It’s the white-hot center of the holiday-shopping season, and every waking moment is an opportunity to learn about a new gift idea. As a consumer, you’ve probably developed your own sorting method for separating the garbage from the good stuff, and at this point in your life, I bet you trust at least one influencer to tell you what’s good.
There are two influencers off the top of my head whom I trust: Joanna Goddard, whose advice on fashion and beauty I take as the gospel truth, and Julie O’Rourke, whose beautiful family life has been the backdrop for many sponsored products that I assume are legit by association.
These aren’t just influencers — they’re momfluencers. And on the occasions they have things to say about politics or child-rearing or what’s really important in life, I listen. There’s plenty to say about how momfluencers make us feel. (If you’re interested in reading more about how momfluencers contribute to frustrating or problematic discourses about motherhood, I recommend you read Jess Grose’s book Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhoodand Sara Petersen’s forthcoming book,Momfluenced.)
But what about their influence itself? How does it do its work on us?
There is a subtle art to affiliate linking, which is one of the common ways momfluencers earn income. When Goddard tosses off a casual remark that she’s been “knocking around in” a pair of black jeans, I receive that information like a secret shared by a trusted friend. By linking out to the jeans, she’s really just doing me a favor by saving me from wasting my precious time looking for them. Click! Thanks, bestie! It is my pleasure to pay a percentage of the sale to her through her affiliate link. This, my friends, is how you do affiliate linking. It’s harder than it looks.
Another influencer I follow, same general age and profile as Joanna, is notably less skilled at this. She’ll post a picture of herself in a rather ordinary outfit and claim to be “obsessed” with it, displaying the link somewhat garishly in the image. Obsessed? Really? Seems doubtful. She’s working too hard for the sale — or maybe not hard enough. “Obsessed” is lazy. Tell me a story! The skill is in making it seem effortless, in coming up with a breezy scenario that integrates the object into your life. I am 40 years old; I do not experience “obsession” with a garment. I do, however, appreciate a very reliable pair of pants.
Before a momfluencer can start dropping affiliate links, she has to build up a following. This means choosing what to disclose about yourself while knowing instinctively what would be too much. Certain struggles, like postpartum depression or pregnancy loss, can bring a following together. Other struggles, like marital infidelity or experience of abuse, are still very rarely discussed. Knowing how to be “real” enough to keep people interested, but not so real you scare people off, is a tightrope walk.
It’s bewildering to me that, nearly two decades into the history of social media, we don’t have a widely agreed-upon way of talking about the expertise of influencers. Mostly we still just belittle them — they’re fake famous people, fake experts, just general fakes. But this is a critique made in bad faith because most of us willingly consume influencer media daily, often with enthusiasm.
I wonder if our resistance to ascribing any real skill to influencing has to do with our own shame about the way we consume the content itself. So many of us (myself extremely included) feel uncomfortable with the way sharing platforms have us in a headlock, and it’s in that compromised position, awash in self-loathing at our inability to wrestle free, that we often spend our free moments scrolling. It’s no wonder so many people have disdain for influencers: We encounter them in moments when we hate ourselves too.
What if, instead of dismissing influencers categorically, we decided to understand exactly what it is that they do? This might be a way of doing justice to both our own intelligence as highly sophisticated consumers of social media (I challenge you to find someone over 25 who hasn’t done their 10,000 hours) and influencers’ skillfulness at doing their jobs.
We’re living through what’s been called the “post-truth” era, in the midst of which there is a collapse of traditional institutions of expertise. Many old social structures that used to gate-keep the untrained out of the spotlight have dissolved. Even though medical school still means something in a doctor’s office, everyone’s a doctor on the internet.
It’s in this context that we’ve seen the astronomical rise in influencer marketing budgets. Understanding how influencers do their jobs is essential for making sense of an information landscape that freely mixes scientific facts and traditionally credentialed expertise with total bullshit.
Blow-dried market women of the tiny screen.
The first anthropology course I took in graduate school was called Identity and Difference, taught by Homa Hoodfar. One day, Dr. Hoodfar showed a classic BBC anthropology documentary from the 1970s about a group of Asante market women in Ghana, demonstrating the flows of power and expertise that run through a group of women who sell vegetables at a large open marketplace. I went on to spend years doing anthropological research on momfluencers, and I thought of the Asante market women often. Anthropologists had deemed them worthy of a documentary that took their work seriously. Could one give the same kind of treatment to momfluencers, who might be understood as market women of an altogether different kind?
Of all influencers, I think momfluencers have the hardest job: They have to take something that most people are not comfortable seeing sold — family life — and transform it into something people would want to buy. Pulling this off requires a complex set of moves. With every post, they have to triangulate between four competing priorities: inscrutable platform algorithms, brand partners, audience preferences, and their own sense of personal “authenticity.” Meanwhile, brand agreements rely on the contents’ performance, and saying something off-brand could mean losing a deal. When a family’s income is on the line, you’d better believe momfluencers are doing more than just posting cute photos.
When platforms decide to push a new feature, influencers usually can’t afford not to use it because algorithms will typically be updated to favor the new features over the old. For young TikTokers, this is usually just a matter of having fun with new tools, but for moms trying to earn a living, new features often present steep learning curves and awkward challenges. Some of the momfluencers I follow are still struggling with Reels more than a year after they were launched on Instagram, and I feel for them. Feeling incompetent at work sucks.
There are so many ways to be annoying online, and momfluencers are constantly bumping up against them while trying not to be “judgy” or “preachy” or “negative” or “too perfect.” It takes a particular kind of expertise to pull off these contortions. When a momfluencer turns a brutal morning getting her kids out the door for school into a thoughtful bit of content about the challenges of slowing down, she’s attempting to transform something mundane into something poignant without being corny about it. The eye of the needle through which these stories are told ends up being quite tiny. But then, saying things without ruffling feathers is a skill women have been practicing for a great many centuries.
Momfluencers who manage to thread the needle while retaining some convincing charisma and energy are usually the ones who rise to the top. And even then, their position is tenuous. O’Rourke, whose clothing and content I love, lost me for a few weeks when she handcrafted a puppet theater for her children that, to me, was too perfect. It upset me, you see. As consumers, we have so little actual power, so we cultivate our petty grievances. She crossed a line for me, and I had no choice but to seek revenge by putting her briefly on mute. My point is: These ladies better watch it. Their livelihoods depend on not annoying a bunch of fickle idiots like myself.
There are endless snake-oil courses you can take on how to create engaging content and grow your following, but none of them tell you the truth, which is that it’s a matter of highly sophisticated instinct mixed with a circus contortion of affect. This expertise is the opposite of medical school: It’s stuff that can be learned only on the job. Perhaps another reason why influencers are derided is that platforms will have us believe “anyone can do it.” But this isn’t true; millions try, and very few succeed.
Consult the Better Business Bureau within.
When a momfluencer is selling a product and you find yourself pulled in, try making a game out of understanding how she’s got you hooked. Bekah Martinez has brought me very close to pulling the trigger a few times on her skin-care sponsors, and I think it’s because she often appears in her content with no makeup on at all. I feel seen, so I keep watching. She’s got an unpredictable approach to personal style that I find appealing: a full face of makeup and unshaven legs. Her appeal is the result of intimate choices she’s made that are technically none of our business, yet that’s the pact she’s made with her audience. If she decides to shave her legs, she’ll have to answer to us. In exchange, she earns an income.
Something that’s hard to admit is that I’m not sure there’s a huge difference between how I am influenced by Martinez and how Joe Rogan’s fans are influenced by him. The content is different, but the relationships of trust are similar, and so are the moves used to create that trust. Like Rogan, my favorite momfluencers are people with informal credentials who, on the power of their charisma and canny reading of their audience’s hopes and dreams, have amassed followings.
If we fail to take the expertise of content creators like momfluencers (or Rogan) seriously, we’re undermining our chances at being able to better understand the major political debates of our time. In the post-truth era, any given momfluencer with a big enough following can have an impact on public opinion about anything from public health to abortion access to gun rights.
Before the internet, pediatricians and psychologists ruled parenting media. Almost all of these experts were men. The informal expertise of women — and the formal expertise of midwives — was largely kept out of parenting media and was spread by word of mouth. Momfluencers might be the first informal experts to exert any major social influence when it comes to parenting in history. Corporate sponsorships have been defining the terms of what momfluencers can say all along, so we can’t give the moms all the credit. But we can’t give them none of it either.
We are too deep into the creator economy to turn back now. We have to make this place liveable for ourselves as consumers and for creators as workers. Doing so is probably going to mean paying more close attention to influencers, not less. (Although putting limits on your social-media consumption is never a bad plan.)
Some people say that, by commodifying the family, momfluencers have committed a moral crime. By letting corporate sponsorships in, they’ve compromised any chance they’d ever have to really speak the truth — to be part of any real liberation of women or families or anyone. They have compromised their family’s privacy and made a marketplace out of the family home, a place that has been kept private, largely by patriarchal norms, for millennia.
But one thing about families, and intimacy and play, is that they’ve never been fully harnessed by capitalism. There’s always life that spills over outside the bounds. It can’t all be contained or accounted for. Maybe that’s the most interesting part and the part we’re all secretly looking to spot when we follow influencers — the part that can’t be captured in an image or a gift guide at all and never will be.
Five things I thought about while biking through the pitch darkness to pick up my son at school.
(1) The future of sponsored content is, maybe, publicly begging for freebies of products you truly love. The pioneers of this new strategy are the hosts of Poog, and I respect it (start at the 5:00 mark).
(2) If you’re interested in more current research about the working conditions and informal expertise of influencers in general, I recommend going down a little Google Scholar rabbit hole with the fascinating work of Ph.D. candidate Zoe Glatt.
(4) It’s box-of-Panettone season, motherfuckers. Last year, my friend Rose brought me one from Elena, and I think it’s the best ’tone you can get in Montreal. I also just love looking at all the nice boxes on display in the Italian grocery stores.
(5) New-to-me music I listened to while writing this: Hermanos Gutiérrez. They’re also hot (the hermanos).