Influencer Trouble

Too young for Gen Y, too old for Z—generational cuspers navigate a post-Myspace market of pseudocelebrity, having themselves just aged out of eligibility. What happens to the left-overs?

IMAGE Courtesy of Shawn Shuttlesworth

“I don’t think I’m cut out to be an influencer,” the influencer said, mask off on a park bench in pre-Phase II Lower East Side. 

To be fair, it wasn’t an occupation she’d chosen. Precariously—it’s always precariously—bestowed Tumblr fame, this It-Girl parlayed “it” into Instagram popularity back when the app was still relatively harmless. From there, she used her virtual audience to kick-start a Tavi Gevinson-lite career in new media. The plaque on her WeWork desk read “GirlBoss.”

If you’re over twenty six, your head probably started to throb.

She’s similarly come to her senses. Her trajectory, while not representative of all millennials, does have a word for it… and with the rise of these It-People comes serious implications for everyone forced to breathe their digital air space. I would know better than most. I was an influencer wrangler for years, working behind-the-scenes to help manage a brand whose only capital was clout, all while trying to comprehend how the virtual photo dump where my friends and I posted our drunken Prom pics had become the preeminent amphitheatre for art, commerce, everything. 

“Zoomer”, the web’s nickname for Gen Z, should maybe more narrowly be applied to the cuspers, twenty-two to eight-year-olds tasked with navigating a digital marketplace we built but couldn’t consciously capitalize on. By the time we clocked social media’s monetizing potential, high schoolers had lapped us. Too old to have tried to become an influencer and too young to have made anything else of ourselves—we were, almost imperceptibly, left in the dust. 

Too old to have tried to become an influencer and too young to have made anything else of ourselves—we were, almost imperceptibly, left in the dust. 

“Something about them seems empty and vapid to me,” figures Eduardo, a poet who successfully moonlights as a music journalist. “It’s all tinged with self-absorption.” 

A few Springs ago, I was delivering a PR package to a different influencer with whom I’d happened to have slept with. As we circled Union Square, I asked him how business was. “Hard.” He’d been staging product shoots for fake partnerships on his Instagram account to signal to other brands that he was, in fact, available. At 40K followers, his influence was what the industry would still classify as “micro”, meaning he couldn’t quit his day job. I asked if, at twenty four, maybe he was getting too old to become an influencer? “Harder.” 

There are exceptions—there are always exceptions—but it would seem that most of the millennials influencing today were grandfather-ed in: the Jeffree Stars and Jenna Marbles, relics of internet-past. How would a non-teen with no talent begin to build an audience that could compete with established acts? There’s the backdoor: viral phenomena, proximity to an actual celebrity, or most obviously, you have famous parents. But say you’re a twink of a certain age who “slays” at makeup, the chances of you parlaying the affinity into a career comparable to that of James Charles seem slim. Charles, worth an estimated $12 million, had the incredible foresight to be born in 1999.

Incapable of swallowing the idea that my peers and I have aged out of cool, that there must be a more existential reason, one that would make it not our faults, I ask other Zoomers if they notice any generational differences between us and could-be influencers. “I’m not on TikTok,” shrugs Joe. He works for the government. Touché, Joe. 

Of course, I am on TikTok—scrolling past 5 to 60 second videos of teens with their tongues out, dressed the way I thought only my adult friends and I dress when we cosplay New York. (The app, if nothing else, impresses upon you how trends are linear and capitalistic—we wear what the internet tells us to, and if you can’t afford it, wait until Zara puts out a version). I consider a dark thought, are we trying to look like sixteen year-olds?

“Why are they so old looking?” Joe asks, in turn, probably having also seen an uncomfortable amount of himself in the adolescents aggressively performing the latest viral dance. I prefer not to think too hard about who’s imitating who. 

On TikTok, a blue check stands for “Popular Creator”, ditching the vague pretence of Twitter and Instagram verification methods. Rightfully, the Chinese app doesn’t pretend to correlate a large digital audience with the societal concept of deserving. It’s not illogical for a teenager to look into a phone camera right now and ask, “Why not me?”

This digital hierarchy is lost on no one, least of all kids. A friend who teaches the 11th grade has overheard her students joke about becoming influencers. One in particular sends her TikToks making fun of millennials. She texts me the most recent video

Evidently, to the younger members of Gen Z at least, Zoomers fall on the Y side of the fence. 

The topic of Billie Eilish invariably comes up in a meeting. Hip, by their count, Downtown “creatives” echo the popular critique, the specifics of which are not important but stem from exasperation that an artist can find such success without our collective approval. Eyes roll when I suggest we are not her target audience. I push on; the cultural window is actually shorter than we think, by twenty five we’ve tipped from tastemaker to gatekeeper. But the table has moved on to project timelines. 

“Every kid under the age of twenty three has more than a thousand followers,” Mo, nearly millennial, complains over the phone during a half hour break from his retail job. It can feel like they’ve gotten a head-start in a game we designed yet cannot fairly play. Rather our age bracket is regulated to the role of translator—engagement this engagement that—not so trendy as to intimidate our older bosses, Zoomers bridge the gap. We can explain the rules, naturally, because our missteps created them. Virtual serfs to our slightly younger peers, occasional bitterness comes with the lack of territory. Publicists always secretly want to be the talent. It looks so easy from the outside.

Yet as my former boss attests, having half a million followers can take its toll. When handed the keys to the kingdom, she declines. Influence brings with it a grave burden, allegedly. But you or I wouldn’t know, we’re too busy turning tricks to climb the creative totem pole. The pay is shit but I suppose our pressure is more existential. Grass is greener, or whatever. 

“Why would I choose a dumb 9-to-5 over being hot on Insta and selling flat tummy tea?” a future finance attorney jokes. “My dream job is to have discount codes and get caught photoshopping my thigh gap.” At least I think it’s a joke. 

“Why would I choose a dumb 9-to-5 over being hot on Insta and selling flat tummy tea?” a future finance attorney jokes. “My dream job is to have discount codes and get caught photoshopping my thigh gap.” At least I think it’s a joke. 

Between marketing meetings and drafting spreadsheets of potential “creator” collabs, if Zoomers indulged the millennial half of their DNA—or had too much coffee—we might ask, what happened to our chance to garner passing online fame for doing absolutely nothing? The ping of a Slack notification reminds me of my digital caste. 

“Your lot overthinks everything!” a thirty-something designer from Australia tells me after a night of gin and stimulants. The lot here being Americans in their 20s. I reckon she’s right. 

When I’m at a bar, enjoying one too many of the drink I’ve been drinking a few years longer than the college-aged hosts, I will stumble to the bathroom. Under pink or red light—it’s always pink or red—I tap and post a selfie making a face only Myspace could’ve taught me. The next morning, I’m suddenly grateful my miscalculation was seen only by a select few hundred. 

OK, ZOOMER is a column about art, capitalism and how everything’s going to shit. Jacob Seferian is a writer in New York City. You can follow him on Instagram here.

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