Instagram star reveals 'dark side' of being an influencer

·8-min read

A popular influencer has spoken out about the abuse she has received since gaining a prominent online presence and making a career out of it.

While Em Sheldon has over 118,000 followers on Instagram and 88,000 on YouTube, she has detailed the struggles of being an influencer and the misconceptions many have.

"The thing that people say to me the most, when I tell them what I do is 'you just take selfies all day', I don't think they quite realise that it really is 20 hours of work a day," she recently told an inquiry into the growth of influencer culture by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the UK.

Influencer Em Sheldon gave evidence in front of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the UK. Source: parliamentlive.tv
Influencer Em Sheldon gave evidence in front of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the UK. Source: parliamentlive.tv

Ms Sheldon started her blog in 2012 and said she didn't start making any money off of it until around 2015. For her she initially saw it as a passion project and endured a "long slog" to eventually getting paid for her work.

Though once the money started coming in, so did the abuse.

"In what other industry would you be attacked for making money and making a living, I feel like it's one of those careers that they like you until you start to do well," Ms Sheldon said.

Influencers need to be seen as workers

Also speaking at the inquiry was Dr Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist and ethnographer of vernacular internet cultures.

On Thursday, she spoke to Yahoo News Australia and said we need to start thinking of influencers like we do service industry workers in Australia.

"We need to think about the conditions of work in the same way we talk about the service industry here in Australia," she said.

"When we say 'no, you're an essential worker you sign up to work in a grocery store and sign up to work in a cafe', that does not mean that we don't consider the occupational health and safety that we need to come up with different parameters of work safety to ensure they can do their job well."

Pictured is Dr Crystal Abidin giving evidence
Dr Crystal Abidin is a a digital anthropologist and says we need to start talking about influencers as if they are workers. Source: parliamentlive.tv

Dr Crystal said it is a myth all influencers are multimillionaires — the majority are struggling to get by.

Some of the influencers Dr Crystal has interviewed have taken extended breaks from social media, after not being able to cope or citing burnout.

While speaking at the inquiry she acknowledged there are more people now who consider themselves professional influencers, despite only making a few thousand dollars a month and working full-time hours.

Abuse within the influencer industry

Throughout her career Dr Crystal has interviewed thousands of influencers across the globe, exploring influencer culture and how it has evolved.

She says influencers are the epitome of internet celebrities, who are both professional and intentionally pursuing it as a career, constantly making strategic choices about their visibility and ultimately turning their platform into their career.

While the image we may have of an influencer might be some attractive young woman, living a glamorous and privileged life, there is a dark side behind the Instagram filters.

Ms Sheldon explained there is a "dark space" on the internet where grown women go out of their way to write about other influencers to belittle them, though some take it to the next level.

She alleges these women, who are mainly middle-aged, will go beyond leaving nasty comments on posts. Ms Sheldon says some of her peers have even experienced stalking.

"I've spoken to a lot of peers about this and they've had the police involved, because these people are hell bent on finding addresses finding how much people pay for their houses," she said.

"It's not okay and it wouldn't be okay in any other industry."

Ms Sheldon added she doesn't mind if people write horrible things about their appearance, but she does take issue with people making it their "sole" mission to ruin someone else’s business.

The hidden issues influencers face

"Influencer" is a term which has been feminised, as its legacy evolved from the lifestyle bloggers who documented their life through their chosen online medium.

However, an influencers' niche can go beyond lifestyle, fashion and beauty content — gaming, science and experiments are other genres influencers may delve into, Dr Crystal explained.

However it's far easier for men to shake off the influencer tag and in turn avoid some of the damaging side-effects of the industry.

When we think of the abuse influencers receive, we tend to think of criticism of body image and online hate. But the continuing trivialisation of influencers can have a lasting damage on their mental health.

"It's imperative for this inquiry to be alert to have sexism and misogyny can contribute to the work of influencers being trivialised and deemed a form of so called low culture if meaningfully deemed a form of culture at all," Dr Francesca Sobande from Cardiff University told the committee.

"Ideas about influencers and influencer culture in general are not just shaped by gender interconnected forms of oppression, including but not limited to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism impact, who's working labour, as an influencer is recognised as that and adequately credited."

The inquiry comes as three English football players were subject to vile racial abuse on social media after Italy prevailed in the final of the European Championship.

"We know that social media doesn't spark the racism, the racism existed before that," Dr Sobande said. 

"There are influencers who will face this, this sort of racist abuse, and there are influencers who unfortunately contribute to it, too."

There's also issues your average social media user may not consider when thinking about influencers, particularly those who are part of the LGBT community.

Dr Crystal said there are influencers who operate under a veil of anonymity, who try to maintain the "illusion of heterosexuality", with faux partners, due to the society they live in.

She said other influencers will conceal their marriages to people outside of their racial or cultural group on social media if they live in certain parts of the world.

Concern over children 'working' on social media

One influencer issue Dr Crystal is particularly concerned about is children.

There's a difference between parents sharing their child's achievements on social media for their close circle of friends and parents who turn their child's life into monetised content or children who are influencers themselves.

"With the latter, these children are working, they're not just having their childhood shared online," Dr Crystal told Yahoo News Australia. 

"They're working, being commodified, their images are being monetised.

"Under many different conditions, they may be subject to unfair looking conditions that we can't police because workplace is in the home."

Because of this, Dr Crystal believes there is a need for people to start considering influencers as workers, not just people "doing this for fun".

"When we consider this labour, then we get to talk about children and labour," she said.

Influencer faces backlash after giving evidence 

Dr Crystal said she is already observing an increase in regulation within the industry and there are many issues beyond considering influencers as worker that we need to consider.

Like anonymity online — for some it allows them to leave nasty comments online without consequence, but for some it is the only way they can be heard.

"Especially in the Asia Pacific region in some authoritarian regimes, you need that level of protection because online is often the only place where they can have their needs and their issues," Dr Crystal explained.

"So, in order to preserve the diversity of marginalised voices, a level of anonymity is important."

It's also worth questioning whether the algorithm is doing its job, or if it is suppressing some content, or "shadow banning" creators.

BRAZIL - 2021/01/25: In this photo illustration the Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok, LinkedIn and Slack app and logos seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Following the hearing Em Sheldon woke up to abiusive messages. Source: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The inquiry was far reaching, with an emphasis of the commercial side of the influencer industry and regulations which need to be in place — but Dr Crystal says it is important to look at the individual harm influencers are experiencing.

As for Ms Sheldon, she says after she spoke at the inquiry, she's received nasty messages online.

"People must read articles about how bad the abuse is, then think, ‘Aha! I’ll go and abuse her!’ It’s crazy," she told The Sunday Times. 

"I knew I was going to open myself up to this, but I didn’t realise quite how terrible people are.

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