Can Influencers Unionize?

Labor is driving for Lyft, stocking Amazon warehouses, writing or editing for a magazine—and taking pictures in #sponsored canopy beds.

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Nov 19 2018, 3:50pm

A September story in the New York Times left the Twitterati collectively gagging into their CBD lattes: “A Penthouse Made for Instagram” detailed how influencer agency Village Marketing invited a select number of influencers to a Wayfair-furnished apartment for free photoshoots among steamed white sheets, pink velvet, and #feminist posters.

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here,” wrote Katie Notopoulos. “[Primal scream]” added Styles reporter Matthew Schneier. Fortunately for me, I was able to pry my eyes from where they were languishing in the back of my head to note a quote by Global Adidas Ambassador, DJ, and entrepreneur Hannah Bronfman in the article’s kicker: “Having a place like this, for me, is not about pretending your life looks like something else. It’s about having a space you need to get your work done.”

“Work.” What’s the deal with work, anyway? A lot of us are doing it, but it seems bad. By 2020, 40% of Americans will be independent contractors without guaranteed health insurance or time off. Wages have the same purchasing power they did in the late 1970s—around the last time the Village Marketing penthouse’s shag pillows would have been in style. Work is made up of labor, which is the effort you put into something, but also the word for workers coming together (confusing, I know).

Labor is driving for Lyft, stocking Amazon warehouses, writing or editing for a magazine—and taking pictures in #sponsored canopy beds. Yet even some of the most committed leftists haven’t totally eradicated their personal hostility to work that others might regard as leisure. White Collar unionization is on the upswing, but not everyone is comfortable with it, as Alex Press notes in The Nation. Critics feel it shifts focus from the working class, though fetishization of the working class can just as easily be a deflection from one’s own privilege.

“White-collar workers aren’t organizing because they feel secure, but because they have more in common with precarious blue-collar workers than ever,” Press says. It’s about time that labor with a capital L took influencers along.

“I think people don't understand what it’s like out here sometimes,” says Katie Sturino of The 12ish Style, which is a blog for women size 12 and up. Despite the blue verification checkmark on her Instagram profile, her more than 200,000 followers, and her glamorous wardrobe, our conversation begins with an all too relatable problem for fellow gig economy workers: “Can I just say that I don’t think that the health insurance thing has been solved at all? I just wanted to say that out loud,” says Sturino. “If you come across any good ideas from people, please let me know.”

Yena Kim, the talent behind Menswear Dog (a beacon of joy for shiba inu and menswear fans alike), admits that for a few years she went without health insurance, all the while making sure her dog, Bodhi, was covered. “You’re thinking about 30% of your paycheck going to taxes. You’re also thinking about equipment”—from cameras to computers to sewing machines. “You’re thinking about your protection when brands don’t pay you for months,” Kim says of the challenges of being a freelancer.

The earliest fashion bloggers, such as Bryan Yambao, Susie Lau, and Tavi Gevinson, traded on their distinct personal taste and editorial voice. The idea of fashion blogger as tastemaker made the jump to Instagram intact, and uniqueness is still the aspiration of any serious influencer. That bar is increasingly hard to reach, as the volume of images posted online tends to converge on the same Dior saddle bag, Gucci T-shirt, or Picasso-faced earrings. Even the “statement” pieces chosen to combat this sameness end up in the gravitational pull of certain platform tropes: the red shoe on the taxi seat, coffin-shaped nails wrapped around a Moschino phone case. Over at The Atlantic, Taylor Lorenz explains how Adobe Lightroom presets have become an additional source of revenue for influencers, which means more stylistic similarities across your grid.

But if bloggers were radical for challenging the traditionally regimented ladder-climbing inherent to the fashion industry, the idea of the influencer as a radical individual has fallen by the wayside. In part, this is because the number of sponsorship and marketing opportunities, which are necessary to the fiscal survival of the full-time influencer, naturally lead to aesthetic overlaps. They may be promoting the same products, or even using the same poses in attempt to cement the legitimacy needed to broker deals with brands. But Bronfman’s acknowledgement that influencers are a workforce with a shared set of needs, whether deliberate or not, isn’t widely discussed outside the industry.

For Anna Lisa Grieve of the ethical style and travel account RecessCity, Instagram’s 2016 algorithm rollout was the catalyst for influencers tackling the challenges of the industry together. “Even if those conversations initially are about the algorithm, they go on to talk about each others’ backgrounds, what their long-term goals are, whether or not you have representation or choosing to have representation, if you’ve worked with a certain hotel or if you’ve worked with a certain brand, what that collaboration was like,” she explains. Most of these conversations occur through Instagram DM.

Tiffany M. Battle, entrepreneur and founder of fashion and lifestyle blog The Werk Place, found her influencer community in Facebook groups of fellow women of color: “I think maybe a couple of years ago, nobody would talk about what campaigns they were working on, what rates they were charging.” The beginning of these groups was “the realization that this conversation needs to happen, more often and with a larger group of people,” especially for women of color with a niche following, Battle says. (It’s worth noting that in spring 2018, Battle signed with Noire Mgmt, an agency intentionally founded to represent influencers of color.)

“You’re thinking about your protection when brands don’t pay you for months.”

“When a brand hosts an entire press event and invites 50 influencers, even within New York City, which is huge city, I end up with the same group of 20 of the same influencers in New York at these same events, and we all become a group,” says Brooklyn-based blogger and social media consultant Morgan Marie Jones, who runs MoJo in Manhattan. “So then we start relying on each other and we support each other.”

Although these networks have arisen organically, each of the influencers I talked to expressed an interest in formalizing them through a collective that would offer help with contracts, intellectual property protection, and shared studio space on top of the agency options that already exist— something like the Freelancer’s Union, which just opened a co-working space in Dumbo.

Sturino is still looking for her community: “I end up talking more to non-plus size bloggers who are more open with me,” because of the competition for limited plus size opportunities. “Oftentimes there is just one spot in those campaigns.”

In the meantime, Battle has discussed splitting the cost of booking a hotel room for photoshoots with other freelancers. Many of the women I talked to have taken pictures for other bloggers to save money or alleviate the risk of stepping away from a tripod on a bustling city street. “If there was a collective, I know that the demand is so high that if they opened their doors, the next day they'd be inundated with a flood of influencers,” says Kim.

Fellow freelancers take note: PSL now stands for pumpkin spice labor.