The friendship took a turn in Rome. Charlotte*, 23, was studying there when Melissa*, 22, flew out for a visit. The plan was that the two of them would do some sightseeing and soak up the Italian atmosphere while also taking the odd photograph for Melissa’s Instagram, which, with 13,000 followers, was her primary source of income.
“She wanted to make it look like she was constantly on holiday,” recalls Charlotte. “So she would walk around with a backpack filled with various clothes and accessories to make the pictures look like they were taken on separate days.” Instead of going to the tourist spots they’d planned, Melissa was more concerned with finding photogenic locations she’d seen on other influencer’s Instagram feeds.
“I ended up just following her around, holding her things and taking photos. She didn’t really take in any of the culture and was focused solely on content creation.” Looking back, Charlotte feels sorry for Melissa. “It never really felt like she lived in the moment. Rome is such a beautiful city and deserves everyone’s full attention. Instead of actually living the experience, she was always just plotting her next picture.”
Stories such as Charlotte’s are ten a penny. At least, they are on a Reddit thread that went viral after calling on “IRL friends of social media influencers” to tell the internet “what it’s like”. Among the 1,100 responses are tales of deceit, disappointment, and downright forgery.
One person lamented that their friend “cannot stop talking about all the free stuff they get”, while another complained of the “constant filming” whenever they spent time together. “It’s [got] to the point where people walk up to me on the street and ask me about him because they’ve seen me in his posts... I have no idea who they are,” they added.
“She hasn’t come to anything I’ve invited her to in five years because she only goes to events that ‘further her business’,” commented one user.
“Everything had to be a photo opportunity,” added another. “We could never just go out to lunch, or see a movie without it turning into a photoshoot. She never did anything with our friend group unless it was ‘aesthetic’, and even then, she was so focused on getting us to take photos that a) she didn’t get to enjoy the activity, and b) it started bringing everyone else down because they couldn’t participate either.”
Others reported feeling frustrated by the incessant screen time and the stringent policies on what can and cannot be shared on social media: “Imagine trying to get a group picture with all of your friends for your birthday but having to take almost 100 shots to get one that your influencer friend is happy with,” wrote one person.
Strictly speaking, a social media influencer is someone who uses their online platform to make money. Where you might have previously needed hundreds and thousands of followers in order to earn an income from social media, now it’s thought that anyone with 10,000 followers or more can use their account for profit. The job description itself varies, much like the fees, depending on the person’s platform. Influencing has also changed gradually as the sector has grown, with advertising watchdogs increasingly imposing stringent rules to help consumers recognise paid social adverts.
For the most part, criticisms surrounding the sector have been about regulation. But in recent years, discussions around the practice of influencing itself – and how being an influencer might affect people’s lives – have become more prominent. Consider the viral essay about Caroline Calloway written by her former friend, Natalie Beach, in 2019. Published in The Cut, the article detailed how, a year into their friendship, Beach started helping Calloway build an online profile, describing the work as being “an unpaid intern”. As the account grew, and a book deal was thrown into the mix, their professional relationship became messier, to say the least, until finally Beach emailed Calloway to say they were through.
The essay offered an insight into the darker sides of social media influencing, while also prompting an important conversation about female friendship. These subjects came up again more recently, too, when former Love Island star and prototype influencer, Molly Mae Hague (6.2 million followers and counting), revealed that she only has five friends in real life.
Discussing her career on the “Diary Of A CEO” podcast in December last year, Hague revealed she had lost friends as her success had grown. “I have literally about five people in my circle, and that includes friends,” she said. “I have acquaintances and I have people in my life that I say are my friends but, no, my circle is absolutely tiny. And I like it that way, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I work, I spend time with my boyfriend and I go to bed. That is literally my life."
For those people who are paid to promote a product or service, their everyday experiences, both online and offline, may be highly focused on opportunities for doing their job
Dr Linda Kaye, chair of the British Psychological Society’s Cyberpsychology department
Dr Linda Kaye, chair of the British Psychological Society’s Cyberpsychology department says there are many reasons why being friends with an influencer could be difficult. “For those people who are paid to promote a product or service, their everyday experiences, both online and offline, may be highly focused on opportunities for doing their job,” Dr Kaye explains. “Whilst being a mindful employee isn’t inherently a bad thing, this may start to interfere with wider aspects of one’s life and in this instance may bleed into social experiences with friends or family.”
Many of the complaints on the Reddit thread reflected Charlotte’s words: users felt like their influencer friends “never lived in the moment”. But as Dr Kaye argues, there’s a clear psychological explanation to this. “When in social settings, we typically regulate our behaviour based on who we are with and where we are,” she says. “With others, we typically mentalise their perceptual states or beliefs and this forms part of how we know how to behave appropriately and how to behave socially. However, in the case of influencers, they may often be mentalising their range of audiences from a given social experience. So rather than be present in the here and now of their current ‘audience’ (those they are currently in the company of), they may be widening their view of how capturing this experience may be appraised by their wider audiences such as on social media.”
For that person’s company, though, this can appear performative, leading the friends of influencers feeling used. Such feelings were the case for Georgia*, 35, who developed a friendship with a fitness influencer with more than 100,000 followers after they worked on a project together.
“If they saw anyone near with a phone, they’d just burst out laughing or do something for the camera, to make it look like something really interesting was happening,” she recalls. “They would use friends’ houses and AirBnBs to stage video content as if it was their own house. It was exhausting.” The two never fell out, but as Georgia grew increasingly agitated with her friend’s career, they drifted apart. “They basically started ignoring me once they’d used me for what they needed,” she says.
Relate counselor Holly Roberts explains that a lot of the anxieties surrounding influencer friendships stem from unequal power dynamics. “It’s possible that some social media influencers will be all consumed with creating an online persona,” she says. “You may end up taking a back seat in the friendship if everything is about them and their social media profile. As a result, you may never feel like you get their full attention and find this upsetting.”
For some, the Reddit thread was viewed as an opportunity to deride influencers, and the nature of their work, in general. But the stories there paint a warped picture of what the job actually entails, says Holly Moran, marketing manager at Cure Media, Europe’s leading influencer marketing company.
“The part that stood out to me in the thread was that one of the most common grievances is the amount of photos the Redditors’ influencer friends take, and how constant their focus on their work is,” she says. “Sure, these individual influencers might have not been going about it the right way (though that sounds like a personal problem rather than a career one) but the work ethic and commitment required is evident whether you like it or not.”
Additionally, Moran points out that it’s very easy for people who don’t work in the industry to be disparaging of it because, “in the same way that some people scoff at actors or even athletes, they only consider the ‘end product’.”
For some influencers, the lack of understanding with regards to their career has prompted a shift away from it altogether, whether that’s by forging careers in other fields, like podcasting and fashion design, or by distancing themselves from the title.
“I actually get offended when I get called an influencer because those Reddit stories are the connotations,” says model and ex-Love Island star Brett Staniland, who has more than 75,000 followers on Instagram. “I’ve noticed friends definitely distance themselves from me as a result of my online platform as they believe that my online persona is different to my real life personality,” he explains.
“Some of them are more understanding in that it is a job and we have to know what ‘sells’ for us (provides engagement and makes us more employable). Equally the whole platform can swallow you up and overwhelm you, like is the case with the anecdotes on the thread. I feel like those influencers may need some help, as it appears they only care about the online validation.”
Unlike in traditional careers, an influencer’s work is almost always on display because the idea is that everything you promote has been seamlessly integrated into your lifestyle. Of course, this be difficult for non-influencer friends to understand, which can, in turn, affect their relationships.
“I know that my closest friends and those who properly know me have not been affected by an online presence,” adds Staniland. “I think there’s something to be said about literally every other job. People become different in the office environment, like in board rooms or meetings. It isn’t who they are at home. But because that is less visible, it’s rarely criticised.”
Just as this career path can be difficult for those outside of it to understand, it can also make it hard for the influencer themselves to switch off and distinguish between what is and is not work. “There may not be clear boundaries” says Dr Kaye. “If many ‘moments’ tend to occur in one’s social experiences or home-life, then an influencer is likely to be switched on in seeking those opportunities most of the time, and doesn’t help them take time away from being in work-mode.”
What stood out is the feelings of missing influencer friends despite them still being right there with them
Holly Roberts, Relate counsellor
Envy and resentment aside, Roberts argues that the majority of the stories shared on the Reddit thread showed feelings of pain. “What stood out is the feelings of missing influencer friends despite them still being right there with them,” she says. “The feeling of being forgotten really hurts.”
Indeed, as Melissa grew her platform, she became more consumed with her online persona, often at the expense of her relationships. “I was roommates with her originally, so I used to help with a lot of her content creation, as did the other friends in our group,” says Charlotte. “We never received any credit for our input, and while I think that it’s possible for influencers to stay grounded and humble, that wasn’t my personal experience. Truthfully, we had moments where we felt like her servants.”
It got to a point where her friend was only speaking about herself and her platform. Looking back, she understands how this can happen. “When someone’s life is so focused on them and their own needs and wants, the other people in their life feel far from important, seen, or heard.”.
For those struggling to empathise with a friend’s career, Roberts advises taking a step back and thinking about why you became close to this person in the first place. “Ask yourself, ‘are there still aspects of the friendship that you enjoy?’” she suggests. “Be honest with them about what you struggle with regarding their career. Tell them how you feel and see how they respond. Their reply will tell you a lot about whether they want to save their friendship with you.”
Ultimately , though, it might come down to how much you’re able to relate to their job, and everything that has happened in their life as a result of that. “If you genuinely don’t have any empathy for their chosen path, you feel that your values don’t match up anymore or you don’t respect them for what they are doing, then call time on the friendship,” says Roberts. “You probably don’t have much in common anymore, so consider what your friendship is actually based on.”
*Names have been changed