Influencers That Are Reimagining Online Spaces
This feature is in the March/April Next Wave Issue. Click here to subscribe.
As the concept of “influencer” began to creep into the public discourse, the image that often came with it was predominantly white and heterosexual. The range of influencers from more marginalized communities were always there, although often pushed to the background. But now BIPOC and queer creators are even more ubiquitous online, and they’re reclaiming the image of the social media influencer.
One of the veterans of the early years of online content creation is Zach Campbell, a YouTuber well known for his vivacious personality, humor and music reviews. “I don’t think I was myself completely,” Campbell says about the start of his YouTube career. “I had to maybe tone it down a little bit, be a little straight.”
But through the years, Campbell has seen the diversity continue to grow and more people sharing their authentic selves.
“I love seeing that people feel like they don’t have to wear a mask anymore,” Campbell says.
The road to social media success has gotten shorter and shorter with people spending more time than usual at home and online. It made for the perfect environment for newcomers like Christian Haynes aka Thee Black Badger to break into the market.
Haynes started to make TikToks in late 2019 and picked it up even more in April 2020 as a way to alleviate the lockdown’s boredom. By then, the platform already had an established Black community to step into.
“When it comes to the Black culture on social media, I feel like, if anything, like we’re kind of the reason stuff is really poppin’,” Haynes says.
Especially when it comes to the comedy niche on TikTok, Haynes sees a lot more diversity in the people who are popular regardless of the community they are in. “If you’re funny, you’re funny,” Haynes says matter-of-factly.
When it comes to the advertising side of being an influencer, there is room to grow. A 2021 study by MSL U.S., a global public relations agency, showed that the racial pay gap between white and BIPOC influencers is 29%. For Black influencers specifically, the gap is even higher at 35%.
Campbell has had a lot of experience with the changing relationship between brands and influencers: “At the end of the day, I always say influencers are just glamorized advertisement workers.”
At one point in Campbell’s career when he had finally transitioned to being a full-time influencer in 2017, he says his agency struggled to find brand deals for him. “They didn’t know how to market me,” he says. “They had no idea.”
Campbell also brought up the issue social media sites have within themselves with algorithms that hide BIPOC creators from wider audiences. Those like Jackie Aina, a veteran of the beauty influencer space, have used their platforms to speak up on the issues of diversity and online bias.
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“I’m not the default on social media,” Aina explained in her 2020 YouTube video titled “How to Fix Your Social Media Algorithm.” She advises her fans on how to make their personal feeds more reflective of their communities.
“This can be especially frustrating as a creator especially when you’re the one making the content and you’re trying to grow and you’re trying to get your career out there,” Aina says.
Haynes notes how creatively difficult it can be working with brands. “You give an idea, and they accept it and having to just go with the changes and having to switch stuff up,” he says. “They don’t like something, you got to do this and that. And I mean, it is what it is.”
Despite that, being an influencer also brings Haynes a lot of joy. “The money and stuff, that’s cool, but the impact I’m making on people means so much more,” says Haynes. “I think that’s what drives me.”
Campbell says he’s still amazed to have made his passion into a career. “I still actually still trip over like, ‘Wow, bitch, you made it. How did you do that?’”