Fear and Loathing in Influencerland
For almost two years, I have been immersed in the world of techwear fashion. What started as an assigment to investigate the mechanisms of influencer culture soon turned into a passion, or perhaps more accurately: an obsession. This Sunday, my story was published in Svenska Dagbladet.
“When are you going to become normal again?”
We have just turned out the lights, my daughter is about to go to sleep, questions are bubbling up.
“Huh… You want me to be like one of those ordinary dads?”
“Nooo, not like that, I just… Can’t you be more like before? I mean, before you became an influencer?”
255 days have passed since my experiment began. I have created a digital alter ego, found my way into an obscure niche of male fashion, gathered thousands of followers, quarrelled with a star designer, bought pants for thousands of dollars and had clothes gifted to me from Hongkong, London, Vancouver, Cologne, Sydney and Gothenburg.
My brain stutters. What it thinks I cannot say: “Honey, I’m afraid it’s unclear if daddy will ever get back to normal again. Sleep tight.”
Before my project evolves into a personality disorder, it begins as a reporting assignment. In the newsroom, we discuss how to cover the influencer culture that strengthens its positions day by day, at the expense of traditional media. Influencer is the new entrepreneur and the new celebrity, a heady cocktail promising success and self-fulfilment. The education market, always eager to satisfy the needs and whims of young minds, have caught on. Swedes curious about this hyper-modern profession have a plethora of online courses to choose from, or they can enroll in influencer programs at private high schools like Thorén Innovation School or Kalix Folk High School.
The power of lifestyle influencers is undeniable, these days their platforms are just as important to campaigning politicians as the big news networks. Party leaders are in turn becoming influencers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. Parents are coaching their children, helping tiny, irresistible mini-influencers to cut class so they can participate in mall promotion campaigns. Swedish heavyweights, like Rachel Brathen, Janni Delér and Kenza Zoutien count their followers in the millions; self-made stars, risen without backing from traditional media.
Beneath this upper crust are thousands of hopefuls, struggling to monetize their lives and relations without ever reaching their goals. To understand this broad layer of wannabes – their psychology and phenomenology – you need to become one of them. Which is why I decide to build a following in the fashion world on Instagram. My colleagues all think it’s a splendid idea.
It is not.
Basically, anyone can make it as an influencer, according to Pernilla Möller. She is a licensed teacher of Swedish and history, and she is heading development of the creative media program at Thorén Innovation School. The program caters to the influencers of tomorrow, but also to students curious about the phenomenon from a more theoretical perspective.
“What it takes more than anything is work, patience, analysis, thoroughness. You need to find your niche and understand your audience,” she tells me over the phone.
Being cool and beautiful, or creating serene shots of impeccable interior design is not enough. If you want to truly make it, you need to be crowdpleasing and goal oriented. You need to understand your audience, yes, but also how the algorithms can boost your accounts or bury them in the noise, she explains.
“You have to make sure people find you, through hashtags and recommendations. You have probably seen how some people plead with their followers: ‘Please like and comment, otherwise I may disappear from your feed.’ You have to create engagement, enthusiasm, forging a genuine bond with your followers.”
This, clearly, is where my problems start. I don’t want anyone to know what I’m doing. I have no desire to forge genuine bonds to anyone. The fashion niche is something I choose because of its distance from my real life and writing. But at least I find a genre to specialize in that I’m truly curious about.
In the fashion niche called techwear, brands like Acronym, Veilance and Stone Island Shadow Project take inspiration from martial arts, cyberpunk, outdoors gear and military garments, fusing hardcore functionality and high-tech materials with a futuristic, vaguely dystopian vibe. It’s a world of Gore-Tex, Polartec and Primaloft – but instead of joyful, outdoorsy colors the garments are painted in a stealthy palette with occasional color pops like flickering neon signs on a rainy night.
On a slow summer day I create accounts on Reddit and Instagram. I start from scratch under an assumed name – Neogrotesk, after a sans-serif typeface family – and try my hand at building a following from scratch. It is anything but a watertight plan. My fashion knowledge is scant and I’m old enough to be the father of most of the kids making up the broad base of techwear enthusiasts.
The neurotransmitters of shame and fear are fizzing in my skull as I upload my first “fit pic” to Reddit.
My wife has taken a picture of me with my phone, as I stand on a rock in the woods. Nike rain jacket, Saucony running shoes and a pair of cargos from Nike ACG. This is no outfit to write home about, some forum dwellers have been into techwear for decades and spent tens of thousands on the hobby.
I try to ignore my phone as reactions start pouring in.
King of the hill, in the world of techwear brands, is Acronym. Its founders, Errolson Hugh and Michaela Sachenbacher, started out as design consultants working for activewear brands, making clothes for snowboarding and roller-skating. In 2001 they released their first products under their own brand, a neat box with a jacket, a bag, a compact disc and a few printouts. There were predecessors in functional design for urban environments – brands like Vexed Generation, C.P. Company and Mandarina Duck – but with Acronym, techwear became its own paradigm.
19 years later scores of epigons have imitated Acronym’s maxed-out jackets and dramatic drop-crotch pants. By now Errolson Hugh is a star even outside of the techwear niche, partly thanks to a collaboration with Nike. Stars like Drake, Robin Williams, Jason Statham and John Mayer have all been spotted wearing Acronym.
Thus, top bragging rights on the techwear forum goes to posts with Acronym jacket over Acronym midlayer, over Acronym sweater, over Acronym pants, over Visvim boots, with an Acronym bag casually slung over one shoulder. It’s an easy look to copy, if price is no object. Errolson Hugh claims that he never considers the cost of his clothes, just tries to make the best things he can, which means he crafts ultra-functional, architecturally complex garments out of stuff like Loro Piana wool, Suri Alpaca and Gore-Tex Pro. Hence, a full Acronym outfit like the above-mentioned comes with a price tag approaching ten thousand dollars.
The price barrier is not my only obstacle. I ask Jonas Colliander, an associate professor and social media researcher in the Department of Marketing and Strategy at the Stockholm School of Economics, about the easiest way to influencer stardom. His reply is disheartening.
“There are no easy ways. You will have to build a bond with your followers over time. You need to create connection and engagement, share your life and your everyday concerns.”
The two key factors are expertise and trustworthiness, he explains. To be brutally honest, I lack both.
Nevertheless, reactions to my first fit pic are kind. No one mocks me for being a cringey boomer standing on a rock trying to look cool; instead they offer encouragement and compliments. Apparently my outfit looks “wearable” and “stylish”. 500 upvotes (the Reddit version of likes) is enough to push me to buy a Uniqlo coat and take some more pictures. The follower count on Instagram is slowly increasing.
For the sake of offering some more juicy content than just fit pics, I register a domain, tchwr.com, and create a Wordpress blog where I write about techwear as I learn more about it. I have noticed that despite Acronym’s status there’s a dearth of information about the brand, so I decide to review the upcoming fall/winter collection. Pictures have leaked and they are already being discussed in private forums. I simply do what any click-starved journalist would do: write some tongue-in-cheek commentary and post it on my site.
Gatekeeping is a phenomenon prevalent in all subcultures, and I now get to experience its force in techwear. While most enthusiasts welcome newcomers, newcomers are supposed to defer to the elders who have invested tens of thousands in Acronym clothes over many years. The members of this clique fancy themselves guardians of esoteric knowledge that the uninitiated cannot fathom.
Sharing opinions on Acronym clothes without hands-on experience is verboten, and the old-timers roll me thoroughly in tar and feathers, branding me with epithets like clown and herb. Little do they know they’re mocking a fake person. The gap between me and Neogrotesk is not only a drawback, but also a shield. Even so, I realize that my old tricks won’t necessarily translate into success as an influencer. The “fake it until you make it” strategy will result in pushback from an establishment jealously guarding its privileges. The only way to win influence is to invest in the hobby, and build alliances.
I make a habit of mashing the like buttons on every techwear-related Instagram post, whether it’s from a brand or a fellow enthusiast. I write positive comments, I find likeminded to chat with and I recruit writers to my site. A veteran from the community writes a detailed review of Acronym’s most iconic jacket, another contributes a comparison between three coveted techwear jackets.
Enter Errolson Hugh. The Acronym founder and techwear icon reads the comparison, and is not pleased. He is upset by the writer’s opinion that the face fabric on the Acronym jacket feels lower-quality than its competitors from Veilance and Outlier, so Hugh responds with aggressively laugh-crying emojis. Then he finds my review of the fall/winter collection. “This is peak techwear expert,” he writes. “Reviewing clothes you haven’t even tried.” When I cautiously reply that I never claimed to be an expert he unceremoniously blocks me.
There is opportunity in conflict. If I escalate my spat with the reigning champ of the techwear universe, I will be loathed by his loyal fans, but the fact that he even acknowledges my existence could be a shortcut to fame. Many an influencer have made their names through public feuding. Still, it is a risky path to glory. Every niche has its own rules and what works for one influencer might be a fatal misstep for another.
Instead I decide to get better acquainted with Acronym’s clothes. A russian bloke in a private chat has an old jacket up for sale at the relatively affordable price of $850. I make the sign of the cross, send him the money over Paypal and hope for the best. Somehow it works. A few days later I stick my arms into an upgraded take on an army Gore-Tex jacket, with “gravity pocket”, “interops”, “force lock” and “jacket sling”. In just a couple of days, it changes Neogrotesk’s life.
“Seriously? Do we really have to? Can’t we even take a walk now, without you making us stop all the time to take photos?”
We’re out for a walk, by the lake near our home, and once again my photographer is acting up.
“Just look at this, don’t you think this will be a cool backdrop?”
“Sure. So cool. But the kids are tired.”
“I need to go to the bathroom,” someone whimpers in the background.
But the light is perfect, and I’m wearing both the Nemen jacket and the Cav Empt pants.
“Just three shots. I promise. If they’re no good it’s fine.”
“You know, influencers should really try to post pictures every day…”
“Just give me the damn phone.”
Four months have passed since I started, and I have gathered a few hundred followers from around the world. Many are youths, and techwear is their first contact with fashion. Others are fashionistas, game developers, accountants, retail clerks, IT consultants and designers. The everyday bickering with my forcibly recruited photographers gets its reward when fashion designers half a world away message me to let me know they have my outfits on their moodboards.
I spend even more time on my phone than before. Making a nice picture, or a review, is hard work. There’s writing, editing, postproduction of images, posting to Instagram, Reddit, Discord and Facebook. Then I obsess over likes and reply to comments and questions until my brain sizzles. But something changes after I post the first picture with my Acronym jacket. The tone of comments shifts just a few degrees, from encouragement toward reverence. An influencer agency reaches out and wants to help me get sponsors (they turn out to mostly offer dog toys and skin products), and a fashion store in Hongkong suggests a collaboration where I show off some of their garments. By simply putting on a jacket I’ve transitioned, from wannabe to nano-influencer.
A nano-influencer has between 2,000 and 10,000 followers, according to Jonas Colliander at the Stockholm School of Economics. But it’s not only about the follower count, it’s about establishing strong relationships with them, too.
I still keep my cards close to my chest. No pictures of kids, no details about my personal life. Still, relationships grow. Commodified friendship. Followers ask me about the clothes I wear, which size they should go for, and what I think of various items they consider purchasing.
I test my fledgling influencer wings, with varying results. A Swedish company making fancy face masks gives me one to try when I ask them. An outdoors clothing startup sends me a pair of pants. A fashion store in Stockholm doesn’t reply when I ask if I can shoot some outfits at their store, and a niche footwear company similarly ignores my advances.
One winter day a parcel full of stretchy athletic wear arrives, courtesy of a small French company. A jacket, t-shirts, shorts – things I haven’t even asked for. My wife is reluctantly impressed.
“You can’t stop doing this now. Clothes are just… coming.”
The founder of the company wants me to review some of the things he sent me. A few weeks later all the clothes are suddenly on 80 percent sale. There’s no new collection coming. On the brand’s Instagram hashtag I find page after page of pliable yoga influencer bodies, moving smoothly in lustrous spandex.
There’s a sadness to the pictures. Did the company think they could survive by sending clothes to all these micro-influencers around the world? Where does this belief in influencers even come from? Is it like the old-time belief in supernatural beings – spirits, saints and minor deities – granting fortune to those who worship them?
Credible estimates of the value of the influencer market are hard to find. Some firms calculate that the industry had a revenue of some $15 billion in 2020, globally. It is not a gargantuan number, a tiny fraction of the total advertising market. But it is also a number that is impossible to validate as it is hard to accurately track, for instance, transactions between individual micro-influencers and tiny startup companies eager to reach their first customers. More interestingly, several analysts agree that the influencer industry has been growing by at least 50 percent every year in the past five years.
According to Jonas Colliander, 70 to 80 percent of our purchasing decisions are influenced by friends and acquaintances.
“If you manage to gather 300,000 followers, who regard you as an acquaintance they trust, that means you have a valuable platform,” he says.
The fashion industry is crawling with influencer wannabes. They dress up in their best clothes, put their cameras on tripods, strike a pose and post their fit pics in various forums. The pictures are tagged with brands, outfits are dissected, item by item, and their peers offer criticism and adoration. It’s a form of support groups for young people, where someone is always around to tell them what they want to hear: You have good taste. You look great.
That’s one side of the coin. But these communities also encourage dubious consumption habits. You can always find enthusiastic support for the decision to buy another pair of pants for 1,500 dollars.
I willingly make myself a part of this consumer culture. I dutifully tag my photos, show off products, offer free advertising for companies that may at some point, hopefully, maybe, send me a sample of something, or at least include my picture in an Instagram story. I follow fashion designers, brands and enthusiasts. I like all their posts, sprinkle happy exclamations and emojis around me. They return the favor.
This is the nirvana of capitalism. I’m constructed from brands. I’m friends with brands. I talk to brands. Even my interaction with other people is permeated by brands. The balance between production and consumption capsizes and consumption itself feels like a creative force. My only problem is it’s not generating any money, quite the opposite.
The core business of influencership is an extention of the core business of social media platforms at large, which writers like Shoshana Zuboff and Jaron Lanier has identified as behavior modification. What makes an influencer valuable is their ability to make their followers pay for something they would otherwise not have paid for. As powerful as algorithmically targeted advertising campaigns are, they cannot offer what influencers can: trusted, admired people – almost your friends – recommending products or just appearing to use them in their desirable lives.
Any suspicion that this can’t really work is quickly dispelled as followers start messaging me asking for sizing advice so they can buy the clothes I’m wearing. I publish a post with a Veilance jacket and have a handful people ask me about measurements, and after I post a picture of a $1,200 Nemen jacket, at least three of my followers pick up the same model.
I couldn’t pinpoint the moment when my project becomes something more than research. More and more of my time is spent juggling different forums, Instagram, Facebook groups, new sales and “drops” – releases of shoes and garments that often sell out in minutes – in shops across the globe. This behavior is constantly reinforced, as I post pics, links and comments and am rewarded by likes and conversation, ensuring me that what I’m doing is not at all a waste of time but important indeed.
My plan to not involve my family in the project failed when I asked them to take the first fit pic. I wanted to avoid exploiting them for content, but they are affected in other ways. My clothing budget skyrockets and our daily life is punctured by the interruptions of spontaneous photo ops. Even worse, much of my attention is diverted toward social media. My kids ask the same questions for the fifth time as I stare at my screen, absorbed by the feed. My wife pores over the comments on my pictures with furrowed brow.
Spending a lot of time in company where something – anything – is regarded as important is an effective way to alter your own priorities. Time and time again I realize I’ve spent half an hour in web shops trying to find the perfect tabi sneaker, bicycle backpack or Gore-Tex cap, even though I have no need for any of those things. Deadlines for my story rush by as distant shadows. There is always something undone, something more to be discovered. With every image I post I change myself, my idea of who I am and what is meaningful to me.
Powerful influencers are not running this machinery. Neither are fashion designers, brands or celebrities. Pulling the strings, making the rules and banking the mondo profits are the platforms. Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, Tiktok. The stages they offer make a select few rich and famous, while the great masses of micro-influencers – the underpaid proletariat of the machinery of consumerism – struggle for a while before we eventually give up.
Many of my fellow techwear enthusiasts attempt to craft an influencer career, with various degrees of intent and success. There are countless young men who basically work as unpaid models and ambassadors for their favorite brands.
There is the movie producer who makes videos about Acronym products, with a slowly growing follower count. One day he puts on a $3,000 outfit and jumps into a lake in the dead of winter. Result: 20 new Instagram followers.
There’s the funny Brit who runs a humorous Youtube channel. He has 60,000 subscribers, but also a full-time job to afford the clothes he showcases.
There’s the American with 15,000 Instagram followers who tries her hand at Youtube reviews, only to be subjected to so much mockery that she abandons both her accounts.
One morning I’m setting the breakfast table with my wife.
“Tonight I dreamt that I was scrolling through my Instagram feed. There was a picture of you,” she says with cornflakes in one hand and granola in the other.
The dull light of dawn is trickling through the clouds. Upstairs, our kids are ignoring their alarm clocks. In the hallway, jackets from Acronym, Veilance and Nemen hang silently as I place some crisp bread and cheese on the table.
“You were standing naked on a jetty, backlit against the sunset with your pubes draping like seaweed. It was a beautiful picture. But it wasn’t posted from your account, it was from that blonde influencer girl… In the comments, everyone was saying you looked so great.”
I get it. I need to become normal again. Turn my back on internet friends and followers. The lesson is learned: influence works in two directions. Neogrotesk must die for me to escape the machinery of behavior modification.
As I write this, Neogrotesk’s accounts remain, he is still waiting for DHL to deliver an expensive Gore-Tex jacket and he is still posing on Instagram.
When you read this he is deleted.
At least that is the plan.
Maybe you should check for yourself to be sure.
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