Is there life after influencing?

Is there life after influencing?

At her first full-time job since leaving influencing, erstwhile smoothie bowl virtuoso Lee Tilghman stunned a new co-worker with her enthusiasm for the 9-to-5 grind.

She had once had what he wanted: flexible hours, no boss, a devoted audience so rabid for her recommendations that she could command as much as $20,000 for a single branded Instagram post advertising alternative nut flours or frozen sweet potato fries on her 400,000-follower account, @LeeFromAmerica.

The co-worker pulled her aside that first morning, wanting to impress upon her the stakes of that decision. “This is terrible,” he told her. “Like, I’m at a desk.”

“You don’t get it,” Tilghman remembered saying. “You think you’re a slave, but you’re not.” He had it backward, she added. “When you’re an influencer, then you have chains on.”

In the late 2010s, for a certain subset of millennial women, Tilghman was wellness culture, a warm-blooded mood board of Outdoor Voices workout sets, coconut oil and headstands. She had earned north of $300,000 a year – and then dropped more than 150,000 followers, her entire management team and most of her savings to become an IRL person.

The corporate gig, as a social media director for a tech platform, was a revelation. “I could just show up to work and do work,” Tilghman said. After she was done, she could leave. She didn’t have to be a brand. There’s no comments section at an office job.

Tilghman, 33, recalled the encounter late last month during a 90-minute, $40 Zoom workshop she held to guide other creators through the process of leaving influencing. (True, fine, she’d advertised the event on Instagram.) The existence of the workshop – a small counterweight to the classes, seminars and boot camps that promise to teach civilians how to become influencers – indicates a new disillusionment on the part of even the most prominent content creators.

For more than a decade, social media has carried with it the implicit promise that with some combination of luck and incessant posting, a user with no connections, no experience and sometimes no discernible skill can become rich and famous. In 2019, a Morning Consult report found that 54% of Generation Z and millennial Americans were interested in becoming influencers. (Eighty-six percent said they would be willing to post sponsored content for money.)

But the dream – as report after report and tearful vlog after vlog have made clear – comes with its own costs. If social media has made audiences anxious, it’s driving creators to the brink. In 2021, TikTok breakout star Charli D’Amelio said she had “lost the passion” for posting videos. A few months later, Erin Kern announced to her 600,000 Instagram followers that she would be deactivating her account @cottonstem; she had been losing her hair, and her doctors blamed work-induced stress. In 2022, Kara Smith, an Afro-Indigenous influencer who said she had been making $10,000 to $12,000 a month on TikTok, decided to take a full-time job, hoping to be less dependent on brand deals for income, she said.

And theirs was only the kind of ambivalence that made news. Other influencers faded without fanfare – teens whose mental health had taken too much of a hit and amateur influencers who stopped posting after an algorithm tweak tanked their metrics. Some had been at this for a decade or more, starting at 12 or 14 or 19.

Tapering off from influencing

In 2018, at the apex of her social media success, Tilghman endured modest cancellation when she announced a series of events in cities nationwide. Ticket prices hovered around $500 at some sites; she called the meet-ups “Matcha Mornings.” Followers fumed, accusing her of squeezing her fans. Others dismissed the workshops as out of touch, even appropriative. The criticism rocked her. Her obsessive-compulsive disorder flared up. She felt paranoid and was afraid to leave her apartment. “That was the beginning of thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’” she said. “I’ll find something else. I’ll wait tables.”

Still, her post count never slipped. So it was a shock to her fans and haters alike when, in a puff of ashwagandha, she disappeared from posting in 2019.

Tilghman retreated from Instagram for five months – the equivalent of eons, according to social media’s stopwatch. When she returned that summer, gone were the well-lit food photos and adaptogenic lattes. She announced that she had spent part of her hiatus in treatment for an eating disorder. Her hair was in a bowl cut. (She told The Cut she’d given her hairdresser Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber” as a reference.)

She posted less, testing out new identities that she hoped wouldn’t touch off the same spiral that wellness had. There were dancing videos, dog photos, interior design. None of it stuck. (“You can change the niche, but you’re still going to be performing your life for content,” she explained over lunch.)

She moved from Los Angeles to New York in December 2020, where her apartment broker – who saw the shift in Tilghman’s fortunes up close on rental applications – told her she was nuts for quitting influencing. (The broker then admitted her bias: “I want to be an influencer!”)

Tilghman slowed her sponsored posts. She was earning less than one-third of her old income. When she was laid off from the tech job in October 2021, she resisted the urge to post through it.

At the workshop, she was firm with the attendees that this would not be a seminar about “de-influencing,” the new buzzword that describes influencers who tell their followers what’s not worth their cash. Nor was it about anti-wellness influencing or mental health influencing. It was intended to be a practical intensive, with a section on how to write a resume that best frames influencer experience, and another on how to network. “For people who are here who want to learn how to be an influencer, but with balance, I don’t have tips,” she said. “For me, I couldn’t.” She has forsworn merch. She will not partner with an incense brand.

Tilghman’s problem – as the interest in the workshop, which she decided to cap at 15, demonstrated – is that she has an undeniable knack for this. In 2022, she started a Substack to continue writing, thinking of it as a calling card while she applied to editorial jobs; it soon amassed 20,000 subscribers. It once had a different name, but now it’s called “Offline Time.” The paid tier costs $5 a month.

Tilghman has insisted that the newsletter is a creative outlet, more like the unoptimized blogging of an earlier internet era than engagement-driven social media.

What she wants is to reset her relationship with the internet. It’s not monkish abstinence she’s after, but simple coexistence. She wants to use social media like a regular person. Social media seems to have other ideas. In the lead-up to the workshop, Tilghman had to take the Substack app off her phone. “I was like, ‘Oh God, this is becoming a social media app,’” she said. “Internet becomes internet. You can’t escape it.”

Anna Russett, a workshop attendee, marveled at how similar Tilghman’s experience had been to her own. Russett, 31, worked on social media for a big advertising firm in Chicago, while amassing tens of thousands of followers on her personal Instagram account. Curious, she decided to go all in on influencing just “to see what that would feel like,” Russett recalled. It turned out to feel quite lucrative.

“It was like, if I do this one post, rent’s covered for the month,” she said. It was exhilarating but unstable. She never felt able to relax, and then she felt worse for not appreciating what to others seemed like uncomplicated good luck. “It made me feel kind of lost,” Russett said. In 2020, she found a job on the product team at YouTube. She now gets health care through work and paid time off. She doesn’t wonder how she’ll keep her numbers up while she’s on vacation.

She still uses Instagram, as does Tilghman, but Russett’s last sponsored post is from 2021. (Tilghman’s is from the start of 2022, although she said she did accept a direct-to-consumer couch in exchange for a tag eight months later.) “I still sometimes fantasize about it, not having a boss,” Russett said, thinking about the pull of influencing. “But I know it’s not realistic; that’s not how it was, and that’s not how it would be.”

Her sister, Andrea Russett, has almost 3 million YouTube subscribers and over 1.5 million followers on TikTok. She dropped out of high school and never went to college. At 27, she’s still on a path she chose when she was in middle school. “It is this moment where it’s like, ‘Well, what else do I do and can I do this forever?’” Russett said of her sister’s deliberations. “I see it, and I’m kind of like, ‘Oh, thank God I didn’t go that route.’”

‘Those skills do transfer’

Casey Lewis, who helms the After School newsletter about Gen Z consumer trends, predicts more pivots and exits. TikTok has elevated creators faster than other platforms and burned them out quicker, she said.

Lewis expects a swell of former influencers taking jobs with PR agencies, marketing firms and product development conglomerates. She pointed out that creators have experience not just in video and photo editing, but in image management, crisis communication and rapid response. “Those skills do transfer,” she said.

How to maximize the upside and minimize the toll that social media can take is on the minds of even the most committed influencers.

Jade Sherman, who heads up the digital media division at talent hub A3 Artists Agency, sees addressing those questions as an essential part of her job. She’s been working with several creators since their teens; grown-up concerns are different. Soon some will want to take time off to have children. Others have withdrawn for personal reasons, as Tilghman did. Even her all-stars look to her for reassurance. She can’t predict how an extended break will affect clients’ revenue and follower counts, but she can help them ease back in. “We’ll set up collabs,” she said. “We’ll help however we can.”

After Tilghman announced her workshop, criticism mushroomed in the comments beneath her post. She saw a tweet that summed up the negative sentiment. It read, in part: “influencers offering workshop to teach people how to stop being influencers while being an influencer for not influencing.”

“I thought, ‘This person doesn’t get it,’” she said. She resented the idea that the workshop was a cash grab; she wasn’t going to get rich off a few hundred bucks in ticket sales. On Zoom, she raised the critique before her audience could, tossing off a social media-hewn motto: “The girls that get it, get it, and the girls that don’t, don’t.”

Over lunch, she was more reflective. “I do miss it sometimes,” she said. After that first hiatus in 2019, she had briefly enrolled in classes at UCLA and got an internship with an interior design firm, where she made $18 an hour. It was the first time she had asked herself whether she could afford to quit.

When she’d come back to Instagram, commenters snarked that her parents paid her rent. Not true, she said. She’d run down her savings in treatment. “But I’m happier now,” she said. “I’m in the world. I have deeper friendships. I have a bigger social life. I get to do the things I want to do.”

Tilghman hasn’t ruled out more events like the workshop; she has also met one-on-one with other influencers for an added fee, helping them chart their own escape routes.

But mostly, she wants a job again – a boring job. “Put that in the article,” Tilghman deadpanned. She knows good exposure when she sees it.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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