Likely because it is my job and it's the kind of folks I follow, but I am seeing a lot of discourse on social media about the problem with influencers. How people are dying, wars are happening, the world is on fire, yet we are still out there shilling sweaters and sofas, vitamins and vacations, baby strollers and backpacks. Recently, an individual I admire shared they were so glad they stopped influencing so they don't have to do such work during such tragedy happening right now in the world. I think it's a little too easy to blame the influencers. Let me explain…
Before I Was an Influencer, I Worked in Corporate America
In 2013, I was a manager for several individuals in an eLearning department at a health policy think tank. We were a government subcontractor, we conducted webinars and created on-demand training for government agencies. I managed individuals who conducted these webinars, created the trainings, and made these trainings 508-compliant, including transcribers who were far more accurate than captioning.
We worked with project teams focused on recovery, maternal and child health, military healthcare, healthcare for indigenous people, and a huge project on electronic health records and how to make them universally accessible and functional. We conducted conferences featuring impressive individuals with many letters after their names, often with bestselling books and oft-quoted studies. These conferences would be full of so many impressive people, major newspapers would often be in the audience and would check out the livestream and recordings my team would produce.
This may sound quite noble, but to be honest, as someone who sat on hundreds of these webinars and conferences… very little happened. That major project on electronic health records? It was so big, it was what I was hired for in 2007 and in 2013 they had yet to make any headway. Even now, in 2023 rarely do we U.S. citizens have the medical records from a hospital in Iowa accessible to a physician in Oklahoma, or even two different medical providers in the same state.
In 2013, we had a government shutdown. It lasted for 17 days, but at the time we had no idea when it would end. While our company kept chugging along, a lot of our projects were on hold, meaning the funding was also on hold. How could we pay developers, project managers, sound technicians, and transcribers if they had no work to do and no funding for that work?
My manager sat me down and told me I had to let some of my staff know their jobs and pay were on hold. And those who went without pay ended up being the ones who had the most specific jobs, and those jobs in general were the lowest paid and the least stable. They were contractors, so they didn't have paid time off, sick leave, or short-term disability. And I knew them well enough that this lack of pay would really really hurt some of them and their families.
I couldn't go without pay to cover their jobs. They literally had no work to do, and heck, if the shutdown went on long enough, I too would end up going without pay. So I had to sit down with these folks who trusted me, who I cared about, and tell them they wouldn't be getting a paycheck next week, and we didn't know when they would be getting another.
Then I had to immediately hop on a webinar for a non-government client where for 90 minutes I listened to two men talk over a woman professor and hear about their golf game and absolutely nothing was accomplished in the world of health policy.
I spent a decade at that company. I worked with some of the most brilliant, passionate, compassionate individuals. And some of the work we did was really important and cool, but most of the work we did I thought that funding could have been used in so many better ways. And when the government would be at a standstill, our country be trillions in debt, we'd be funding livestreams of discussions about golf games, vacations, and kitchen renovations. And how my first job at that company was created solely for one project that went on for years and years and accomplished so little it ended up getting scrapped by the agency.
By 2017, I had moved up in the company and was on the social media, marketing, and PR side. I was managing the company's social media platforms, reaching out to journalists at places like the New York Times and Washington Post when health-related news hit, and our think tank had smart folks on board who could be quoted on the subject. When our company held those conferences, instead of crawling under the tables to hook up mics I was sitting in the audience with the bigwigs, live Tweeting, and capturing short videos and stills for additional social content.
The Optics of Being an Influencer
At the end of 2017, I quit this job to blog full-time. For a couple of years, I had been making at least as much at blogging and influencing as I did at my job. And I knew there was great potential to make even more with Wardrobe Oxygen than I ever could in Corporate America, and it would be on my terms, on my schedule, without a single blowhard talking over me and every other person in the room. But one big reason I put off quitting until that moment was optics.
In the 2010's, no one knew what to call us folks who had blogs, but also joined the various social media platforms that were popping up. We were usually still called bloggers, but by the end of the decade, few were just blogging and most of their income and time was from YouTube, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, Twitch, and more.
Many of us embraced the term Content Creator for our jobs, but the term Influencer seemed to be favored by news sources, usually along with stories about one of us who would ask for a free hotel stay, would promote a weightloss tea that caused health issues, or would prance around Lincoln Center in an outrageous outfit without a single ticket to NYFW.
I had a great job at a great company. I had the kind of job that when I was at a D.C. function and someone asked the inevitable, “What do you do?” I could reply and have them not only understand my job but be impressed by it. I was scared to give that up and be seen as a lowly influencer.
But one day I quit, and I have never looked back. I enjoy my job. It is creative, and it forces me to be constantly learning, constantly researching, constantly pivoting, and growing. I engage with amazing folks all over the globe, learning from them, and creating content to best serve them without sacrificing me. And unlike a lot of creative entrepreneurial jobs, I have been able to be at this for almost two decades while being the sole breadwinner for my family.
Before I worked in Corporate America, I worked in Retail
In 2001, I was a visual merchandiser for an apparel brand. I was the person who made the stores look good. I received plans from corporate but would have to translate them to work in the specific size and design of my stores. I would train staff on merchandising to keep the stores looking great when I wasn't there. I also trained staff on the new collections, how to sell it, and how to wear it as we were required to wear the new arrivals while at work.
Before this position, I was a store manager for the company. I was thrilled to be promoted to visual merchandiser. I looked up to my region's Visual Director and dreamed of getting a job at the corporate offices, helping to design what I was implementing in my district. I was based in the Annapolis, Maryland store partially because it was a big and high-volume store, but I also felt it was because the store had a new manager who was from outside the company and outside retail.
This manager and I did not see eye to eye. I believed in hard work and believed in walking the talk. I never felt above any task I asked my staff to do, and would always learn their jobs so I could understand them and their needs. She believed in having a really cool office and a really cool wardrobe and really really long lunch breaks. Knowing a previous manager for this very store was coming in Monday through Friday 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. to, as she said, “clean the store,” she'd often be late to work, strolling in an hour or two after the store opened, knowing I would take care of things.
September 11, 2001, was one of those days she was late. The sound system was broken, so we were using a boom box in the middle of the store, tuned to a Top 40 station. A little before 10:00 a.m., I turned on the boom box and searched for a station with clear reception and music and stopped when I heard Tom Brokaw's voice. What was Tom Brokaw doing on the radio?
There was no direction from corporate, no direction from the mall. Do we stay open? Do we close? We all tried calling our families but calls weren't getting through. I couldn't even get in touch with my District Manager. We hovered around the boom box, listening to the news. I thought about how close our mall was to the Naval Academy, and how many of the store employees had relatives who worked for the D.C. government. I made the executive decision to close the store.
I remember fighting with a woman who slid under our half-closed gate and refused to leave. “I need an outfit for tonight!” she screamed in my face. I told her that her plans would likely be canceled and threatened to call security if she didn't leave. I thought, how incredibly selfish and superficial.
But later, on my drive home on a completely empty Route 50, I remembered the kind of customers I had experienced over the years and how I helped them dress for important moments. That night could have been going to the club with friends. Or it could be an important client dinner, a funeral, meeting her partner's parents for the first time, or sharing big news with family, good or bad or scary.
It's Easy to Blame the Influencers
Why is influencing less noble than managing a store, or being a visual merchandiser? Or working in marketing and social media for a health policy think tank? Or creating eLearning for government agencies? Or being a personal stylist, which I was through many of those jobs? We live in a capitalist society, we can't quit working when horrible things happen. And we shouldn't feel guilty for the world we are forced to live in.
While there are many influencers who do it for fun and fame and not to put food on the table, there are many where this influencing job is the reason they have a roof over their head and shoes on their kids' feet. And it's utter bullshit in a time like this to criticize what any of us are doing to get by in this dumpster fire of a world.
The majority of influencers are women. And like me, many influencers I meet do not have college degrees, did not grow up with money, and have gotten to where they are with the University of Google and a helluva lot of grit and determination. Good thing they didn't become a newspaper reporter, a magazine editor, a boutique shop owner, or a data analyst because those jobs are dying while influencers are not going anywhere.
Sure, there are shit influencers who don't care about anything but making that money, honey. But there are shits in every field. There are shit doctors, shit teachers, shit politicians, shit nurses, shit scientists, shit journalists, and shit religious leaders. But there is no benefit to dismissing an entire field because of a few bad apples. And there is no benefit to dismissing those who have found a job that empowers them and helps them find success.
I have worked in retail, I worked in construction, I worked in Corporate America for a variety of companies working with a range of clients. And now I am an influencer. And I must say, as an influencer, I have never before worked with so many people who give back outside of their jobs. They're fundraising, they're volunteering, they're leading initiatives, they're donating, they're galvanizing, they're participating, and they're not wasting their time being keyboard warriors or feeling the need to show off how they're empathetic humans. Influencers don't need to prove their worth. No human does. We are all worthy.
Life is hard, and the world is a very scary place. Misdirected anger only breeds more anger. Influencers are not the problem. If you're angry, contact your representatives. Join a local group focused on the causes you care about. Throw money at the situation and donate. And take care of yourself. Those of us who have the privilege to be sitting somewhere reading this piece need to use that privilege to take some time for stillness, for quiet, for time to rest and regroup and redirect that energy for positive change.