Are Virtual Influencers More Valuable to Brands than Humans?
CGI virtual influencers connect idealism and capitalism in technologically advanced ways, but are they changing the face of social media and brand marketing for good?
A shadowy future for the controversial social media app
We’ve seen the next chapter of the app. Whether you're an influencer or casual scroller, you might not like what’s next.
When Sabrina Molu, 29, launched her blog in 2009, Instagram wasn't around yet. Once it came into existence, it was a nice add-on to her online presence. But over a decade later, the platform is an absolutely essential part of her business.
In 2020, an Instagram account isn’t really optional for businesses and influencers. This makes sense: Instagram is one of the major social media platforms of today—it’s also one of the most critiqued. Even as users attempt to “beat the algorithm,” the platform continues to see explosive growth, going from just over 90 million monthly active users in 2013 to over a billion such users going into 2020 (a goal Facebook, who now owns Instagram, has prioritized).
In 2019 alone, Instagram introduced features, which offered creators the ability to craft unique filters to be used via Stories. The app also made it easier than ever for everyday users to shop directly from the platform. Given Instagram’s countless changes over the last decade, it’s hard to imagine the bygone world where users thoughtlessly snapped photos of their lunch or a rear-camera selfie and posted with minimal editing or (shudder) using Instagram’s built-in filters.
Once a simple, fun platform, Instagram is now a source of questions and frustration, with experts leading courses that help social media managers and influencers learn to survive and beat the algorithm, and some users creating engagement pods, follow trains, custom bots, and other (not recommended) tricks for maintaining growth.
Now, as we enter a new decade, a question is on the minds of many: what space does Instagram hold in our current cultural context, and how will the increasing feeling of frustration ultimately impact how users—particularly brands and influencers—engage with the platform in the future?
In September 2018, the question of how businesses who rely on Instagram would engage with the platform became more complex when creators Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger announced that they were leaving the company. In a statement, Systrom wrote that the pair “remain[ed] excited for the future of Instagram and Facebook in the coming years as we transition from leaders to two users in a billion.” Upon their departures, and this vague exit statement, some worried that Instagram would be tucked further under the hand of Facebook than it was when Instagram previously operated as a somewhat separate branch. This was especially concerning given the way Facebook shook social media managers with its sharp algorithm change in 2018 that left many with tanked numbers, and additional stress, as they sought to maintain previous metrics.
“I’ve been on IG since it started,” Molu, an Atlanta-based influencer and the editor of Simply Sabrina, tells Supermaker. Molu explains that Instagram, while fun and thoughtless at first, became increasingly complicated, putting more stress on influencers to the point that some now hire photographers (and, in some cases, ghostwriters). “[We’ve reached] a point where influencers feel exhausted by the platform but are also inspired, which is a very weird relationship to have. You want to communicate with your audience, but you have to find the right balance so you’re not too curated.”
Increasingly seen as brands in their own right, the influencers I spoke with for this piece brought up one common theme with regard to Instagram: mental health. “Instagram is a huge part of my business,” Molu tells me, adding how important it is for her to remain a prominent player on the platform. “That said, for a lot of creators, there can be an unhealthy relationship with [it] —there’s competition, [and often a feeling of] inadequacy. It’s important to be there, but I can also see how it can build some unhealthy ideas in terms of how you consume media.”
Kate Terentieva, 24, an NYC-based art director, digital creator, and influencer, attributes much of users' negative relationship to Instagram to the issue of FOMO (fear of missing out), namely how it plays into capitalist interests and can drive posts. “Fyre Festival became a thing because they were basically selling FOMO,” Terentieva says. The reliance on FOMO results in less authentic content, Terentieva tells me, as the goal becomes likes rather than building a true relationship with the audience. “When people get into this mindset [focused on] numbers and engagement and the amount of comments and saves they get, the first thing they think of is, let me exaggerate my life a little and make it seem aspirational. It’s very easy to take it from aspirational to fabricated completely.”
On top of the often-fabricated nature of many posts, both by brands and influencers, a part of the fraught relationship with Instagram stems from the platform’s seemingly never-ending changes. Since the 2018 Facebook shift, it can often feel like users are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Shannon Hunter, 32, a Vancouver-based social strategist, attributes this to a sense of ownership many users have with the platform. “We feel like social media is ours, and that we own it in a sense of the word. But we don’t,” Hunter tells Supermaker. “We like to feel ownership of it ... because we’ve created a space on that channel, but I’m still beholden to the terms of service. We feel emotionally connected to these pages we create … but we don’t truly own these companies.”
Even though users don’t own the platform, their content, or their accounts, they still fight to figure out how to best use it. Facebook Groups, group texts, and Instagram chats offer spaces where influencers and social strategists come together to brainstorm, air out their frustrations, and explore new opportunities for growth. As this takes place, one topic is often thrust into the spotlight: the ever-murky concept of shadowbanning. But is it real? Instagram’s Eva Chen, who directs fashion partnerships at Instagram, shared in 2017, “There are a lot of misconceptions about the algorithm like it’s this shadowy thing.” She asserted that shadow banning does not, in fact, exist.
“As far as shadowbanning, every week in influencer groups, someone will talk about how their post is doing badly and how they can’t reach their usual amount of likes, but I don’t think it’s always the algorithm,” Molu says, adding that she doesn’t think it’s out to get anyone. Terentieva agrees that the concept of shadowbanning is not as simple as the platform shoving certain posts aside. “I [personally] don’t believe in shadowbanning,” Terentieva explains, adding that those doing things on the platform that they shouldn’t, such as copying and pasting comments, will get in trouble eventually. “I don’t know if there’s some sort of secret, hidden thing behind any [single] action, but the things people talk about that you’ll get shadowbanned for are things that are shortcuts to begin with, like engagement pods.”
While shadowbanning remains shrouded in mystery, another concept is commonly discussed among experts: whether the platform, like Facebook, is now strictly pay-to-play. “It’s just a fact,” Molu says. “Instagram creators left because of Facebook being pay to play. That being said, everyone knows once you add #ad, your reach is throttled. Even in my contracts with brands, they’ll give me a budget to promote the post on their end because it’s the nature of the platform.”
Still, Hunter explains that Instagram has created resources to make it possible for its users to succeed organically, stating that it has the largest organic element compared to other social media platforms. “Over 80% of Instagrammers follow a brand, and it’s a channel where users are like, 'we don’t care what you give us, as long as it’s cool.'” She continued, explaining that users are getting smarter and paying attention to the tools that are available to them, whether they’re everyday users or are hoping to turn a profit on the app. “You can follow hashtags now, that didn’t used to be a thing. There’s a big increase in people using the platform to beat its own rules.”
For Molu, succeeding on Instagram is simple: “For me, and I think for a lot of creators, it’s really about trying to understand your audience and serve them.” She recommends that, instead of getting frustrated or hopeless about their future on Instagram, influencers experiment with new features, like saves and shares, and ask questions within the comments, or shift the length of their captions to keep followers interested. A must-have? Answering comments. Keeping content authentic is key, Molu shares.
An often touted frustration that marketers and influencers have with Instagram is that it’s impossible to beat and that it doesn’t provide enough insight or transparency into how to succeed on the platform. Terentieva disagrees. “It’s easy to create a business plan or a business model on Instagram if you use the resources correctly,” explains Terentieva. She adds that some users expect to see immediate results or to simply lean into what’s trending and watch the likes roll in, but that just contributes to the oversaturated nature of the platform. “A lot of the time people are too expectant.”
But it is possible to grow if you take advantage of the tools available to you, says Terentieva. And though she adds that following isn’t the only thing that matters, it’s easier to grow now than it was before the platform was catering to marketers, influencers, and other users turning to the platform for business. “You don’t have to have a large following to build a business,” she says. “Instagram seems to be rolling out more assets to help people build businesses on the internet, whereas when it first started, I don’t think people were thinking [through that lens], it was just a space where people shared content.”
So let’s say we have resources, and that Instagram is working on transparency via new accounts like @creators, which is run by the Instagram team and seeks to aid creators in crafting effective content. What’s the future of Instagram, and what can we expect in 2020?
“Putting your eggs in one basket, whether you’re an influencer, or a small business owner, or a digital marketer, it’s never a good idea,” Molu explains, reminding us that we can never really know what’s coming on Instagram. The resources might exist, she says, but there’s still a reason to have additional products, like a blog or a newsletter, where you can get your message out to your audience. “Building an ecosystem or an omni-nature platform where people can find you no matter where they’re looking for you is really important. Those who move the quickest, and adapt the quickest, will be the best rewarded.”
The best way to beat the algorithm, Hunter says, is to experiment—advice commonly echoed by the Instagram team. “You have to live and breathe it and test and learn,” Hunter explains. “Play with spending $75 on an ad and see if it works for you. Try using different hashtags, or commonly followed hashtags, or engage with people. Don’t buy bots; we can all tell that’s fake. But if you want to join the community and experience it, I think you can still beat the algorithm, in a sense.”
And yet, even as you experiment, Hunter reiterates the importance of recognizing that the platform doesn’t ultimately belong to any single one of us and can change as it sees fit. “Will [our ability to beat the algorithm] be the same in a year or two years?” Hunter says. “Probably not. But, for now, that space is still available to us.”