On Influencers, Hustle Culture, and Social Media

Let’s finish off the year with a subject that I’ve been waiting to talk about for a long time.

I did a podcast with Spencer on this topic but I also wrote a few words on my own. Honestly, this just all opinions of course, mainly formed by how a lot of my friends and family (aka non menswear people) view this little hobby of mine.

Let me tell you that I cringe every time the word “influencer” is applied to me. Obviously it’s been nice to have a small following and community that enjoys my work (which you could technically say that I influence them), but it’s mainly because influencer today has turned into a job or something to aspire to, rather than something that happens organically on it’s own. Free stuff is great, but I don’t think it’s worth the stress and constant attention to social media it requires.

Now you guys know that I’ve had thoughts on this for years (I’ve occasionally had IG stories about it), but I’ve never fully written about it until now- I also highly recommend listening to the podcast link above. I think one of the reasons I feel so strongly on the subject is because a lot of people assume that being an Influencer (with a capital “I”) is the goal of the blog and Instagram. Whenever I tell them that I write about menswear for fun, they always ask why I don’t take active steps to monetize or gain sponsorships and advertisers. That’s when I tell them what I’ve learned about influencer culture, what I see on social media, and how much I take pride in producing my own original content at my own autonomy.

I go into detail about this on the podcast, but if there’s one thing I “admire” about influencers, it’s the dedication to the constant stream of content. To be relevant to your audience, you need to always be pushing out posts since you need that sweet, sweet engagement from your followers. Content must be built up, whether it’s a fit pic, lifestyle shoot, or a review on your website. A percentage of those views has the potential to lead to engagement, which are the desired metrics for advertisers and sponsorships; the way you get those views are by posting, which leads to a constant feedback loop that requires conscious attention from a content creator. This is because when you build up content, you build up insights, which either allow you to be a great conduit for selling products (or by having product placement) So yes, it may not be a traditional job like a lawyer or accountant, but it still takes a lot out of you!

In order to make sure your content does well, you need to “game” of the algorithm. On paper, it just looks like you need to produce organically engaging content: good photographs and nice words in the caption. But when you look further into it, you realize it requires much more. When Instagram changed from being chronological to being engagement based (that prizes people with high following, mind you), a lot of influencers (and aspiring ones) got pretty upset. They learned that engagement from certain high performing profiles helps you rank better on the feed, so Instagram Pods were created so that influencers talk can be sure to “assist” each other with comments and shares. Gotta do what you can to make sure you’re still relevant to your sponsors audience, I suppose.

That last part is also quite weird to me, as it means that your content needs to be ready for a sponsor at all times. I remember reading an article about influencers in that it recommends that you emulate the format and photography style of existing influencers in order for your feed to act as a portfolio of sorts. Even if it isn’t that overt, most content from these social media profiles are repetitive and don’t contain much about their lives. In essence, these people aim to make their profiles a living billboard, ripe for sponsorship and ad campaigns.

Obviously all of this is much more obvious to spot when looking at the mainstream influencers on your explore page. And that is what I’m usually compared to during conversations with non-menswear people. Luckily, menswear (or at least on the classic-contemporary side) is niche and more artisan focused, so we don’t have to worry about overly tacky captions and shoddy products (that might be something more for those pesky Youtubers). That being said, some of the problems with social media still perverse it, much more on the consumer side rather than the maker side (as HandCut radio shows, many of our favorite brands and personalities aren’t actually into influencers).

I don’t think any of them plan on being full-time influencers (at least to the extend of ones who lead truly extravagant lives on my explore page), though they are clearly very dedicated to the content they create. There’s not much in the way of lifestyle influencers (I’d say that WM Brown is the closest, but he naturally has that amazing life and isn’t sponsored, apart from making content for his own magazine), though review-based accounts are the norm. To me, it looks like these guys are constantly out looking for new brands to try out and share with their audience; whether they are paid or have a share-of-wallet deal, I’m not sure. Personally, I typically don’t find their style that interesting, as it’s usually just trying out different variations of classics: pleated pants, polo shirts, dress shirt, and jackets. I don’t even think that they get a chance to fully experiment, since there is usually another review on the way. Gotta keep up that backlog of content!

This is where I think hustle culture comes in, creating a need for many guys to turn their hobby into something that produces money, because after all, you are putting money into it in the first place. If you try out a brand, you have to be sure that it will get you some sort of compensation: something free or straight up advertising dollars.

To do that, you need to follow all the social media steps outlined for you by countless digital marketing blogs. The tone changes. The personal posts take a backseat the content. All of this is in the hustle of monetizing the hobby. Even that last part is quite annoying. I’ve seen quite a few menswear influencers apologize for taking a day or so off from posting content. Or they share “top of the month” posts, which I find pretty banal, since it’s regurgitating high performing content again. Captions (and stories) are filled with open ended questions to foster comments (which then provide a positive feedback loop for the algorithm). My problem really isn’t so much about the type of content itself (I mean, I like responding to comments), but more about how with certain influencers, it’s easier to see that they’re following best practices.

Obviously if that’s what you want to do, go for it. I’ve heard a lot of positive stories where people are able to get decent side money from this and make some real friends, though their content differs from more menswear focused accounts, which is why I’m probably a bit more picky and vocal about this subject. It’s a different world that not many people understand. After all, a lot of the major figures in the classic menswear world aren’t overt influencers. They might have a large following, but they’re all photographers and owners of brands. They seldom monetize their content (unless Mark Cho is being paid to review laptops and cameras) because their business comes from other sources. I’m sure social media helps (after all Tumblr helped propel The Armoury into popularity), but it’s still different than what you typically see on the explore page.

Allow me now to admit that a lot of my issues and critiques come from how I personally approach social media. I do it purely for fun (at least that’s what I tell myself), whether it’s a fitpic, a photograph of Spencer, or a blog post on something obscure that I decided to spend time writing thousands of words over. If I want inspiration, I follow artisans and brands for products or regular guys who put dumb silly pictures of their life next to their fit pics (or they happen to live life naturally well dressed); perhaps this means that I’m at a stage where I get nothing from following influencers. Social media (and blogging) is free and I don’t want to do anything that would cause me to stress out or think of it as work. Now that’s not to say that I haven’t gotten sucked into it myself.

Early on in the blog, I got caught up with that hustle culture mindset. Since I was studying marketing at the time, I did my best to be privy to all the tips and tricks of social media in order to be “successful”. This was during the tail end of the #menswear/blogger era and at that time, I couldn’t fathom doing any of this purely for fun: the goal at that time was to gain clout and be monetizable. I even did a few reviews/sponsorships of pretty shitty products (like really bad bowties) because I knew that I had to show that I had the propensity for future campaigns. I cringe every time I think about how I approached it in the past because I already had developed a specific taste; pushing that aside in favor of what I’m “supposed to do” or to potentially gain money from it lead to a stressful identity crisis.

When it comes down it, I think that injecting money into social media is what corrupts it or at least starts you on the path to “hustling”. It’s something free after all- having an Instagram account (and even this wordpress) costs me nothing! While others may make see that as a way to make money off or something that should require no effort to post, I’d rather use that energy to post what I want, when I want.

That leisure aspect comes into play when it comes to sponsored content. By giving you money, sponsors and advertisers have a bit of a say in what you produce and when you should post it It could be talking points or guidelines on the posts you do around their content; this is probably why many influencers (both aspiring and current) have a safe, neutral energy that makes it easy for a sponsor to come in at any time. However, the biggest issue I have is schedule, since most sponsors are tied to a product marketing schedule determined by the brand. I really don’t want to deal with that headache.

Perhaps the main difference between myself and those other influencers is that I always have something to post about on my social media and blog. Instead of being a conduit for a brand (outside of the ones I genuinely enjoy and have spent money on), I’m more of a writer and photographer who has an incessant need to share his work. Sometimes it’s an essay on an obscure topic or a it’s a nice film portrait I took of my friends. When I’m not posting that, I use the opportunity to get a fit off, from brands that I’ve already admired and saved up for (or it’s vintage). As I got into the groove of becoming who I am, pursuing the “influencer” route didn’t make sense for me. I figured that I already had weird taste and interesting friends that was worth talking about; my energy should be spent on sharing it rather than worrying if it will get enough likes and views to monetize.

I mean, I love social media. I can be vocal about my political beliefs, talk about Star Wars, or share my latest boba adventure with my non-menswear friends. My stories go from being quite sparse to basically being bullet points because I just share a lot; I seldom care about audience fatigue (and I’ve been told I’ve been unfollowed or muted for non-menswear content repeatedly). I don’t even have to worry about scheduling, apart from the regular blog posts and podcasts! I’m pretty fortunate to not have had any social media anxiety, at least not anymore.

Obviously, I care about my what my socials look like because I’m a photographer and I like aesthetically pleasing things. When since menswear is a big part of it, I prefer to be even more involved. I started the blog because I wanted to write about subjects that were important to me and share photographs of my friends and I just hanging out wearing cool clothes. That’s probably why I can’t imagine anyone else dictating what I should do with my social media.

Developing this written and visual content happens naturally and constantly mainly because I bring my camera everywhere and I’m always thinking about menswear. This makes my approach different than an aspiring influencer or someone who wants to inject sponsorships in their regular life- I already have something I’m proud of that I want to share. This means that I don’t have to worry about what my next post is going to be nor do I care if it’s been sponsored. I’d hate to have to push these things back just to get a product review out on the feed; I’m also sure a brand would hate it if I kept postponing it simply because I got inspired to write a piece on belts or solid colored jackets. Hell, I’m even mad when my backlog of blog posts pushes back great photos I’ve taken for my friends! This is probably why you see me post so often- I’ve got too much good stuff!

If I am going to be paid for anything, I prefer to be paid for my work. I have written a few articles for Styleforum and Craftsman Clothing. I’ve been the photographer for a brands and friends. That is what I don’t mind getting money from. But my blog and instagram? No. These are two things that are tied directly to my hobbies and I’d hate to muddle it up by forcing myself to think of it as a side hustle. I can’t imagine someone asking a photographer to be sponsored, though admittedly most photographers outside of menswear seldom show their face. I’m cursed to be an narcissistic dick who loves posting pictures he’s taken of others and himself.

On that note, that’s why I prefer to follow other menswear guys, or at least guys who approach social media in the same way. Even if their content is mainly fit pics (not everyone has to be as open obviously, but it’s nice when we peek behind the curtain), it cool to know that they wearing clothing for fun rather than in pursuit of free clothing. As we said in the previous pod, it’s nice to be able to buy something yourself. And apart from enthusiasts, I also like to follow designers, artists, and photographers for inspiration. Sure, they might have some ties to brands (or be involved in the menswear industry, but it’s not the same thing as being an overt influencer.

Plus, all the brands I’m into don’t really do any sort of sponsorships. They might give pieces to homies, but seldom as a marketing campaign. I can’t really see Ring Jacket, Alden, or Drake’s doing that; they don’t really need it either. And even if they did, I’d probably still feel bad about pushing my original content aside just for the money. I wouldn’t be upset if they let me do an ad read before the body of the podcast (similar to a youtube ad), to have a clear separation from my editorial voice and the sponsored portion, but I also don’t think they need to do that for such a small pod.

My goal in life is to be secure enough in my job so that I can continue writing, photographing, and podcasting menswear for fun. Because if I had to describe the theme of my blog and social media presence, it would be just to share what I like, whether that’s the fits I wear, the inspiration I gather, and the people I know. I’d hate if my income was tied to what I post on social, because that would take so much fun out of it.

What I hope this essay and podcast illustrate is the fact that anyone can get into writing and posting about menswear. Don’t get corrupted by hustle culture pushing you to only do it if you get something monetary out of it. I’ve had plenty of conversations with guys who want to start podcasts, blogs, and even Instagrams; many of them are baffled that the blog isn’t monetized nor are many posts sponsored (we occasionally get gifts from friends). A few still try to make a consistent blogs, but get caught up with constant content updates and are mired by the different changes to social algorithms; others don’t even start. It’s a shame, considering how much fun documenting menswear can be! Not everything has to be turned into a side hustle (though, if you really want to, go for it I guess).

It’s funny, because I’ve also seen a few posts by big menswear “influencers” where they openly admit that they wouldn’t have continued what they were doing unless they got the support and following they’ve amassed over the years. While I have no doubt that a large audience and community is a great boost to self esteem, I definitely think that it’s best to post what you like, when you like! If I was concerned with numbers (and they’ve never been high to begin with), I probably would’ve held back from writing about niche things like spearpoint collars or wearing a turtleneck as a base layer. They aren’t even written like guides- they’re unabashedly presented as entries in a personal journal. I think other guys might be able to turn the subjects into something more accessible, but that isn’t why I do it. It’s all just for me!

That being said, I’m very aware of the small following I have, though I have always known that that it isn’t really attractive to sponsors and advertisers. For my IG, I know that any post that isn’t me (aka a photo of Spencer or something on film), never performs as well as my own fit pics. As for the blog, the topics are quite niche and the editorials have no real purpose other than to fuel my own (and my friends’) narcissism with our fits. Some articles (and podcast episodes) do really well; others are passed over (and the latter happens more often than you think). I will say that I do what I can to get the post out there. I post stories featuring my content, use semi-relevant hashtags, and I occasionally put essays on reddit, though that’s where the expectations end; things still flop on there, and that’s fine. It’s okay, because I wanted to write it about it for me- if someone else gains something from it, that’s cool too!

Suddenly going full force into “influencer-esque” posts would be weird. I mean, a professed love for Aldens, lapel details, or even how I prefer taro boba would be quite foreign next to sponsored posts of any kind (especially after my anti-influencer tirades on my story); a knowledgeable audience (especially one into menswear) would be able to see this contrast immediately. I don’t need to constantly be “hacking social media” to make my following bigger and monetizable, since no matter if the size, the content will stay the same. And as for free clothes, I already have a huge wardrobe filled with things I already love to wear; unless it’s from a specific maker or brand, I don’t really need it in my life.

In fact, the few influencers I do know (or at least the ones that aspire to be one) are constantly baffled by how diverse my audience is and are curious to why I don’t drill down on analyzing it for growth. I always tell them that I’m too concerned with what I want to say, that I couldn’t care who reads it, though perhaps I hope people do, as it hopefully will expand people’s understanding of menswear. This s also why I’m particularly grateful and humbled my the patron, since it’s completely optional to support my projects. They’re all from different backgrounds (some with drastically different styles), but they all “get it”. I mean, you probably wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t.

In other words, social media to me is more like a canvas than a billboard- I’d probably just paint on it myself rather than sell it to an advertiser. It’s more fun that way!

Podcast Outline

  • 0:15 – Intro
  • 5:15 – Influencers and Hustle Culture
  • 7:35 – “Being an influencer has to be a conscious thing; you have to be actively influencing. There’s a difference between having clout and being an influencer.”
  • 12:30 – “When you start out, you have to take those pictures in order to attract future sponsors. Instagram has become a portfolio to show off your work. When your work is to make everything in your life look pretty, it’s easier for brands to sign off on it and sponsor you…aspiring to be a billboard is insane to me.” 
  • 15:40 – “The more you know about influencer culture, the more you realize how fake and manufactured it is. People go to these places to shoot, some that promote ‘being instagrammable.’”
  • 17:55 – “It’s hard to spot influencers through just the picture, but the caption makes it clear.”
  • 20:35 – Does This Actually Work?
  • 26:45 – “It is unsettling to see all the same people comment over and over again on their posts through instagram pods to gain the algorithm, they need to be visible to their audience to get income.” 
  • 28:00 – What Do You Really Like?
  • 30:50 – “You are the middle-man!”
  • 32:05 – “These people just use instagram- they don’t even blog anymore. It’s just paragraphs on captions.”
  • 33:10 – “Friends: the original influencers.”
  • 33:15 – “All of the content is just menswear! There’s no life, not even from stories. The shots are the same, the entire feed.”
  • 34:55 – “Even in terms of actual style it’s a lot of the same. Shoutout to pleated high-waisted trousers, turtleneck and a jacket. It’s usually all plain and boring.”
  • 44:40 – “When you’re an influencer you want your content to look like other people’s content. If you disguise yourself, it’s easier for other people to get into it. There’s no room for personality.”
  • 50:20 – How We Treat Social Media
  • 53:45 – “I have a quest for influencers: at least make the content look cool. Make it nice to look at, relax.”
  • 1:04:45 – “I want Instagram and everything I do in my free time to be on my own terms and when I feel like it.”

Recommended Reading

I’ll close off with an especially cringey shoot I had for that awful bowtie brand. My compensation were the bowties and pocket squares (as well as an opportunity for content). I felt so shitty after, especially because I already knew that I preferred wearing vintage foulard bowties. However, I thought it was a “necessary” step into being an influencer.

That Ethan is dead.

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We also did a stream about it, which is a much more candid conversation, especially since it included MJ, Matthew, and Kiyoshi. The discussions goes over what our goals for social media are, what makes “good” sponsored content, and what sponsorships we would actually take, if it could happen.

Most of us said something related to travel, but one that I think would work naturally for me was if I was sponsored by a camera brand! Photography is a huge passion of mine and being able to experiment with different models while I document menswear for the blog would be fun. However, I don’t have the time nor the money to even position myself for that. Like with menswear, I’m perfectly fine with what I own: my Canon 6D and my small collection of film cameras.

Thanks for listening and reading along! Don’t forget to support us on Patreon to get some extra content and access to our exclusive Discord. We also stream on Twitch and upload the highlights to Youtube.

Buh-bye!

StyleandDirection | EthanMWong | SpencerDSO

The Podcast is produced by MJ and Matthew.

Big thank you to our top tier Patrons (the SaDCast Fanatics):  Seth Peterson, Austin Malott, Eric Hall, Philip Gregard, Audrey Jessica, and Shane Curry.

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