The Influencer Industry: Constructing And Commodifying


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University of Pennsylvania
ScholarlyCommons
Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations 2019
The Influencer Industry: Constructing And Commodifying Authenticity On Social Media
Emily Dean Hund University of Pennsylvania
Follow this and additional works at: https://repository.upenn.edu/edissertations Part of the Advertising and Promotion Management Commons, Communication Commons, Marketing
Commons, and the Sociology Commons Recommended Citation Dean Hund, Emily, "The Influencer Industry: Constructing And Commodifying Authenticity On Social Media" (2019). Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 3636. https://repository.upenn.edu/edissertations/3636
This paper is posted at ScholarlyCommons. https://repository.upenn.edu/edissertations/3636 For more information, please contact [email protected]

The Influencer Industry: Constructing And Commodifying Authenticity On Social Media
Abstract The most buzzed-about figure in twenty-first century marketing thus far has been the “digital influencer,” industry vernacular for the bloggers, Instagrammers, Pinners, and other social media users who—against the backdrop of widespread economic and professional instability—deliver curated content to audiences on social media and earn income by collaborating with major brands. Driving the rise of this phenomenon have been (1) individuals who want to be recognized as persuasive online (2) advertisers who increasingly direct their budgets to social media, where influencers’ “authentic,” personality-inflected content has proven potent for selling product (3) social media
companies whose tools and rules both advance and encumber these activities and (4) marketing agencies and other marketing-related entities, such as talent agencies and trend forecasters, that build metrics platforms to measure influence, select influencers for advertising campaigns, negotiate deals between influencers and retail brands, and espouse the many benefits of expressing oneself “authentically” online in tandem with corporate sponsors. The precipitous development of an industry around these activities has, since the late 2000s, propelled billions of dollars into the social media economy and helped instigate a chain of events that have and continue to fundamentally change the production of culture. Drawing on 28 in-depth interviews, an analysis of more than 2000 press articles, and participant observation at industry events, this dissertation examines how the above stakeholders construct and negotiate the meaning, value, and practical use of digital influence as they reimagine it as a commodity for the social media age—a commodity whose value shifts in accordance with ever-changing industrial rubrics for cultivating and evaluating authenticity. The dissertation also provides necessary historical-cultural context to the rise of the influencer industry, elucidating its complex roots that predate the digital era. Throughout, I show how in an era where authenticity is increasingly elusive, and trust’s and influence’s meanings as cultural ideals and functions as social
processes are muddied, the influencer industry struggles to pin these concepts down, stabilize and define them, and make money off of these definitions. To this end, the actors involved in the influencer system work together in a variety of ways both intentional and unintentional, with social, industrial, and cultural consequences. These consequences include who can succeed, the shape of technological innovation and regulation, and products themselves. The study offers theoretical and methodological provocations to scholars of influence and authenticity to consider these concepts’ industrially constructed, contextually dependent nature. It also sheds light on practical issues impacted by social- and data-driven consumerism.
Degree Type Dissertation
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Graduate Group Communication
First Advisor Joseph . Turow

Keywords Cultural Production, Influencers, Media Studies, Social Media, Technology Subject Categories Advertising and Promotion Management | Communication | Marketing | Sociology
This dissertation is available at ScholarlyCommons: https://repository.upenn.edu/edissertations/3636

THE INFLUENCER INDUSTRY: CONSTRUCTING AND COMMODIFYING AUTHENTICITY ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Emily Hund A DISSERTATION
in Communication Presented to the Faculties of the University of Pennsylvania
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the
Degree of Doctor of Philosophy 2019
Supervisor of Dissertation _______________________ Joseph Turow Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication
Graduate Group Chairperson ________________________ Guobin Yang, Grace Lee Boggs Professor of Communication
Dissertation Committee Barbie Zelizer, Raymond Williams Professor of Communication Victor Pickard, Associate Professor of Communication

ii THE INFLUENCER INDUSTRY: CONSTRUCTING AND COMMODIFYING AUTHENTICITY ON SOCIAL MEDIA

COPYRIGHT 2019 Emily Ann Dean Hund

COPYRIGHT NOTICE

For my family.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENT
It is somewhat difficult to make sense of finally being at the end of the road to receiving a PhD. 12 years ago, in 2007, I was a junior in college when a sociology professor first suggested it. I did not know anyone with a PhD besides my professors and had no idea what pursuing one entailed, but I do remember coming back to my apartment and telling my roommates that I was thinking about changing my path.
I ultimately decided to stick to my original plan and work in magazines, both because I can be stubborn and also because I couldn’t quite fathom a PhD. But I continued to be dogged by the idea, and when I realized that, through my work, I had stumbled upon a phenomenon begging for study, I began the process of readying myself to go back to school.
I’m paraphrasing a book here, but I do believe that when you make a decision, what you are doing is jumping into a current that will carry you to places you never dreamed of when you first made the decision. I am grateful to have had so many different experiences and opportunities during my time at the Annenberg School. The work is at times soul crushing and spirit building—but I shudder to think where I would be both personally and professionally had I not taken this path.
My adviser Joseph Turow has been a wonderful guide on this journey. When I was starting out, I had an uncertainty that many do, which is, how do I actually turn these interests and ideas into projects and a research agenda? Joe generously included me as he ideated and published a book and carried out some other projects, providing a unique learning and confidence-building experience. It showed me how research is always a process, reaffirmed that paying attention to subjects like shopping is important, and taught me “anything can be made interesting if you look at it the right way.” At the same time, he pushed me in my own work to keep peeling back the layers until I found the most interesting way to look at things. I also learned a lot about the history of the barcode and checkout scanner! Thank you, Joe, for providing support at the right moments and not judging me for the moments of struggle.
I’ve received incredible support from other faculty and staff. Barbie Zelizer and Carolyn Marvin both gave me the sense that they believed in me from the beginning, and when I said I wanted to study something related to the fashion industry, they said, “why not?” Barbie’s thoughtful feedback and provocations, as well as her kindness, throughout this process have been key. Victor Pickard swept in right when I needed him, and I am so very appreciative. Litty Paxton showed me how to teach, and I will be forever trying to rise to her remarkable level of nimbleness in the classroom. Michael Delli Carpini was a receptive and generous dean for much of my time here, and taking his class provided a fantastic model for what a graduate course could be. In addition to John Jackson being a wonderful new dean, I am grateful to him for personally reaching out in my first semester to ensure that I was adjusting to the culture of academic life. Joanne Murray, Julie Sloane, Sharon Black, Rose Halligan—thank you for always looking out for us students.

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Thanks, too, goes to the many visiting scholars who crossed my path at Annenberg, especially Sonia Livingstone and Susan Douglas, whose influence lives on in the dissertation’s first two chapters.
Brooke Duffy took a chance on me when I was a first-year student and she was a new professor. We were complete strangers—albeit strangers whose educational and professional trajectories had uncanny similarities—but immediately got to work. I have learned so much from her as a research collaborator, mentor, and friend. Without her tremendous generosity, I would not be where I am today. Thank you forever!
Thank you to the bloggers, influencers, content creators—regardless of preferred title, the women who are working incredibly hard and earning their living in this world—for sharing your stories, goals, and challenges with me. To the marketers, brand representatives, talent managers, trend forecasters, and other influencer industry professionals who offered your expertise, reflections, and questions: I am so grateful for all of your time and your willingness to help analyze this world as you navigated it yourselves.
A wise person once said that behind every successful woman is a group text hyping her up, and I would like to confirm here that this is true. I want to thank all of my wonderful Annenberg friends, especially Elena Maris, Rosie Clark-Parsons, and my office mate of six years Samantha Oliver, whose in person and digital support from the very beginning has helped me confront the idiosyncrasies, struggles, and excitement of pursuing a PhD. Katerina Girginova, Ope Akanbi, Jonathan Pace, Allie Volinsky, and many others provided laughs and camaraderie as well as thoughtful feedback. Lee McGuigan is an ace collaborator and pal, and I believe we deserve an award for growing a friendship and fruitful collaboration out of an argument in 2013. To all, I’m so glad we have done this together.
I also relied heavily on the support (and respite) provided by my oldest friends: Emily, Elyse, Steph, Christa, Ashley, and Amy. We help each other through life’s challenges and are also A BLAST, and I love each of you for it. I also must thank our other best friend, Beyoncé, for providing a symbol of excellence and energetic soundtrack to my endeavors since ‘98.
Endless thanks go to the #babysquad: the crew that supports each other and takes care of the kids so everyone can get work done. There is no truer phrase than “it takes a village to raise a child.” I quite literally would not have been able to write this dissertation without you.
The bulk of this writing and data analysis took place at my second home/office, Function Coffee Labs. Thank you to the owners and staff for making me the perfect writing fuel, checking in on me, and providing such a great neighborhood gathering place.
Earning a PhD is not easy, and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that my ability to navigate the last several years came with the help of a therapist, M. As has been a

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recurring pattern in my life, I can thank only God for the right help coming at the right time and for the strength to seek and utilize it.
This degree, of course, is ultimately for my family. For my husband Henry, first and foremost, who has supported me even at my most unbearable and is the most devoted father and partner one could ask for, and our son (soon to be sons, plural!) who bring us so much joy. For my parents and in-laws who have helped with childcare and provided moral support throughout. My sisters, sisters-in-law, and brothers-in-law, who may not have always gotten why I was doing this but whose support and pride are much appreciated. My grandparents, who are thrilled to have a doctor in the family, and my great-grandparents, whose immense sacrifices and extremely limited access to, in some cases, even the most basic education I carry with me always. My great-grandmother, in particular, dreamed of becoming a teacher but was prevented from finishing elementary school. Their memory hangs over me every time I enter the classroom. For these reasons and many more, I hope to always be a steward of the wonderful opportunities I have.
June 2019

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ABSTRACT THE INFLUENCER INDUSTRY: CONSTRUCTING AND COMMODIFYING AUTHENTICITY ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Emily Hund
Joseph Turow
The most buzzed-about figure in twenty-first century marketing thus far has been the “digital influencer,” industry vernacular for the bloggers, Instagrammers, Pinners, and other social media users who—against the backdrop of widespread economic and professional instability—deliver curated content to audiences on social media and earn income by collaborating with major brands. Driving the rise of this phenomenon have been (1) individuals who want to be recognized as persuasive online (2) advertisers who increasingly direct their budgets to social media, where influencers’ “authentic,” personality-inflected content has proven potent for selling product (3) social media companies whose tools and rules both advance and encumber these activities and (4) marketing agencies and other marketing-related entities, such as talent agencies and trend forecasters, that build metrics platforms to measure influence, select influencers for advertising campaigns, negotiate deals between influencers and retail brands, and espouse the many benefits of expressing oneself “authentically” online in tandem with corporate sponsors. The precipitous development of an industry around these activities has, since the late 2000s, propelled billions of dollars into the social media economy and helped

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The Influencer Industry: Constructing And Commodifying