The Rise of Influencer Culture and Maintaining Reader Trust

The thoughtfully researched, provocative book No Filter, which I finished reading in January, chronicles the rise of Instagram over the past decade and its role in shaping modern Internet habits. Notably, author Sarah Frier chronicles the rise of influencer culture and the ways in that tens of millions of Instagram users earn their living as lifestyle, travel and food influencers by posting on behalf of brands and other companies. According to the author, millions of Instagram accounts have more followers than the New York Times has paid subscribers. Go ahead, read that last sentence again. Wow.

Frier describes how Instagram, although originally resistant to the concept of its customers making money from their accounts, recommended that they keep their interactions on behalf of brands “meaningful and genuine,” because engaging in self-promotional behavior on Instagram would make people who have shared that moment feel “sad inside.” Despite these admonishments, many Instagram users pursued riches on the app, buying fake followers by the thousands and gradually altering their own realities to make their photos, and even their own experiences, more “Insta-worthy.” The founders’ original concept of Instagram as a location for beautiful depictions of daily life was gradually subsumed by an ultra-competitive marketplace in which users competed for likes and followers, with predictably harmful consequences.

The world of travel and food writing is plagued by similar conflicts of interest. When travel or food influencers post on behalf of brands who are paying them to promote their products, it’s simply impossible to provide an opinion that’s worthy of their readers’ trust. This is true whether they’re receiving cash of any amount, or getting gifts in kind such as a free night in a fancy hotel or a new blender. Readers who value independent criticism want to know that the experts they rely on are providing their own opinions, not ones that are colored by the desire to please a client. (Even choosing not to write about a negative experience degrades your readers’ trust, as it prevents them from seeing a full picture of your experiences, both the good and the bad.)

Related: Why People Say There’s No Good Mexican Food in Seattle

As I begin this blog, I’m stating from the outset that the opinions within are my own, and are not at all influenced by any financial relationships with the brands or businesses I choose to write about. Like any author, I have personal preferences, and what I choose to highlight is shaped by my experiences and media consumption habits. But I will always aim to be transparent about where I’m coming from. My hope is that over time, you’ll start to gain a fuller picture of my tastes and interests, and that you’ll begin trusting my expertise and recommendations as a food journalist who you can rely upon for insight. At the very least, you’ll know that anything I write — however wrongheaded it may be — isn’t because someone paid me to say something nice.

What I Ate: Toulouse pork sausage from Beast & Cleaver on a toasted, buttered roll with stoneground mustard and onions

Some food influencers get paid to promote products, but I just thought this was a delicious sausage

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