Food Bloggers and the Ourboros of Engagement

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Posting up recipes for vegan fudge and sharing pictures of pumpkin spice cupcakes used to a purely hobbyist pursuit particularly enjoyed by people with an abundance of spare time and cats. Like the helpful weirdoes who contribute to Wikipedia it was done for love, for the satisfaction of being part of a community, and to fill the intolerable void that exists within us all.

Like so many things social media played its part in mutating and sitroting how and why people choose to share their interests and get into food blogging. Narcissist friendly platforms like Instagram helped birth the #wellness phenomenon which gave rise to ‘food’ bloggers like Natasha Corrett or Ella Woodward who mined a highly lucrative seam of scientifically questionable diets (‘alkaline eating principles’) and posted a seemingly endless stream of green smoothies and gym selfies.

How is it that spending half an hour perfecting a photo of your yoga pant clad carcass next to a stack of nutritious grit infused paleo pancakes turned from being a reliable indicator of borderline personality disorder into a viable career path for people who do degrees in Events Management?

Yes, the concept of ‘social influencer; has taken the unpleasant societal norm that in addition to living longer and happier lives than conventionally attractive people alsoso happen to get a lot of things for free, put a name on it and turned it into an actual job title that you can put on a business card or LinkedIn profile.

In January this year Paul Stenson, owner of The White Moose Cafe in Dublin, posted an amusingly belligerent open letter to a Youtube blogger that went viral in the usual places and lead to a lot of tedious posts from marketers trying to pretend they don’t wallow in the same muck.

Starting out ‘Dear Social Influencer’ it was addressed to an anonymised social media starlet who Paul rebuked for asking for a free stay in exchange for what amounted to a positive review (or what the influencer terms ‘exposure’).

Underneath the calculatedly self-righteous indignation (hate for likes is a big key to success on social) there was a fairly strong point – who really foots the bill when you’re dining for free? How many extra cooked breakfasts sold can you really attribute to a 15 minute long video with 6,000 views entitled ‘I had drisheen and it was everything’?

Regardless of Paul clearly looking for a bit of ‘exposure’ of his own (The White Moose has previous for going after fairly soft targets, such as vegans) it was all fairly good fun.

A clash of styles between a chippy Irish landlord and the empty bullshit of an unidentified brandwashed young blagger.

These were two worlds that were never meant to meet –like finding out your dad is engaged in a blood feud with his very own twitter troll. Then, in a surprise swerve, the as yet unnamed blogger outed themselves in truly cringe inducing 21st century fashion – via the medium du jour: theoverly long, overly earnest, and completely tone-deaf Youtube confessional.

The culprit?

b0e69acc9f9e05c81a41b1f5b77798c7Social Influencer Elle Darby

Elle Darby, Food & Beauty Blogger and daughter of convicted fraudster Giles Darby.
Elle railed against the unfairness of Paul Stenson’s expose in a smash hit video (2.7million views to date) and amusingly framed the response as an example of a generational divide.

According to Elle people over thirty just don’t ‘get’ the role of social influencers – despite paid content and sponsorship deals having existed in some form or another for over a hundred years and Mark Zuckerberg being a virtual dinosaur at 33 years old.

Like an ouroboros, or perhaps more appropriately a Human Centipede, the story fed further on its own viral discharge when Paul Stenson invoiced Elle for €5.2million for all the media exposure she had received from the mucky affair.

Perversely, it worked out rather well for both of them. Elle certainly picked up at least a few thousand pounds from Youtube ads alone while Paul earned a ton of international press coverage for his café.

I’ve see the messy business of influencer marketing work, in a fashion, from both sides. As the owner of a modestly successful blog that featured pictures of sad looking meals I was wooed by a marketing agency. In 2014 this amounted to being sent a box of chocolates and a Just Eat voucher, simpler times.

This agency were keen to set me up with their clients so I could ham-fistedly promote restaurants alongside photos of undercooked meat. ‘No dimly lit meals for one here, only delicious and nutritious feasts in a warm and welcoming milieu’.

As much as I enjoyed the thought of eating for free the embarrassment I felt at the prospect of actually going to a restaurant and announcing myself as ‘a person with the blog’ was too great to go through with.

Why would anyone in their right mind be interested in the opinion of someone whose life work was captioning memes?

It was also generally just a really terrible idea. People who enjoy looking at awful things – plastic surgery disasters, poorly prepared roast dinners – don’t want their schadenfreude interrupted by a glowing review of a Hawksmoor steakhouse or 500 words on Shake Shack.

The actual content of my blog was fairly irrelevant here – it was vaguely on-topic and I had a large enough following. Never mind that I was effectively just adding purple prose to pictures of undercooked meat – I had high levels of ‘engagement’ and in the soulless hellscape we currently inhabit that is enough to entitle me to free shit.

Having subsequently worked in an agency I’ve seen first-hand the desperate attempts to fill out an ‘influencer list’ – that is, a list of freebie loving dweebs with at least 1,000 or more followers (preferably on Instagram) who you can send t-shirts, product, or a couple of hundred pounds in exchange for a blurry photo and some misspelled hashtags.

The trick is finding enough people to pad out a list that will satisfy your client or overly keen line manager. Very few brands inspire anything like real loyalty – so the thinking is that paying off someone who posts thirst traps on Instagram will inspire all the bots and perverts that follow them to start drinking your health drink.

Your multinational food brand will be looking to grab vegan bloggers who aren’t too vegan to endorse their plant based dairy alternatives, mainly because they’re also using calf brains as a thickening agent in some of their other products and don’t want to be called out.

Terrifying memes about mutilated chicken feet or cow’s milk being full of pus and blood are out – misattributed meaningless feel good quotes and endless pictures of almond milk smoothies are in.

Absolutely no real time or effort goes into vetting these influencers – if they respond to direct messages and have a nice fat following they’re good enough. Much of the time the small fish will come to the brands directly – the so-called ‘mummy’ bloggers happy to accept free product before they can leverage themselves a small payday.

With so much money – and time – being spent in the name of influencer marketing it’s inevitable that some people would go beyond mere blagging and begging for free stuff and actively begin misrepresenting the extent of their audiences and gaming the system by buying followers and engagement. A hundred euros could buy you enough Twitter or Instagram followers to leverage endorsements and freebies worth many times that – provided you don’t get caught out.

It’s not just lower tier fitness models turned bloggers turning to unscrupulous means – bigger names like Great British Bake Off star and steely eyed sexual panther Paul Hollywood have recently been exposed for using 3rd party agents to artificially expand their follower count.

e0f012f4-6958-11e6-b5c6-db979e28e7a6Great British Bake Off star Paul Hollywood

Clearly not content with being a pin-up for the over forties Paul Hollywood, like Icarus, flew to close to the sun when he hired Florida-based business Devumi to artificially fluff up his numbers. Paul then went on to carry out what must amount to an act of virtual genocide when he then deleted his Twitter account in an attempt to purge himself of the stigma of paying robots to like him.

A large follower count carries a certain amount of clout – at least until it gets exposed by the New York Times and you end up faced with carrying out a mass cull.

But why put so much clout in the opinions – especially surrounding that hugely subjective food – of people based solely on how popular a website tells you they are? Especially a website like Twitter where all anyone does is either make lame puns or tell feminists to kill themselves.

Blogging, which effectively just means writing or making videos online, was once just something losers on the internet did. Nobody expected to make any money sharing their ketchup casserole recipes or their Sonic the Hedgehog hentai. They did it for the love.

Now if you’ve not got a rock solid affiliate partner plan in place for your weird pilgrimage to every Toby Carvery in the mainland UK then you’re completely wasting your life and might as well be talking to your racist aunt on Facebook for all the good it will do you.

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