At the end of a long day, when my calves hurt from speed walking across campus, and I’ve got three essays in as many days, and all I’ve eaten all week is pasta with cold spaghetti sauce poured on top, I like to open up Instagram and pretend I’m on a beach in Tahiti with a Mai Tai and zero worries. Instagram is used for a whole slew of things these days; young teenagers use flop accounts to discuss politics and crank out memes, beauty gurus show off their outrageous eye makeup to millions of adoring copycat artists, and phony life hacks abound. All of this is on top of my regular feed of friends’ Man Crush Mondays and photos from nights out. But my favorite are the travel bloggers. Those jet setting models whose pages are filled with scenic, beautifully edited photos of themselves in exotic cities and the wonderful once-in-a-lifetime adventures that they seem to be collecting like trading cards. “Sure, Cannes is great, but you haven’t experienced the Mediterranean until you’ve been to Positano.”
In just the last couple of years, I’ve been introduced to the term ‘influencer’. It’s a catchall term to describe Internet celebrities, particularly those on YouTube and Instagram. People with a social media account and a following, who make their money crafting content for their audience. I understand the concept, if not the term. How is the vlog of your adventures in Cape Town influencing anyone? It isn’t like you’re urging people to think about water conservation. It seems the title is confusing a lot of other people, too. People with a couple thousand Instagram followers are beginning to label themselves ‘influencers’, and they’re insisting on receiving all the perks that come with that moniker. Luxury hotels are being inundated with requests from faux influencers – people with 2,000, 3,000 followers who want to “partner” with a resort for a publicity deal. Not a real partnership, because the trade-off is decidedly one-sided. A common proposal is a 7 night, all-expenses paid trip in exchange for a couple of Instagram photos to 2,500 people. Most of these requests come from a lack of consideration for the fact that most people spend tens of thousands of dollars for a stay like that, and that money isn’t going into the pocket of a resort’s owner but rather to pay salaries, buy food for the restaurants, run electricity, and generally keep a hotel open. The way the full-time travelers on my Instagram can afford to jump from one luxurious hotel to another is that they can’t. Not all of them, not really. They use their standing as influencers to persuade hotels to let them stay for free, in exchange for highlighting them on their next few photos or mentioning how amazing the resort is in their vlog. In a sense, the people these Internet socialites are influencing is hardly their audience, but in fact their business partners: the hotels at which they stay for free or very cheap.
I don’t think this kind of behavior stems, entirely, from a lack of consideration. Partially it does. When people see their social media status as being higher than those of their friends they get stars in their eyes and a swollen head. But for many, there is a disconnect between what they see on the screen and what goes on behind the scenes. They, too, are scrolling through the feeds and seeing the destinations that their favorite Instagram stars are going to and they think, I could do that. But really, they’re seeing only a window in the picture on their phone screen. They’re looking at the final product of what is likely years of hard work.
Most influencers are like Kara and Nate Buchanan. They’re a travel couple who spend nearly all of their time on the road, hopping from one destination to another. Like most social media influencers, they exist on YouTube as well as Instagram. Many flourishing Instagram stars also have flourishing YouTube channels, and take advantage of both platforms. They have just shy of 300,000 subscribers on YouTube and have hustled their way through for three years. Their secret is travel hacking, a complicated system of opening credit cards that earn frequent flyer miles and transferring those miles between cards when able. They don’t stay places for free, at least not yet. They’re still in the hustling stage of being influencers, where their content isn’t enough to get them a free stay in the Maldives, but their reach is wide and their audience expanding. Kara and Nate stay in airbnbs, and fly coach to countries mostly in Asia and the Middle East, where travel is cheap and the cities are culturally diverse but not necessarily posh.
Kara and Nate aren’t shy about explaining how they can afford to travel full-time, but a lot of influencers are more tight-lipped about how they can afford their travel, and this can be very misleading to people who assume it’s as simple as posting a photo with the caption “@SomeFancyHotel” and cashing in on a luxurious vacation. It has taken years of scrimping and saving to get most of your favorite Instagrammers to their current status, but we only see the edited photos online.
It has taken years of scrimping and saving to get most of your favorite Instagrammers to their current status, but we only see the edited photos online.
It’s an industry just like anything else, where influencers build their brand through merch and sponsorship. But it’s different than many other conventional industries because it is hosted on the Internet and grows out of the misguided assumption of things being free. I understand the confusion. I can watch the vlogs for free on YouTube, and the only thing scrolling through my Instagram costs me is time and sometimes my self-esteem. So, I can understand where people are coming from when they get a bit of online attention and misunderstand this as their “big break”. In other jobs, it’s understood that no one trips and falls into an influential position, but on the Internet, things are different. Anyone can accidentally become famous, so why shouldn’t your journey to stardom be so simple? “Look at those models on Instagram. All they’re doing is posting photos, can’t I do the same thing and become just as famous?”
Content creators are successful because they understand their audience. They understand that there are people like me, average people with average lifestyles, who want to escape their realities and explore parts of the world through the eyes of their preferred personality.
It’s that kind of mindset that is confusing people. No one wants to see the effort, of course, only the sparkling water and the Mai Tais. The effort is boring, and realistic, and what travel bloggers and Instagram stars are banking on isn’t their realism but their fantasy. They’re painting a picture and there are a lot of people who will never consider the years of hard work they put in to learn how to paint. Content creators are successful because they understand their audience. They understand that there are people like me, average people with average lifestyles, who want to escape their realities and explore parts of the world through the eyes of their preferred personality. And that’s all right, when the audience understands that it’s a form of escapism and that creators have worked hard to cultivate an aura of an easygoing and adventurous lifestyle. It doesn’t hurt anyone to present yourself this way, and in fact it brings a lot of joy to a lot of people, myself included. I love watching the men and women who I have come to know go on epic adventures and stay in luxurious hotels. I love feeling like I’m right there with them. The only trouble comes when people misunderstand and feel entitled to things they haven’t worked for.
The trouble with content being free to watch on the Internet, and YouTube especially, is that it isn’t actually free. Even watching ads isn’t contributing a lot to a content creator’s income. The cost of travel is expensive, and influencers and content creators help remedy this by making private deals with hotels for free or discounted stays in exchange for featuring them in their videos and posts. But we never hear about this, so people assume that hotel stays should be free for anyone with a social media account and a decent following. There needs to be some level of transparency in the travel vlogging community to help remedy this disconnect. More vloggers should be like Kara and Nate, educating their audience about the finer details of how they can afford their travel and how they negotiate stays at hotels. By seeing the full picture of what life as a travel vlogger and blogger is, I think audiences would be able to connect even more to their favorite YouTube celebrity. Their struggles as well as their achievements could be identified with, and they would be seen and understood more as a fully-formed human and not an artificial product. Maybe if these YouTubers were more transparent, more people could take advantage of that knowledge and actually be successful at scoring an all-expenses destination vacation. Until then, they’re just going to be the bane of every luxury hotel’s existence.