The Influencer Factory
A Marxist Theory of Corporate Personhood on YouTube
Grant Bollmer and Katherine Guinness



“Existence in late capitalism is a permanent rite of initiation,” argued Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment, their classic analysis of midcentury American capitalism. “Everyone must show that they identify wholeheartedly with the power which beats them.”1 Today, in the age of influencer culture, the power that beats us determines the relative value of individual lives through the ability to gain and maintain attention, intimacy, relatability.2 Yet the infinite scroll of social media appears as a constant stream of the same, in which one’s “success” or “failure,” as an individual, as a person, as a worker, is reduced to the instrumental measurement of attention given through the metrics supplied by platforms. This reduction of social life, personal life, and economic life is tacitly accepted by many. One either gains attention and is valuable or remains unseen and invisible, a failure, to disappear and remain beyond value. Beaten. “Unless I am seen, then I am a failure,” says the influencer—and that is that.

An “influencer,” in most popular understandings of “influencer culture,” is one whose value derives from gathering interest for brands, maintaining social bonds between consumers and commodities, and cultivating identities that attract attention on social media.3 Although we are given glimpses of their lives on our phones and computer screens (reveling in what seems to be extreme wealth, unboxing large hauls of products, organizing elaborate games and events, remodeling their homes, driving their cars, cleaning out their closets), these influencers are not our friends, even though we may imagine or desire them to be. Behind the luxury, leisure, and indulgence we witness, being an influencer involves deep precarity concealed behind an opulent veneer.

For most, being an influencer requires continuous work, work that is often rewarded inadequately. Popular reportage on influencers dwells regularly on the countless narratives of quitting and getting burned out from influencing. According to Emma Chamberlain, one of the most successful and popular influencers of the past few years, “If you’re not producing constantly, you won’t grow [in popularity]. That’s what drives the algorithm. There’s pressure to be producing at a level that is unrealistic. Inevitably people burn out or they become too obsessed with being consistent, and they never take time off to evolve their creative side, so it becomes stale.”4

If one accepts the constant drive to work, one may be “paid” in a few free products—obviously not the same as a wage. As journalist Taylor Lorenz explains, alongside “an ever-growing class of people who have leveraged their social media clout to travel the world, frequently in luxury,” who are courted by businesses directly, there is also an overwhelming growth of “D-list” influencers who request the same treatment. Kate Jones, manager at a luxury retreat in the Maldives reports, “Everyone with a Facebook [account] these days is an influencer. . . . These people are expecting five to seven nights on average, all-inclusive. Maldives is not a cheap destination.”5 Many hotels now have a standard influencer request form and contract. Even for the influencers who make the cut and receive free goods—at Jones’s luxury retreat, it’s 10 percent of applicants—it’s rarely clear when the next job may come or the next brand will call.6 Influencers often see their work, and the comped amenities that their work provides them, as their primary labor and pay, although they may face controversy for demanding even this noncash compensation. Influencer Natalie Zfat responded to such criticisms: “Could you think of any other business industry where it would be frowned upon for someone to reach out to a potential client and offer them an opportunity? You’d never see Coca-Cola berate an ad salesperson at CNN for calling them up and sharing their rates.”7

Some influencers may rent expensive cars and mansions, attempting to gain attention through extravagance and the perceived wealth of freebies.8 Others live life as a scam, working to integrate themselves into various social circles to syphon attention and money from others, faking wealth to get attention. While this “scamming” is often downplayed or disguised as genuine, some social media stars revel in the moniker of “scammer.” Caroline Calloway, for example, first gained attention for her popular Instagram posts discussing life as an American student at Cambridge. When it was revealed that her posts were ghostwritten, she leaned in to the scandal and attention by selling a variety of products flouting her inauthenticity, everything from a face and body oil named “Snake Oil” to writing workshops that were compared to the infamous Fyre Festival.9 Calloway later failed to deliver on a lucrative book deal and advance for her memoir, then declared she would self-publish the book, funded through a series of grifty moneymaking schemes, including tarot card readings and selling signed books (not her own book, just books she owns and signs). Calloway’s own book, which became available in 2023 for preorder with an unspecified release date, is, of course, titled Scammer.

Some of the most renowned influencers go to great lengths to hide their marketing. Kim Kardashian, whose existence is perpetually on the fringes of influencer culture, and who offers a popular image of fame and luxury emulated by many influencers, was fined $1 million by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for not disclosing her promotion of EMAX cryptocurrency.10 Kardashian’s veiled interest in finance and business points toward the obscured relations behind influencer culture that we take up in this book. When Emma Chamberlain contrasts herself with another exceptionally popular YouTube star—Jimmy Donaldson (better known as MrBeast)—she describes an emergent new kind of selfhood in late capitalism: “I look at YouTube more as a creative canvas, whereas MrBeast is a business. This is strategic. It’s not intimate. Do we really know MrBeast? What does MrBeast’s bedroom look like? What does MrBeast eat for breakfast? No one knows. He is this vehicle for entertaining content. . . . His personal presence is not to be ignored—people know him now—but he’s business-minded, and I think I’m more emotional, creative-minded.”11 It is this intersection of authenticity, identity, and commerce that this book is interested in. And, as we will detail, Chamberlain diagnoses something important (which applies to her as well): when people move beyond a level of precarious hustle, then their existence online is one in which identity and commerce converge.

Influencers are more than people we see and interact with on Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube. Influencers are an integral category for the reproduction of the social relation that is capitalism. When an influencer labors to become interesting, relatable, or worthy of attention, the internet becomes a factory to produce the self as commodity. This book examines this articulation of capital and selfhood. It employs influencer culture as an entry point into a set of relations that far exceed social media. In attending to the videos and images of influencers, it draws out numerous obscured infrastructures of contemporary capital, infrastructures that relate to a deeply questionable reinvention of subjectivity and social existence. In these pages, we will sketch the emergence of an economic context in which “successful” individuals achieve wealth, fame, and luxury by imagining themselves and acting not as individuals but as if their existence is equivalent to that of a vertically integrated corporation, a context in which rights and abilities are denied human citizens and transferred to corporate entities—a historical moment we term the Corpocene.

Influencers, in many ways, are extensions of past understandings of influence, advertising, and spectacle. There are precedents for today’s influencers throughout the entirety of modern capitalism.12 We might point toward people called “opinion leaders,” who, in the 1950s, served as intermediaries to carry propaganda from the mass media to the communities in which they lived, shaping political opinion and consumer choice.13 In the 1990s, opinion leaders became “influentials,” a holy grail of marketing research. If one could identify “influentials,” then one could manipulate the tastes, consumer habits, and political beliefs of civil society.14 Earlier, in the work of French sociologist Gabriel Tarde from the late 1800s and early 1900s, we see the source of new trends and new ideas branded as “geniuses” whom others would unconsciously and passively mimic.15

And in 1899, Thorstein Veblen first published his ideas about “conspicuous consumption,” which emerged from his observations of a “pecuniary emulation” that confers status among the bourgeoisie.16 Written at the end of the Gilded Age, Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class observed that class stratification could be understood, in part, through different attitudes toward labor and consumption. While the working class may believe in the essential dignity of manual labor, the “leisure class,” Veblen argued, invested instead in domination through useless “conquest,” meaning competitive games, hunting, war, and sport—activities dedicated to waste rather than productivity. This wasteful excess confers status through competitive esteem judged by others.

Veblen describes “conspicuous consumption,” in which expensive goods are flaunted, as typical of this class. For the leisure class, consumer goods should be purchased and ostentatiously displayed. The relative value of a specific good comes not from anything in the product itself—its quality, its utility—but from an excessive price value that makes that good exclusive. The value of an individual comes from the price of their belongings. Conspicuous consumption is highly competitive: “pecuniary emulation” refers to how members of the leisure class mimic and attempt to best each other by squandering money on increasingly excessive purchases. These tendencies, for Veblen, were never entirely the province of the nouveau riche of the Gilded Age, the apparent main target of his book. In fact, he saw the leisure class as essentially conservative, a class that perpetuates archaic social forms descending from the tribal and feudal stages of European society, embodied through bourgeois manners and etiquette.

Today’s influencer culture carries with it a similar privileging of waste, leisure, conspicuous consumption, and pecuniary emulation. But today’s influencers, however much they mirror Veblen’s understanding of class differentiation, are distinct from the opinion leaders, influentials, and “geniuses” of the past. We argue that influencer culture distinguishes itself through new forms of class antagonism, an almost bizarre parody of proletariat and bourgeoisie. One group becomes raw material for brands, laboring endlessly, hammering themselves into visual commodities that are eventually used up and discarded. These are the people we typically think of as influencers. This precarious population, struggling to make deals with brands and foster audience interactions, can be contrasted with a far more exceptional kind of influencer who, at first glance, appears to descend directly from the members of Veblen’s “leisure class.”17 These influencers do not seem to work for a living and instead mostly engage in activities of luxury and expenditure. Those that rise above a certain level of precarity seem to do so through sheer consumptive excess—as if they’ve discovered a particular trick or hack to work less and indulge. But, we suggest, this appearance is an illusion. This second category of influencer—those who appear as a wasteful “person” engaging in excessive spending—is an embodiment of a vertically integrated conglomerate, moving beyond the production of self as commodity to the ownership of the means of production of the self.

Examples of these conglomerated persons are rare, but they constitute the “elite” of influencer culture, embodied in figures such as Jeffree Star, Jimmy Donaldson (MrBeast), and Emma Chamberlain. The members of this second group merely seem to be particularly successful versions of the members of the first group, as if their existence is a difference in degree, not kind. This is not the case. Even though he may appear to be a successful beauty influencer like any other, Star owns supply chains and warehouses, manufacturing makeup and merch through his companies, Jeffree Star Cosmetics and Killer Merch, to name only the two most prominent companies associated with the influencer. Donaldson, whose excessive stunts are viewed by millions and emulated by many who see MrBeast as “relatable,” owns parts of MrBeast Burger, a fast-food chain, and Feastables, a food company that mostly makes chocolate bars. He has invested in numerous tech start-ups and financial technologies, such as Backbone (an iPhone game controller) and Current (a mobile finance app). Emma Chamberlain, whose videos are often celebrated for her “real” persona (which, you’ll recall, she contrasted with MrBeast’s “business” persona), has transitioned from YouTube to interviewing celebrities for Vogue and acting as a brand ambassador for Lancôme, along with founding and maintaining ownership over a coffee company, Chamberlain Coffee.

Star, Donaldson, and Chamberlain’s business ventures reveal that they are best understood not as creative laborers but as capitalists whose public image is inextricably linked with a range of partially obscured corporate ventures. Throughout this book, we are interested primarily in this second group of influencers, these conglomerates who appear as people and own warehouses, who control supply chains—traditional methods of capital accumulation derived from the manufacture, distribution, and sale of commodities. We chart the structures of capitalism that guide the “success” of these figures, and we examine how the model of a conglomerated, corporate person they embody has been disseminated throughout influencer culture, a model of aspiration that broadly shapes social media today.

In other words, when thinking about class differences obscured in influencer culture, we find that one class is capital personified, and the other strives to achieve the status of capital personified. The striving class has bought into the belief that contemporary capitalism depends on social relations, on personal connections, embracing precarious flexibility and constant hustle as a route to future success and security. The other class, while its members also appear to engage in these same practices, has instead invested in the manufacturing of consumer goods, the ownership of social media platforms and apps, and the trading and speculation of real estate. Theirs is a class in which the logic of selfhood becomes indistinguishable from the logic of the corporation. This, we will demonstrate, is the fundamental ruse of contemporary influencer culture. In the name of identification, intimacy, and authenticity, of being “real” and being “relatable,” today’s influencer culture is asking audiences to identify with a way of conceiving of themselves—a mode of subjectivity—that follows the logic of a vertically integrated conglomerate, desiring this model of the self as the image and model of “success.”

Understanding this class distinction, we will demonstrate, requires significantly rethinking, and perhaps even rejecting, many theorizations of labor and capital that stress the “immaterial” dimensions of production in a digital age. The concept of “immaterial labor,” as defined by Italian philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato, refers to activities such as creative thought and the maintenance of emotional relations, activities necessary for the reproduction of capital that have long been neglected because of their seeming lack of physical form.18 Lazzarato’s ideas have been widely taken up to describe technological transformations in capitalism after the 1970s, transformations that coincide with the rise of marketing, public relations, and the cultural industries. With digital, networked media, value regularly seemed to be less about the manufacturing of products than the crafting of brands, the interpretation of data, and the rise of “services” in a range of economic sectors, in which physical commodities were replaced with images, emotions, and information. “Immaterial” forms of labor regularly seem to be what’s at stake with the work of influencing. Yet, as we will show, an emphasis on immaterial labor today serves to obscure new forms of vertically integrated production that return us to the manufacturing and circulation of consumer goods. Even though the “elite” discussed in this book appear to be mostly invested in branding and communication, what we show, instead, is the centrality of manufacturing and supply chains undergirding what may otherwise seem to be the most “immaterial” forms of labor online.

Of course, images, relations, information, and emotion are all central to labor online. But a singular emphasis on immaterial aspects of production obscures class antagonisms that persist today. The countless precarious influencers, invested in building brands and maintaining relationships, appear to be a mass of potential surplus population—that is, workers who are potentially redundant from the perspective of capitalism, who can be cast aside without any real impact to the larger system.19 This does not mean that capital cannot extract value from this population; it does so in the form of rents and debt but only to a point—credit card bills pile up; houses and cars are leased; one “hustles” and fakes it until they make it . . . or until they are eventually used up, thrown away, and forgotten. The potential “redundancy” of most influencers is found in how any specific individual can effectively be discarded once the debt becomes excessive, once value can no longer be eked from the worker’s body as it ages, as it breaks down in exhaustion, as it burns out. As one relatively popular Instagram influencer, Lee Tilghman, once known as @LeeFromAmerica, told the New York Times in 2023, after years of constant work creating branded content, she found herself exhausted, feeling empty and alone, desiring an office job, a boring job. “You don’t get it,” Tilghman recalled saying to a coworker in her boring office, who couldn’t believe she’d trade in her life of glamorous influencing: “You think you’re a slave, but you’re not. . . . When you’re an influencer, then you have chains on.”20 Her years of influencing left Tilghman depressed and stressed, worn out from constant striving to achieve luxury. And, like so many other influencers who have quit and been forgotten, Tilghman’s exit from influencing doesn’t particularly matter from the point of view of capital. For every @LeeFromAmerica there once was, countless others are willing to take her place and become the next personality to go viral.

Influencer culture is a factory, in which countless individuals on the internet labor daily, most often for pittance wages, manufacturing a commodity called “the self.” This commodity must appear distinct, unique, different, a product that is exchangeable and valuable. And it must be produced, made, fabricated using tools given and controlled by monopolistic industries—fashion, cosmetics, social media, technology—often to sell these very things back to the audience watching on their phones and computers. Yet these workers do not have the ability to organize themselves as a class because the product they make is effectively worthless, because this product is the self. Rather than the sale of their labor power, the product is the very possibility that one is a unique individual with unique connections and unique abilities—labor power and personal identity fully converge. As the promise of individuality is a delusion—Adorno and Horkheimer might say that individuality under consumer capitalism is, at best, pseudo-individuality21—these precarious workers are precarious because they perpetually differentiate one from another, negating the possibility of class solidarity. And, at the same time, not one is meaningfully distinct from any other. As individuals, they are fungible and unnecessary. As Horkheimer and Adorno claimed, “The self, entirely encompassed by civilization, is dissolved in an element composed of the very inhumanity which civilization has sought from the first to escape. The oldest fear, that of losing one’s name, is being fulfilled.”22 The demand to be an individual, to be a self, to be a unique and exchangeable commodity realizes what Adorno and Horkheimer were describing: the liquidation of selfhood in the name of capitalist rationality.

But this liquidation of selfhood is slightly different when it comes to people like MrBeast, Emma Chamberlain, or Jeffree Star. The second type of influencer, embodied by these figures, is capital. They are an embodiment of a vertically integrated conglomerate, moving beyond the production of self as commodity to the ownership of the means of production of the self—the machinery and materials that manufacture the product called the self. Person and means of production are conflated. Jeffree Star oversees the manufacture of the makeup he brands with his name, stored in warehouses he manages, shipped through logistics companies he operates, to mention just one example we’ll draw on throughout this book. Star does not merely advertise a product to others, influencing through social relations fostered by social media. He owns and controls the entire supply chain that sources, makes, and ships the makeup he and many others, who essentially pay Star for the privilege of producing a marketable, glamourous identity, use to craft the glamourous people seen over social media.

There are precedents to these vertically integrated “people”—Oprah Winfrey or Martha Stewart, for instance, to name two of the earliest examples of branded individuals,23 whose personal identities and names gave coherence to large conglomerations of consumer goods and products sold through the lure of the individual. Yet nobody truly believes Oprah’s conglomerate, Harpo Inc., to be self-identical with her as a person. The same goes for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which continued operations even with Stewart in prison. But, as we will return to later in this book, Star is often presumed to “be” his brand. When it comes to the conglomerated individuals of influencer culture, corporate diversification and integration are concealed, bound together with the personal identity of the individual we see onscreen. Fans are often more likely to believe that these individuals are faking their wealth than they are to believe those they watch are truly “different” from any other precarious, struggling influencer.24


This book is guided by a refusal to believe that “successful” influencers are essentially the same as those living and struggling and burning themselves out. As we mentioned above, in this book we mostly examine “successful” influencers in the construction of their online personas. Throughout, we look for the moments in which the presence of production, the presence of capital, intrudes. Our guiding principle is that the videos of influencers, their “content,” inevitably point toward the material foundations of contemporary capitalism, even if these foundations are rarely the focus.

Within the class relations of influencer culture, the bourgeoisie are made up largely of rich, white people, and there are specific reasons for this. While not everyone discussed in this book can truly be situated as “elite,” we do believe that everyone discussed here is following a specific model of influencer, a model that intrinsically follows, to some degree, a normative acceptance of whiteness, linking wealth and success with a tacitly racialized understanding of human worth.

Numerous media scholars have examined those struggling in the contemporary influencer industries, often foregrounding dimensions of gender, race, and class.25 Cultural production, like culture in general, is inherently structured by these categories. American culture, rooted in white supremacy, privileges whiteness, and internet culture in the United States is no exception.26 If we want to understand the oppressive qualities of contemporary digital culture, then we must examine whiteness, wealth, and other qualities privileged as natural, as normal, as desirable today.

It is widely known that Black influencers are, as Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill put it, “likely to be underpaid by brands relative to their white counterparts undertaking identical promotional labor.”27 Race impacts the visibility and income opportunities afforded almost all influencers. Marketers assume, to use the words of one, that “Black influencers are not able to deliver the results (i.e. sales, followers etc.) that white influencers are able to,” even if follower counts are the same, leading to racialized interpretations of metrics and unequal pay for otherwise equivalent labor.28 At the same time, signifiers of race are often appropriated by white influencers for attention and exoticism, a practice termed Blackfishing by the journalist Wanna Thompson.29 “Blackfishing” is a concept that echoes bell hooks’s classic argument about “eating the other,” where appropriating racial otherness becomes a way to add “spice” to the blandness of white culture.30

Black influencers face difficulties negotiating visibility on social media through the automated, algorithmic manipulation of feeds and moderation of content. Systems of algorithmic recommendation, which are essential for negotiating visibility over social media, reproduce—and often intensify—forms of discrimination that exist beyond the internet. Safiya Umoja Noble uses the phrase “technological redlining” to describe how technologies of automation “reinforce oppressive social relationships and enact new modes of racial profiling.”31 Ruha Benjamin terms this technological discrimination “the New Jim Code,” which she defines as “the employment of new technologies that reflect and reproduce existing inequities but that are promoted and perceived as more objective or progressive than the discriminatory systems of a previous era.”32 This is part of a long-standing pattern. Charlton McIlwain, in Black Software, a historical study of race and computers, has argued that while Black people have often existed at the vanguard of technological innovation as hobbyists, entrepreneurs, “organizers, evangelists, activists, and knowledge brokers” who positioned Black culture in the foreground of the internet’s “popular social development,” the history of technology in America is also a story of how digital technology has been used to negate Black agency and limit the “hopes and dreams, aspirations, human potential, and political interests” of Black people.33

Algorithmic data analytics, according to Wendy Chun, descend from eugenics and presume a fundamental “homophily” to ground all sociality—enforcing a “love of the same” that tends to exclude all that deviates from this sameness. As Chun argues, even though data analytics initially were framed as leading to a kind of postrace, postidentity “utopia,” “social networks perpetuate angry microidentities through ‘default’ variables and axioms. By using data analytics, individual differences and similarities are actively sought, shaped, and instrumentalized in order to capture and shape social clusters.”34

Thus, the algorithmic manipulation of attention by the platform tacitly reiterates the norm of whiteness, linking this norm with wealth and “success.” Even though one labors to be interesting and distinct online, this distinction must remain “relatable,” within a narrow space that cannot deviate excessively from the norm of whiteness.35 Benjamin describes “the power of this plainness as the invisible ‘center’ against which everything else is compared and as the ‘norm’ against which everyone else is measured. Upon further reflection, what appears to be an absence in terms of being ‘cultureless’ works more like a superpower. . . . To be unmarked by race allows you to reap the benefits but escape responsibility for your role in an unjust system.”36

This privilege given to whiteness has obvious consequences, directly shaping how pay, visibility, and attention are distributed online. Even popular Black influencers are often treated as secondary to white influencers, placing them in a position where they must work harder for a similar amount of attention and less pay. Take, for instance, a series of well-publicized events thrown by Tarte Cosmetics, in which the company invited many TikTok-based beauty influencers to events, first in Dubai and then in Miami. For the Dubai trip, fifty influencers were invited, yet only one invitee, Monet McMichael, was not white.37 The subsequent Tarte trip, to the former estate of the singer Prince, outside Miami, was also called out for racial disparities, this time by one of its invitees, Cynthia Victor, a beauty influencer of Sri Lankan descent known on TikTok as Shawtysin, for the privileges she witnessed given to the white attendees. While Victor was invited for one week, the white influencers on the trip were invited for two and were often given better rooms and more promotional goods and opportunities than she was.38

Outside of the United States, the emphasis on the visibility and necessity of whiteness is often even more explicit. In her study of Instagram influencers in Nairobi, Kenya, Anne W. Njathi describes the case of Empresal Sally, who died on December 12, 2021, from complications related to a skin-lightening procedure. Sally, a thirty-nine-year-old mother of four at the time of her death, whose Instagram account was filled with images of luxurious, international travel, “believed her appearance was her best commodity, and invested in having the most appealing physical presence as possible.”39 As Njathi argues, skin-lightening is widespread among many of the most popular Kenyan influencers, such as Vera Sidika, often described as Nairobi’s Kim Kardashian, who also popularized the hashtag #BleachedBeauty to describe the lightness of her skin and, therefore, her economic value as one who can attract attention.40 As Benjamin explains, “race itself is a kind of technology—one designed to separate, stratify, and sanctify the many forms of injustice experienced by members of racialized groups, but one that people routinely reimagine and redeploy to their own ends.”41 When race does appear in influencer culture, it often does so through its appropriation by white influencers42 acting as a way to “extend” white bodies and the reach of whiteness43 or, as evidenced by Tarte trips and skin bleaching, appears as a liability for the “effective” circulation of capital.

In other words, platforms algorithmically privilege whiteness through the enforcement of homophily, through forms of automation that reproduce structures of racist social organization, and some influencers respond by manipulating their bodies through risky practices that likewise hold up whiteness as an ideal. This does not mean that platforms exclude people who are not white, but it does mean that it is radically more difficult for influencers who are not white to get attention and to get paid—and thus to move into the position we have described in which one becomes capitalist rather than a worker.

Even the whitewashed veneers of luxury and opulence that we see in influencer content cannot conceal the material reality of capitalism today and, in fact, as we show over the course of this book, can serve as a route directly into the hidden abode of production. The global infrastructures of capital—warehouses, supply chains, shipping industries—are profoundly racialized.44 The chapters of this book emphasize the ownership of varied, large-scale forms of capital, including homes, cars, and warehouses. We show that property ownership is a significant, obscured part of “success” in influencer culture. Given long-standing governmental policies that discriminate by race to prohibit or discourage property ownership by nonwhite people,45 this is another way that influencer culture reproduces a norm of whiteness.

It is easy to assume that “influencers” are a general mass, a group of people whose differences are about scale and significance rather than differences in kind. Race is one way of articulating forms of discrimination perpetuated by platforms and marketers, one way of identifying varied forms of stratification that emerge from platforms and attention that leads some to greater precarity than others. But the solution to this discrimination should not be to help capital further integrate disparate individuals and groups into economic exploitation. Or, the “problem” of influencer culture should not be reduced only to how platforms distribute attention in a biased way that reproduces, among other things, racial disparities. We can see the limits of approaching platform discrimination in this way through the failure of labor organization online, which returns us to our general problem of class within influencer culture.

The general precarity of most influencers is widely acknowledged. One solution often proposed for the precarity is unionization, an argument that frames influencers as equivalent to any other cultural worker.46 Influencers “are facing a kind of existential crisis,” reports the Atlantic. “They have never been more valuable to their home platforms, yet they’re still struggling to turn that value into meaningful leverage.”47 Among other factors, the algorithmic mediation of attention, the demands of platforms and advertisers, and the constantly shifting attention from audiences all contribute to the precarity of struggling influencers.

There have been multiple attempts to unionize influencers and content creators, though many, like the “IG Meme Union Local 69-420,” a union for Instagram meme account owners, seem more like a joke than an actual attempt at unionization. The author and YouTuber Hank Green founded the Internet Creators Guild in 2016, which shut down after three years for lack of interest. (It’s also notable that Green isn’t primarily known as an influencer today; he and his brother, John Green, who vlogged together in the early 2000s, are both exceptionally popular novelists and entrepreneurs, themselves vertically integrated individuals who have transcended the precarity of influencer culture.) The Screen Actors Guild has an “influencer agreement” that positions brand relationships under the purview of the union’s bargaining guidelines, though it’s unclear how many people have taken advantage of this agreement or if influencers who are not primarily actors could even secure SAG membership. A lawyer who represents online creators was quoted by the Atlantic, noting how “not one client” he has worked with has ever been interested in unionization or collective bargaining. Influencers, he says, “are small businesses on their own and they don’t need help from others. . . . It’s only if you’re starting out or you’re a micro-influencer that you want to band together for strength in numbers.”48

The most significant and successful form of organized influencer protest has been a “strike” in which Black creators withdrew their labor from TikTok to resist the common appropriation of dances choreographed and created by Black influencers. When white influencers would repeat these dances, they often would gain far more attention and visibility (and therefore money) than the Black influencers who initially created the dances,49 a fact that illustrates yet again some of the arguments about the privilege given to whiteness by social media platforms. But because visibility on TikTok, like other social media platforms, is determined by constant posting of new content, this “strike” hurt neither TikTok nor anyone other than the creators who withdrew their labor.50

Our suggestion is that these attempts at unionization and worker organization are limited because they fail to grasp the specificity of class differentiation in influencer culture. Labor grievances are focused on the relative integration, or lack thereof, of individuals into the larger capitalist system. The framing of the labor politics of influencer culture in this way ignores how many of the most prominent and successful influencers are not creative workers but are themselves capitalists who conflate their own identities with corporations they found, own, and manage. And because capital, in the United States, descends from a range of racialized structures that implicitly and explicitly privilege whiteness, combined with algorithmic structures and racialized understandings of the value of attention that also privilege whiteness, this means that the class structure of influencer culture, with its capital-owning “elites,” also privileges whiteness. Our goal throughout this book is to study this privilege, which too often, like whiteness itself, passes as “neutral” and aspirational.


Believing that the model of success online is at least somewhat “neutral” is easy, unfortunately. In the idealized life cycle of an influencer, “success” appears to come from working hard or understanding the logic of platformed attention. Begin by generating popular content—a start that might involve a high level of fraudulence, investing in fake followers, bots who comment on posts, gaming the system of algorithmic visibility. If an influencer gets popular enough, with enough videos going viral, with enough followers (real or not), they might get paid by a platform, receiving a tiny, partial share of the profits from advertising shown in conjunction with their videos. If their popularity expands further, the influencer may get offers from brands, generating sponsored content, doing product reviews, presenting personalized ads—opportunities that may be paid but more often are compensated with free promotional goods. Then, if one is exceptionally popular, brands may desire collaborations, putting the influencer’s face and name on their products. The influencer may become the face of a specific brand.

There is precarity, disposability, and discrimination implicit in this life cycle: even highly prominent and popular influencers can disappear if they’re revealed to be “toxic,” if their fans turn against them or grow bored. That precarity is only mitigated if one can transition out of the influencer life cycle, a stage achieved by a miniscule few, revealing the limits of this meritocratic narrative of popularity. Here, one ceases to be an influencer, properly speaking, and becomes a corporation that appears as an individual human. In this stage, one owns the brands that they advertise, brands like Jeffree Star Cosmetics, MrBeast Burger, or Chamberlain Coffee. These brands may not even be attached in a direct way to the individual’s image, and the influencer may disappear from the branding for the products associated with their name. Emma Chamberlain often does not appear in the ads for her coffee, for instance, and Jeffree Star’s extensive business activities are regularly obscured. Some make the transition to full-fledged corporation by investing in companies that manufacture goods for other influencers and own warehouses that distribute products for others; Jeffree Star, through Killer Merch and his fulfillment centers, does precisely this. In this final stage, the influencer is a very traditional capitalist and cannot be understood as one of many workers struggling in the creative economy.

This move from branded collaborations to owning and manufacturing is a central part of our analysis. Our focus on influencers and influencer culture is directed toward understanding the everyday, lived reality of capitalism today, in which individuals are steered toward identifying directly with corporations, in which today’s community, if we can even use this term, is a community of brands and corporations passing as human beings.

The broad internalization of the logic of capital as the foundations for subjectivity and sociality has led to what the Marxist theorist Jacques Camatte terms “the domestication of humanity,” the process that “comes about when capital constitutes itself as a human community.” It “starts out with the fragmentation and destruction of human beings, and the final outcome is that capital is anthropomorphized.”51 Capital today, Camatte tells us, has escaped; it has become autonomous, beyond control of the bourgeoisie—that is, the capitalists who try to master it—exercising domination over all human life. Capital typically appears as a set of contingent but reified social relations—meaning, while capitalism seems to characterize most of social life, there are many moments that seem to be beyond capitalism, at least partially. But today, Camatte suggests, these moments seem to be more difficult to find, as capital appears as social, communal existence as such. Or, we suggest, we can see this “escape” of capital in influencer culture when capital appears as people. For Camatte, capital today grounds the very possibilities of being social, and to imagine another world requires rethinking, even abandoning, much of what we imagine to be fundamental social relations. In influencer culture, we can see shimmers of the autonomy of capital, of its existence as that which substitutes for and remakes community. The Corpocene, the ultimate concept this book will propose, describes this moment, in which the object we identify with is capital itself—diversified, distributed, and conglomerated.

Our context, which we might term “late capitalism” following the Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel,52 is a moment in which everything begins to appear as capital and social forces previously beyond the boundaries of capital appear as part of production. “Late capitalism” refers not to a period approaching the end of capitalism but the moment in which possible exteriors of capital seem difficult to identify. The social forces once thought of as human community appear as technology, as machinery, designed to commodify all that exists. “Subsumed under capital the workers become components of these social formations,” Marx says in the “Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” his unfinished chapter of Capital, “but these social formations do not belong to them and so rise up against them as the forms of capital itself, as if they belonged to capital, as if they arose from it and were integrated within it.”53

Today, some Marxists see this subsumption (as Marx calls it above) as a necessary point forward to a future communism, arguing for the necessity of complete technological alienation to intensify the contradictions inherent to capital, provoking rupture and collapse. Things must get worse—possibly to the point of a total, dystopian collapse of society—before they get better, this line of thinking goes.54 Others see the emergence of a mode of production that cannot truly be called “capitalism.”55 Mandel and Camatte see something different. Faith in technology—and the incorporation of life into a technological mode of production—leads to the perpetual wasting of human labor, the generation of extreme irrationality and fatalism, obscuring the points at which we could intervene to stop it. Any hope in technology is misguided. This includes not only the banal belief that technology will save us but also includes the hope that the collapse of capital and society will lead, somehow, to a revolution spurred by perpetually increasing precarity, instability, and crisis.

We can see why this hope is misguided when we begin to look at what is obscured in influencer culture. Late capitalism is a period marked by a pessimism about the possibility of an alternative to capitalism.56 Yet finding new alternatives and new ways out of capitalism must first acknowledge how almost all facets of social existence have been subsumed by capital, a subsumption that does not—and, most likely, will never—lead to capitalism’s collapse through the intensification of internal contradictions. As we mentioned above, influencer culture demands the production of a product called “the self,” a product that attains value only through its distinction from others, in which one desires and aspires to become like the luxurious, corporate persons seen online, so there is little hope for unionization or organization—especially if the actual class differences of influencer culture remain unacknowledged.

Our argument is that we can observe the contemporary autonomy of capital, along with how this autonomy has led to a strange context in which people aspire to live as if they are themselves corporations, when we begin attending to the practices of influencers. We can see into the material workings of late capitalism simply by looking at what is indirectly represented on social media, by looking at representational content, reading for backgrounds of production—forms of capital, as it were—that are certainly not intended to be the focus. In the chapters that follow, this often means looking at where videos were literally shot—in houses, in cars, in thrift stores, storage units, warehouses—drawing out the implications these spaces have for the generation and circulation of capital in influencer culture.

Most of the videos discussed in this book were from around the years 2016 to 2023, slightly predating but ultimately focusing on the years of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve mentioned Jeffree Star, MrBeast, and Emma Chamberlain throughout this introduction, and we will discuss not only these individuals but many who have followed in their mold or predate them in style. We do not examine traditional celebrities who happen to have large online followings, such as musicians, actors, or athletes who are popular on Instagram or TikTok. Everyone we examine seems, to some degree, invested in cultivating a personality, producing a “self,” one crafted with the goal of making money either through ads shown during videos or through brand collaborations and sponsorships. Or, at the very least, everyone we discuss makes it appear as if their main job is to promote products through their ability to gain popular attention.

As will also become clear, we believe that YouTube is particularly useful in visualizing contemporary capitalist infrastructures in this moment. YouTube provides an unusual (and unusually large) set of documents through which our “lived culture” is expressed, refined, and archived; YouTube’s videos, in acting to document our present, could be said to “correspond to its contemporary system of interests and values,” to use the words of theorist Raymond Williams.57 If we are interested in charting how people live through and make sense of what we might term “platform capitalism,”58 to use one name for the context in which social media and digital technology have reinvented the capitalist base, we must look at the texts made and practices performed within this context—though, we believe that an emphasis on “platforms” only begins to approach one part of our current moment. To provide an immanent critique of contemporary capitalism, we must engage with the products of social media, not just at the level of industry but at the level of subjectivity—especially when subjectivity becomes the commodity into which labor power is fashioned. But this explains why YouTube is a particularly useful archive.

Additionally, in the years covered by this book, it was common knowledge among influencers that, if one wanted to make money, YouTube is where one’s efforts should ultimately be focused. As one relatively popular influencer put it in a TikTok video, “the real video monetization is in YouTube and Instagram, and again, unless your content is about you being hot, you’re going to find it very difficult to transfer your followers on here [TikTok] to there.”59 We focus on YouTube as the place where the money was.

In looking slightly beyond what we see in the foreground of images and videos on social media, we begin to see the material infrastructures of a capitalism organized around the production of identity, in which the means of production become the means of production of the self, a transformation that affirms an evacuation and undermining of subjectivity beyond what cannot be equated with a saleable commodity. We are seemingly obsessed with identity today because identity has become impossible. And, beyond this transformation of identity into a commodity, we can also begin to see how a major point of identification, of aspiration, is not only wealth and luxury but imagining oneself as a corporation.

Before outlining our overall organization and argumentative logic, we’ll now turn toward a specific case. We make a claim that seeks to demonstrate our method and approach to influencer culture: there is no such thing as a selfie, and the belief that there are selfies has served to obscure broader changes in production in which community and selfhood have become subsumed by capital. We begin by looking at selfies because selfies are commonly understood as a method for documenting and revealing the self, for making oneself visible to others over social media.

Although influencers are not the only people who take selfies, influencer culture begins with practices that show one as a “self” over social media, a revelation necessary to begin the process of manufacturing the self as a commodity to be of interest to others and brands. In looking at selfies, we aim to demonstrate how a logic of commodification has subsumed practices of self-documentation and that we cannot say that there is any authentic “self” being revealed online. In fact, believing in the basic claim there are selfies conceals the distinction between the two classes mentioned above; believing that any private, authentic, intimate relation can be revealed over social media distracts from the materiality of capitalism that undergirds social media. Understanding the class politics of influencer culture first requires doing away with the very idea of selfies as a “thing” and, instead, looking closely at what literally appears in the backgrounds of images and videos online. It is this turn to the background that guides our arguments and guides the method of interpretation we use in the chapters that follow.


1. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 124.

2. Dobson, Carah, and Robards, “Digital Intimate Publics.”

3. See, e.g., Lury, Brands.

4. David Marchese, “YouTube Made Emma Chamberlain a Star. Now She’s Leaving It Behind,” New York Times Magazine, Feb. 17, 2023,

5. Taylor Lorenz, “Instagram’s Wannabe-Stars Are Driving Luxury Hotels Crazy,” The Atlantic, June 13, 2018,

6. See, among others, Duffy, (Not) Getting Paid; Pham, Asians Wear Clothes; and Harris, Kids These Days.

7. Quoted in Lorenz, “Instagram’s Wannabe-Stars.”

8. Marwick, “Instafame.”

9. Andrea Park, “Caroline Calloway’s ‘Creativity Workshop’ Taught Me Nothing about Creativity but a Lot about Scamming,” W Magazine, Jan. 2019,

10. US Securities and Exchange Commission, “SEC Charges Kim Kardashian for Unlawfully Touting Crypto Security,” press release, Oct. 3, 2022,

11. Marchese, “YouTube Made Emma Chamberlain a Star.”

12. See, e.g., Hund, The Influencer Industry, 12–35.

13. Katz and Lazarsfeld, Personal Influence.

14. Weimann, The Influentials.

15. Tarde, “Origins and Functions of Elites,” 245–51.

16. Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class, 32–33.

17. Veblen, 35–101.

18. Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor.”

19. See Endnotes, “Misery and Debt.”

20. Mattie Kahn, “Is There Life after Influencing?” New York Times, April 14, 2023,

21. See, e.g., Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 125.

22. Horkheimer and Adorno, 24.

23. See Klein, No Logo, 30.

24. The YouTube video series “The Secret World of Jeffree Star,” discussed in chapter 4, exists in large part because of skepticism about the actual wealth of its subject. Also see Marwick, “Instafame.”

25. See, e.g., Kuehn and Corrigan, “Hope Labor”; Abidin, “Visibility Labour”; Pham, Asians Wear Clothes; Duffy, (Not) Getting Paid; and Precarity Lab, Technoprecarious.

26. For a small selection of a broad field, with arguments that differ about the essential function of race and racism in determining contemporary culture, see Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists; Alexander, The New Jim Crow; Wilderson, Afropessimism; Sharpe, In the Wake; and Towns, On Black Media Philosophy.

27. Orgad and Gill, Confidence Culture, 45.

28. An anonymous marketer quoted in Christin and Lu, “The Influencer Pay Gap,” 11.

29. Wanna Thompson, “How White Women on Instagram Are Profiting Off Black Women,” Paper, Nov. 14, 2018,

30. hooks, Black Looks, 21–39.

31. Noble, Algorithms of Oppression, 1.

32. Benjamin, Race after Technology, 5–6 (emphasis in the original).

33. McIlwain, Black Software, 7.

34. Chun, Discriminating Data, 49.

35. Cf. Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories.

36. Benjamin, Race after Technology, 4.

37. Angela Johnson, “Tarte Cosmetics Just Hosted a Lavish Influencer Trip to Dubai, Should We Care?” The Root, Jan. 21, 2023,

38. CT Jones, “How a Makeup Brand Melted Down TikTok,” Rolling Stone, May 11, 2023,

39. Njathi, “The Glitz and Glamour Platform Economy,” 42.

40. Njathi, 43–44.

41. Benjamin, Race after Technology, 36.

42. Benjamin, Viral Justice, 176–78.

43. Cf. Towns, On Black Media Philosophy.

44. Benjamin, Viral Justice, 52.

45. See Taylor, Race for Profit.

46. See Hund, The Influencer Industry.

47. Kaitlyn Tiffany, “The Influencer Industry Is Having an Existential Crisis,” The Atlantic, March 31, 2023,

48. Tiffany.

49. Taylor Lorenz and Laura Zornosa, “Are Black Creators Really on ‘Strike’ from TikTok?” New York Times, Sept. 3, 2021,

50. Tiffany, “The Influencer Industry.”

51. Camatte, This World We Must Leave, 91–92.

52. Mandel, Late Capitalism.

53. Marx, Capital, 1:1054–55.

54. See Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future; Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism; and Wendling, Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation.

55. Dean, “Communism or Neo-Feudalism?”; Wark, Capital Is Dead.

56. Fisher, Capitalist Realism.

57. Williams, The Long Revolution, 68.

58. Srnicek, Platform Capitalism.

59. Joshua Holmes (@joshomz), “Reply to @karamelioness What being a content creator & influencer is like vs working a 9–5 job, if you don’t already have rich parents,” TikTok, Jan. 27, 2022,