Authentic labour: how influencers train us for the future of work

By its nature, the advertising industry faces a perennial credibility problem. To be effective, its messages must disavow or disguise their inherently manipulative nature and come across as something else—something entertaining or innocuous, something friendly and well-intended. The techniques that the industry has developed to accomplish this misdirection generally go by the name of ‘authenticity,’ denoting not some kind of genuineness or fidelity to an intrinsic essence but rather whatever rhetorical strategies can make a form of promotion more palatable and apparently trustworthy. In a society governed by markets—where everything is putatively for sale and must position itself accordingly—’authenticity’ helps manage the tensions and contradictions, the misaligned incentives and endless opportunities for predation and exploitation. It serves not as the antithesis of advertising but its basic thematic substance.

What is rated as ‘authentic’ is that which deceives most completely about the nature of one’s relation to markets and other people.

In Authentic: The Politics of Ambivalence, Sarah Banet-Weiser argues that, historically, ‘what is understood (and experienced) as authentic is considered such precisely because it is perceived as not commercial.’ In other words, the commercial defines ‘authenticity’ negatively, positing it as a protected region so that ‘individuals continue to invest in the notion that authentic spaces exist—the space of the self, of creativity, of spirituality.’

Advertisements prompt and sustain that investment. As consumers rework, resist, and succumb to promotional material, the dialectical interplay breathes life into concepts of ‘the self,’ ‘creativity,’ and ‘spirituality,’ making them appear as tangible aspirational goals rather than ideological phantoms. Those spaces (and the ‘authenticity’ that structures them) appear to depend on the flow of commercial discourse.

As Emily Hund argues in her recent study The Influencer Industry,

the industrial construction of authenticity is everywhere media industries are, particularly in times when people who create media content … have little to lose and a whole lot to gain by cultivating the right kind of ‘realness.’

With the advent of mobile phones and social media platforms, the media industry is everywhere, and the people who create media content is everyone. This makes any kind of experience a staging ground for authenticity construction (ie anything can be recast as a media product) opening the way for influencers.

Influencers are currently among the most conspicuous classes of workers whose task is to exemplify how one can ‘monetize their digital presence and adopt the ideology of the marketplace for their own self-expression.’ They not only tout specific products they are paid to integrate into the content they create—they operate more generally as the avatars of authenticity.

Hund points out that for many influencers, ‘dissolving content specialties in favor of a more general lifestyle-oriented strategy became a practical choice.’ That is, influencers don’t exemplify particular lifestyles so much as the idea of having a lifestyle itself. They demonstrate how to remediate experience as commercial discourse—how to create content—which evokes all the stakes of authenticity and opportunities to invest in them. In a context where all forms of communication are understood to be promotional, where everything is content, they disseminate the always tenuous techniques for making that discourse track as non-exploitative.

This is nothing new in itself: the ad industry has long turned human beings into advertisements, manufacturing word-of-mouth campaigns and soliciting endorsements from shills across the spectrum of fame—bringing with them an idea of authenticity recast as plausibility, commitment to a bit, or a teasing cognitive dissonance. ‘Authenticity,’ Hund notes,

is not just a social construction but an industrial one, continually tussled over by a sophisticated and complicated profit-making enterprise whose decisions about what expressions of ‘reality’ are valuable help determine what types of content and tools for communication and self-expression are available to the world’s billions of social media users.

This suggests what is new about influencers: how they shape our relation to our vastly expanded capacity as media producers, and all the associated pressures to remain visible that go along with that.

The story of the influencer is sometimes told as though it represented a kind of democratisation—an indication that the authority of taste-making elites was waning along with the hegemony of conventional entertainment. Once barriers to distribution came down, new kinds of people could reach large audiences and monetise the attention they could command. From that perspective, social media could be supposed to have surfaced a latent consumer demand for media that feature more ‘relatable’ stars with more diverse kinds of talents, who can serve as parasocial companions and provide ongoing inspiration for how to live a more mediagenic life. But in practice, all influencers necessarily share the exact same talent: navigating algorithmic recommendation systems and learning how to maintain attention through their protocols. This turns out to be an important skill in a world increasingly run by automated decision-making algorithms.


Influencers may trade in authenticity, but their rise to prominence has not depended on their discovering new social-media-specific ways to articulate what has always been a central affective component of consumerism. Rather, it has depended on novel aspects of social media platforms themselves and how they blurred consumption into production for all users.

Platforms have massively expanded content consumption of all kinds, but not because users demanded to consume more: instead, they have driven users to produce more media, which also registers as consumption. Platforms have developed ways to turn users’ consumption into production, offering them easy-to-use tools and templates (including likes, reactions, and other kinds of prompts) and automatically turning behavioural data into a means of fine-tuning individualised content feeds. In this paradigm, consumption becomes an analogue of productivity—a form of data processing whose value is harvested by platforms.

In an essay about the writers’ and actors’ strikes in Hollywood, Aaron Bady argues that as regular consumers blend into professional fans and from there into laboring creatives,’—the continuum that influencers have helped establish—it becomes ‘hard to distinguish capital-W ‘Workers’ from those who merely create value with their unpaid labor.’ He continues:

If it’s all just content for capital, then aren’t we all just content producers together? More than that, it tells us something interesting about the cultural economy, in 2023, that so many people are doing volunteer promotional work for billion-dollar corporate properties that this even becomes a question.

That ‘something interesting’ may be in the way the location of pleasure in consumption has shifted. There are perhaps still moments of immersion, of suspension of disbelief, of vicarious identification, and collective inclusion in consuming media, even in consuming influencer content—but these now tend to be subsumed by the ‘volunteer promotional work’ that delivers on the oft-repeated promises that we can ‘participate’ in what we consume. That we are, in Bady’s phrasing, ‘an organic and necessary part of the process by which a show, a character, or a franchise comes to be worth something.’

Enjoyment pivots not on the content consumed (the quality of which becomes arbitrary) but on the perception of one’s adding value through the work of being a fan—which is to say, it depends on having one’s consumption experience integrated into a larger organised system. Fandom may masquerade as a kind of bottom-up folk community, but it is indicative of consumption’s integration into the culture industry.

In pursuit of that new kind of pleasure—of knowing one is on the factory floor, shaping culture—consumers are driven beyond the constraints of time and attention, to the degree where it’s normal to depend on algorithms to accelerate our consumption by doing our choosing for us, normal to playback content at 2x speed or to have an LLM summarise it in lieu of our expending the effort to enjoy it in real time.

Influencers emerge as the idealised face of this kind of productivity, seeming to demonstrate that life can be turned seamlessly and gracefully into content, with production and consumption effortlessly folding into one another. In Hund’s account, influencers

ended up creating a value system that advanced the erosion of the boundaries between individuals’ inner lives and commercialism, asking us to view ourselves as products perpetually ready for market, our relationships as monetizable, and our daily activities as potential shopping experiences.

But that value system itself is not a new creation—it is just a description of subjectivity under consumerism. What influencers do is stage that erosion as work that we are all implicitly compelled to perform to sustain our own status as subjects.

For nearly a decade now, influencers have served as the apotheosis of neoliberalisation and imperative self-branding. They reflect the impact of social media platforms not on what we want to consume but on how we must ready ourselves for increasingly competitive labour markets, presenting ourselves as always eager and available, open to full scrutiny, willing to make any border between work and nonwork life permeable. Though influencers epitomise how ‘social media became less social,’ as a New York Times piece puts it, reorienting online platforms away from ‘sharing’ with friends and toward the endless flow of sponsored content, they nonetheless illustrate some basic strategies for social inclusion: how to conduct oneself within layers of inescapable surveillance, how to approach everyday life with the camera-ready professionalism it now often demands. Search any activity on TikTok and you will readily find people trying to demonstrate what it means to do it authentically. Every job category, every hobby, every fandom has its own would-be influencers.

Bady suggests that the rigged economics of cultural production have made all cultural work into cosplay—no one can make an actual living by doing it. But at the same time, cosplay has crept into more forms of work, becoming a differentiating factor for human workers as tasks are automated and deskilled. Only a human can make work look right, can convincingly pantomime cooperative social relations. No job is insulated from the expectation that it should be performed as a promotion for itself. This becomes more pressing as automation encroaches on every aspect of job performance except for employee enthusiasm. As Hund notes,

the influencer industry’s moves in the early 2020s show that its problems and potential are not longer contained to creative industries that have been dealing with the influencer logic for years, but that there is proven progress and unlimited possibilities for the logics and technologies to take over more and more people’s experiences of daily life—from their workplaces, to their leisure time, to their communications with other people.

Rather than treat influencers as a new kind of promoter or entertainer (or content ‘creator’), it may be more pertinent to see them as the link connecting algorithmic forms of control with pandering performances of ‘authenticity.’ Influencer content reflects not a timeless demand for ‘reality’ or ‘relevant ads’ but rather an economically contingent demand for training ourselves in how to co-exist with algorithms and ultimately how to seem more socially valuable than a bot—adding the specific sort of value that only human consumption supposedly can add. Influencers show us what the sort of work that might resist automation looks like, even as that work remains fully managed by algorithms. In the meantime, ‘authenticity’ remains a kind of misdirection, the illusion that a human element can persist untarnished by capitalism’s inexorable drive to subordinate life to the machinery of profit.


Image by Iwona Castiello d’Antonio

Rob Horning

Rob Horning is a former editor of New Inquiry and Real Life. He writes about media and technology at

More by Rob Horning ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays