Written evidence submitted by Beckii Flint
Beckii Flint, Co-Founder, Pepper Studio
Call for Evidence for Influencer Enquiry
As one of the earliest Viral Video stars, with my videos seeing stardom in Japan in 2009, I started my 'influencer career' before anyone could even earn a single penny from uploads to social media. Now over a decade later, and with Influencer Marketing a multi-million-pound industry, I've transitioned from my time in-front of the camera towards running a business.
Every mistake made, every bad contract entered into, and every instance of feeling exploited as a child-influencer during those days has fuelled my passion to make things fairer and safer for those making waves as influencers in this next generation.
My business Pepper Studio has worked with thousands of influencers across hundreds of campaigns. We work on diverse and meaningful campaigns with brands and influencers, including our campaign Womb Stories for Bodyform, partnering with influencers from backgrounds including Same-Sex Parenting and Menopause due to Chemotherapy to discuss the wide variety of menstrual phases we experience in our lives.
I was called to give evidence into the UK Parliament House of Lords inquiry into Influencer Marketing in 2016, drawing on my experiences as a young woman in the industry, and my ambition and power to make changes to the way we safeguard both the influencers and the public from an unregulated advertising practice.
'Becoming an Influencer' is the #1 career ambition for the vast majority of young people today. I started making videos online when I was 12 years old, and the skills I have learned from this self-taught venture have led me on an exhilarating path, from freelance commercial video editing, graphic design, presenting work, and my current role - co-founder of Pepper Studio.
I spoke with the 2020 Vlogstar students on an virtual panel discussing where careers that start from vlogging can go, a joint effort between Media Trust and YouTube which empowers young people from disadvantaged backgrounds from across London and Essex to arm them with the skills they need to work in vlogging and the wider media industry.
I didn't go to university and earn a degree - I took a vastly different path to end up where I am now. It is so important, especially when the cost of education is soaringly high, to embrace the 'side hustle' culture that has emerged more and more within Gen Z.
As a YouTuber who had some success, but didn't make the notorious thousands, let alone millions from my digital career (as is often the believed income from that career to be), I believe it is imperative to shine a light on the combination of harnessing social media success with hard work and business sense, to build a career that can last beyond 15 minutes of fame, and invest in both an industry at large, and a future for yourself.
● How would you define ‘influencers’ and ‘influencer culture’? Is this a new phenomenon?
Influencer is the term used to describe users of social media who actively contribute content to a social platform, and harness their relationship with the audience they have grown through that platform to impart their knowledge, taste, style, recommendations, experiences, and creativity. Influencers can come in many forms and sizes, and cover a variety of topics and verticals.
Influencer Culture is the social phenomenon of the tropes and effects that ripple from this core relationship between Influencer and Audience. Some examples of influencer culture can be found in trends of photo filters and manipulation, fashion and style trends, the aspirational career path of becoming an Influencer, being invited to events and receiving free products, advertising for brands, showcasing a polished veneer of your life to the world, and more. More deeply, influencer culture can be found within the parasocial relationship between Influencer and Audience, and the power imbalance that can emerge from this.
Influential trend-setters and taste-makers have been present in society for hundreds of years, in the form of columnists, socialites, royalty, celebrity, artists, and more. The present-day ‘Influencer’ is however a new phenomenon, which is the result of rapid progression and hyper-optimisation of all the above that has come before, maximised through the power of social platforms.
The term Influencer began to rise in popularity around 2015, however individuals have been using social media to fulfil the role of Influencer since their inception - early influencers often would refer to themselves as Content Creators and can be found as early as 2006 in a reminiscent form to the Influencer trope we know today.
● Has ‘influencing’ impacted popular culture? If so, how has society and/or culture changed because of this side of social media?
Influencing has impacted many career aspirations from young people. It could be considered as the new dream of being an Actor or a Pop Star. Over 52% of young children in 2017 expressed their ambition for the future would be an Influencer. Influencing has changed the social vernacular - many tropes and behaviours we exhibit online are impacted by the behavior of the select popular few.
Additionally, the court of public opinion has faced its toughest and most rapid trials in the stadium of Influence: so-called Cancel Culture has dominated the accountability discussion. We see influencers falling from grace due to their social media conduct, past tweets and behaviours being recalled as grounds to deplatform. These examples serve as cautionary tales and moral guidelines for all netizens to follow.
● Is it right that influencers are predominantly associated with advertising and consumerism, and if not, what other roles to influencers fulfil online?
‘Influencers’ have increasingly been reduced to just that - their influence. Why? That’s the part which brands and advertisers can exploit, disregarding the creative marathon that’s allowed them to build their audience in the first place.
Many social content creators have rejected the label over the years. Often, they prefer to refer to themselves as Creator, Content Creator, YouTuber, Blogger, Instagrammer, Vlogger, etc.
That being said, there are numerous ‘Influencers’ who serve purpose far beyond their commercial value. For example, Abi Thorn, also known as PhilosophyTube on YouTube has a large influence over her audience. She began YouTube to create educational content and give away the lessons she learned through her Philosophy degree online, for free, to increase access to education. She rarely partners with brands to advertise for them, instead supporting herself and her channel through platform adrev share (rather than bespoke brand partnerships), and through fan crowdfunding via platforms like Patreon.
I would argue that the content must always come before the influence. In order to entice, you must first create. Audience building is a skill in itself, and the relationship between influencer and audience is far too nuanced to be reduced down to just advertising.
● How are tech companies encouraging or disrupting the activities of influencing?
Social Platforms which influencers are able to grow upon have historically been very difficult to contact. Given that so many influencers consider their social media a full time job, and whilst often they earn money from the ecosystem that surrounds the platform, rather than direct payment from the platform itself, it still would serve to better stabilise these self-employed people by giving them access to a support team at the social platform itself to help aid them with issues like hacking, impersonation, algorithmic unpredictability, deeper insight access, and mental health support.
For platforms like YouTube, which do distribute a share of ad revenue, greater transparency and projection should be given to those relying on this source of income. Seasonality reports should be distributed to influencers to help them prepare for upcoming dips.
Burn Out is a hot topic for Creators, and often we see questions arising of the impact that taking a break to support one’s mental health can have. Often, it is an advisable best practice to post every day and constantly engage with your community. Yet the UK prides itself on its fair holiday allowances. No other jobs exist where you take time off and aren’t sure if you’ll be able to earn a living once you come back.
Black Box Algorithms and technology make it frustrating and punishing to maintain social media success without sacrificing mental wellbeing.
● How aware are users of the arrangements between influencers and advertisers? Should policymakers, tech companies and influencers and advertisers themselves do more to ensure these arrangements are transparent?
One of the primary issues with how Influencer Marketing and Advertising is currently regulated is clarity from the regulators. I appreciate that this industry is emerging, and that the rules must be given time to catch up, however it is still so often that we see vast inconsistencies between influencers and how they choose to disclose based on the vague guidelines given by the ASAP, CAP and CMA.
We are technologically advanced enough that we shouldn’t have to rely on fallible and undereducated influencers to perfectly disclose content where the barrier to create is nil, and the barrier between consumer to small influencer is smaller still.
Platforms should go further with their support of influencers and their disclosure. Instagram and YouTube both have ‘On or Off’ buttons to disclose Paid Partnerships, but these do not allow for other kinds of partnership, such as press gifting, or arrangements where the brand does not have control over the message. It is my opinion that audiences would benefit from understanding the difference between a Paid post and a Gifted Post. If the platforms will not introduce this ability themselves, then the policymakers should intervene.