Picture the scene. A daintily lit, gorgeously intimate fine-dining restaurant (you know the kind). The tones are hushed and the music is measured to the decibel. The vibes are all exquisitely, deliberately crafted, given as much importance as the nosh itself.
Then, suddenly: a piercing, blinding light. Have the curtains been flung open? Are we on the run, struck by the beams of a police copter after breaking out of HMP Pentonville?
No, it’s simply someone filming their meal, flash-on, for social media. This sort of behaviour has become totally normalised: whether it’s established influencers or upstarts and wannabes, trading ambiance for clicks is rife on London’s restaurant scene. Most of us seem resigned to it as a fact of modern dining. Occasionally, though, other customers will kick off. ‘I’ve heard about incidents where people were standing up shining the light and others have come over and said “can you stop doing that because you're ruining my meal”,’ says Rob, who runs 92,000 followers strong food Instagram account Licky Plate.
There are millions – yep, millions – of people out there (and even more who aspire to be them) who snap, film and feign their lifestyle for views and cash. There’s no shortage of stories of people getting tired of their schtick, either – especially in London. Whether it’s venues like pubs, restaurants and hotels or just normal people, plenty can testify to influencers doing naughty stuff like damaging homes in Notting Hill, being silly and entitled in busy Tube stations and hassling independent businesses to get free stuff.
Then, there are stories that go a bit further. Islington’s Compton Arms, for instance, went viral last year for responding to an influencer asking for free food in particularly cheeky fashion. Having received a request asking for five free meals, the pub’s chefs artfully guided the influencer to a police station over Instagram before advising they hand themselves in for ‘crimes against the hospitality industry’.
And it isn’t just Londoners that are tiring of it all. From Vietnamese restaurants in Manchester and empanadilla munchers in Vigo to Los Angeles ice cream vans that make influencers pay double, all over the world influencers have been scorned, spurned and mocked. Seeing influencers get ridiculed is so common and popular that it’s even spawned its own Instagram account, the five million-follower-strong Influencers in the Wild.
So does all this hint at the unthinkable? Could cracks be beginning to form in influencerdom’s seemingly invincible, face-tuned façade?
De-influencing as death spiral
One recent online trend suggests so. On the surface, the phenomenon of ‘de-influencing’ appears as a sort of self-correction for influencers’ wastefulness. Instead of rabbiting on about skincare products or touting ‘life hack’ gadgets, some TikTok and Instagram accounts are out to do the opposite: to tell you which hyped products not to buy, what not to do or where not to go. (Like this person, who’s telling people to – sort of – not bother visiting the Sky Garden.)
It’s an influencer civil war: two armies doing battle, either cynically promoting their own brand or unwittingly becoming their opposition
De-influencing might sound noble enough, but it’s probably not going to lead to much change more generally. Ironically, de-influencers become (or often already are) influencers themselves, replacing one set of product recommendations with another. It’s an influencer civil war: two armies doing battle, either cynically promoting their own brand or unwittingly becoming their opposition.
But maybe it does signify something – something bigger. Is influencer culture becoming so paranoid about its own legitimacy that it’s attacking itself?
Even if de-influencing isn’t a harbinger for the end of influencing, the IRL actions of the most excessive content creators are grating enough to prompt growing criticism from their own ranks, some of who have attempted to draw lines between being a ‘good’ influencer and a ‘bad’ one. Some influencers, for instance, endorse companies accused of stuff like forced labour and human rights abuses, which isn’t all that great.
‘I do think there’s a line,’ says Beverly Ugwu of London-based food account KnivesToMeetYou on Instagram and TikTok. ‘Sometimes those [phone camera] lights really are bright and bothersome. We should be more conscious of people just trying to have a nice meal, who don’t want to have lights in their face.’
Ugwu says she is ‘very conscious about bothering people,’ noting that creating content is her job and that even someone as well-practised as her can find it all a bit awkward. ‘I try and do it really quickly because I don’t really like people staring at me.’
Rob from LickyPlate also talks about not crossing that line: ‘If people are having a nice experience in a restaurant which they've paid good money for and you’re getting in their space, shining a light in their eyes... you have to be respectful of the experience that other people are having at the same time.’
In turn, he tries to keep the lights as low and as close to the table as possible – which, assuming that influencers gon’ influence, is as good as it gets. But what about those influencers who give less of a crap about the rest of us? Are they doomed to unpopularity and extinction?
Influential-er than ever
Influencing in London is so vast that any mass extinction looks exceptionally unlikely. What’s more, plenty of brands don’t only fully endorse the use of influencers in their marketing strategy, but have structured entire companies around making the most of influencer endorsements.
‘There’s no other way to reach such a directly engaged audience in real time with really good quality visual content,’ says Matt Grech-Smith, co-founder and CEO of mini golf chain Swingers.
Even a company as pre-social media as Cinnamon Collection – responsible for the likes of London Michelin-starred West End Indian stalwart Cinnamon Club – acknowledges and makes full use of influencers’ appeals.
‘I think it’s matured, you know, it’s become quite sophisticated,’ says CEO and executive chef Vivek Singh.
If you’re having a good time, not taking pictures is considered rude
‘I still recall a time when it was rude to have a phone on the table or to be caught checking your text messages in between courses. It’s gone from that to this other extreme where if you are having lunch, and especially if you’re having a good time, not taking pictures is considered to be rude.’
Companies would be foolish to completely spurn influencers. Unlike critics or journalists, brands don’t have to worry about negative reviews – instead, influencers are like billboards, specifically targeted at a known demographic or aspirants to a certain lifestyle. As a form of advertising, it doesn’t get much more cost-effective than influencer coverage – even if it is a bit of a vibe killer for a few seconds.
‘The venues or the brands that work with them are becoming more savvy about influencers,’ says Elizabeth Barnett, a lecturer in communication at the University of Creative Arts. ‘There's much more of a meeting in the middle compared to a decade ago.’
‘There is a science to it,’ says Vivek Singh. ‘You’ve got to do your due diligence. You look at what kind of followers they have, what kind of engagements they have and what other kinds of places they go to.’
It’s now pretty easy for companies to avoid being scammed by irrelevant influencers with inflated follower counts. Tools like Social Blade sift through the grifters by taking into account rates of engagement, showing that ‘micro-influencers’ with smaller, more active follower bases are a better option for most venues.
‘It’s often the smaller influencers – with 3,000 rather than 30,000 followers, who have a really engaged following – that have the biggest impact,’ says Sven-Hanson Britt, chef at new-ish Nine Elms restaurant Oxeye.
‘Some people can give “influencers” a bad name and give them a reputation as freeloaders who only post about burgers and fluffy pancakes,’ says Britt. ‘An influencer for us is someone who is really engaged in the industry, with a smaller following, who writes a really thoughtful post about their meal.’
Obviously, this isn’t the case for all venues in London. Cult restaurant St John has a sign on the wall asking customers to refrain from using their cellular device – and plenty of concert venues and clubs ban using phones or cameras, too, like Fabric, Fold and ABBA Voyage. That said, they’re few and far between.
But maybe after all of this, it’s us who is the problem. We’re too snappy and disagreeable. It’s only a few seconds of flash. Ultimately, people have been proclaiming the death of the influencer for years. And while, sure, there are still reasons to criticise them, they’re far from dead – and they’re not that different than the rest of us. We see you uploading a sly Insta-story of your cheesy pasta at a Big Mamma restaurant.
The era of the mega-influencer, the vapid million-follower poseur, might be over, but the era of the establishment influencer, micro and specialised, has only just begun.