Enlighten Me: UD student journalist examines the rise of ‘de-influencers’
The term “influencer” gets thrown around a lot. These online celebrities are known for advertising products to followers, often leading to impulse buying decisions by viewers.
But some on the internet are beginning to take a step back and question the motives behind these social media recommendations, launching a new category known as “de-influencers.”
In this week’s Enlighten Me, University of Delaware senior and Delaware Public Media intern Meg Roessler looks at how this new wave of content creators is taking apps such as TikTok by storm and making users question, ‘Do I really need to buy this?’
It is almost a daily occurrence online to see products or services endorsed by influencers and media figures. Whether it be on TikTok, Instagram or any social media outlet, a few magic words from these online personalities about what products they enjoy or are sponsored by can help these products sell out or become impossible to find.
Sydney Luning, a retail associate at Urban Outfitters, has seen it firsthand
“Over the summer we had a couple products go viral which were like the corsets, one of our ‘go for gold’ tops and the sweatshirts, and those would sell out in days,” said Luning. It was crazy. They would go viral, we would restock and within 2 or 3 days they would be completely sold out, we would have people calling for them, placing orders ahead of time that we couldn’t even fill because it would be sold out. It was like really insane how quickly demand picked up”
The effect internet personalities have on buying decisions is astronomical, especially for those who see them as inspirations. People aspiring to become popular on TikTok and YouTube try anything to embody these role models – and what way better than using all the same items they enjoy.
“One of the biggest drivers of the relationship between influencers showing products and people actually buying into those products and using them – one of the most important variables is similarity,” said Emily Pfender, PhD student in communications at the University of Delaware researching influencers and their impact. “So when a follower feels very similar to an influencer, which happens to be often, because they’re average relatable people, they tend to buy the products and have a higher intention to buy the product and also have a more positive attitude about the influencer and the brand itself”
Trends move quickly and millions of posts circulate daily – even those who hope to be successful on these platforms find it difficult to stay in the loop. UD student Brooke Semmelmeier posts her own content on TikTok and YouTube, says even though she is very aware of what is popular, being on top of everything trending isn’t a cakewalk.
“Pretty much everything I feel like comes and goes, like something will be really popular for like a bit of time and then suddenly it’s not popular anymore and then it's onto the next thing," said Semmelmeier. “Like water bottles for example. Everyone now is on the Stanley, but before that it was the Hydroflask, and then before that it’s another type of waterbottle, and apparently now there’s a new water bottle, so it’s like you literally can’t keep up. Even if you are setting the trend, it’s like you’re still behind.”
With the amount of users on the internet, all trying to endorse different products, there are bound to be some that end up being miss rather than a hit. In fact, so many products promoted turn out to be low quality or not useful, there now is a whole subset of content on the internet to combat these influencers – called “de-influencing.”
The #DeInfluencing has gained a lot of traction with over 313 million views and counting on TikTok. Instead of recommending what products to buy next, users have been encouraging viewers to consider putting a pause on their spending habits by explaining why you don’t need this or that.
“Pretty much everything I feel like comes and goes, like something will be really popular for like a bit of time and then suddenly it’s not popular anymore and then it's onto the next thing."UD student Brooke Semmelmeier, TikTok and YouTube content creator.
Deinfluencing can focus on a variety of conversations. Two popular discussions are exposing influencers credibility and highlighting overconsumption.
A lot of content creators gain followings based on factors like relatability and likability – which UD researcher Emily Pfender notes doesn’t make them qualified to promote certain products and claim the effects will “change your life.”
“A lot of research has found that influencers who are promoting these products and getting these sponsorships and making these lifestyle recommendations lack a lot of credibility. They lack the background, they don’t have the information to back up what they're saying, and a lot of it is relying on personal anecdotes,” said Pfender. “In the context of health in particular, you know everyone's body is so uniquely different and so in taking this one size fits all approach to health and saying ‘this is my story, this is how it’s going to affect you, this is going to be your health outcome’ we can get into a bunch of potential issues, especially when you start bringing health products into the equation.”
In recent months, many influencers have faced blowback for promoting unhealthy consumption habits, In the past, trends had much longer life cycles so the pressure to buy wasn’t as intense. The largest age group active on TikTok is 10-19 years old, which is also the most impressionable group – so when the trends change, they are the first to buy into whatever is deemed “new and cool,” oftentimes coming from harmful fast fashion companies.
“A lot of research has found that influencers who are promoting these products and getting these sponsorships and making these lifestyle recommendations lack a lot of credibility. They lack the background, they don’t have the information to back up what they're saying, and a lot of it is relying on personal anecdotes.”Emily Pfender, Univ. of Delaware PhD student in communications
There are many cases where popular influencers collaborate with these companies for merchandise and clothing collections, without even recognizing what some of the brands stand for or how damaging they are. And Pfender says de-influencers can mitigate this.
“I think it’s really interesting how this group of de-influencers is shedding light on ‘hey, there’s something going on here with how credible this information is. Let me tell you what’s really going on and let me be really honest with you,”
Amidst the clothing and product hauls posted, purchasing from powerhouse businesses like Amazon and Shein, de-influencers are taking the approach of not only saying “you don’t need this,” but also recommending more sustainable ways to shop.
At the end of the day, both categories of content aren’t going anywhere soon - existing side by side - begging the question – who should people listen to? With so much back and forth, how can anyone decipher which items are really worth it?
“I think no matter what we need to be incredibly critical of the information we are consuming on social media. So I would be wary to believe or trust either of them and I would definitely do some fact checking,” said Pfender.
Pfender explains she is an avid consumer of vlog style content like “what I eat in a day” videos and the first thing she does when a product gets promoted is look up if there has been any testing, positive outcomes, or benefits, then determine whether it’s a purchase she is willing to make.
“I think we need to be more critical consumers of who is saying the content of is this product going to benefit me? Is there scientific backing behind this?”
Ultimately, knowledge is power and seeking all available information- even some you might not want to hear is - gives you the best chance to make the decision that's right for you.