creators are doing anything for engagement.

It’s like like an addiction in which people go to extraordinary lengths to satisfy that addiction. Take, for example, the rabbit hole that is the online fitness industry. Some influencers take steroids in order to stand out, while also telling their audience they’re steroid-free. This is what’s referred to as the fake natty or fake natural phenomenon. A problem arises when the side effects of the steroids start to kick in. Common sense would tell the influencer to stop taking steroids so he can improve his health. But there’s a problem. He’s terrified of losing his size that he’s acquire from the steroids. His social media views and engagement are a bigger priority. As such, he continues taking steroids to the detriment of his health, all in the pursuit of views and subscribers, and boxed in by the fear of a loss in engagement. In such circumstances, it’s fair to suggest that burnout isn’t a question of if, but a question of when.

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