A common, derogatory term thrown at Gen Z influencers is ‘influenza’. It’s meant to poke at the emptiness of what they do. They are often mocked as people who make money by just standing in front of an iPhone. Such jokes are cracked at not just the likes of Kim Kardashian, but also prominent Indian influencers like Sakshi Shivdasani and Kareema Barry.
Millennials may have witnessed the birth of the digital age, but Gen Z harbours digital natives. Makeup to curvy fashion, mental health and even sex talk—nothing is irrelevant or taboo. The jump from the serious to the banal may seem frivolous, but their content is hardly that.
In more ways than one, Gen Z influencers are defined by their presence online. A Google search for Aaliyah Kashyap shows results like ‘Anurag Kashyap’s daughter/YouTuber.’ “At least finally, it also says YouTuber,” laughs Aaliyah. She began vlogging or posting videos on her YouTube channel regularly since 2012. It currently has 1.17 lakh subscribers.
Kashyap’s YouTube series, ‘Girl Talk,’ focuses on ‘adulting’ experiences for women, such as having sex for the first time and the size of their breasts. The gamut of topics she covers attracts her followers and further cement her status as a new-age content creator.
About 86 per cent of Gen Z denizens prefer following Instagram influencers, found a study on Marketing to Millennials and Gen-Z by OMG Content. It comes as no surprise that Gen Z influencers have not only carved a space for themselves but are also earning big money.
“Content creation seems to be a fairly sustainable model for now. Let’s see what replaces the so-called ‘influencers’ when the trend changes, as it is bound to. But I have seen the unbelievable financial trajectory of some—wow! gotta hand it to them,” says Shobhaa De, author and socialite.
Reels become new playground
Until a few years ago, blogging was the prerogative of the privileged who flogged an elite aesthetic, complete with branded clothes. TikTok made the playground more egalitarian. It broke that barrier by providing a platform to showcase talent for those who did not live in big cities or could not afford expensive clothes.
And when it was banned in India in 2020, content creation migrated to Instagram. Reels and videos are all the rage, so much so that the Meta-owned platform even started promoting videos more aggressively. Not everyone was happy, with many accusing it of trying too hard to compete with TikTok.
“Five years ago, blogging was about selling a fantasy— of cafe shoots and a luxurious lifestyle. Post-Covid, people want more ‘real’ content,” says Sayanti Mahapatra, a plus-size fashion influencer with over 2 lakh followers on Instagram.
It was also Covid that pushed people to go digital. From education to workouts, life moved online. As such, the content creation industry witnessed an unprecedented boom—aided, of course, by Instagram Reels.
“I am 21, most of my audience is also between 21-25. I think people find me relatable because my audience is going through the same things I am—-navigating adulthood, moving out, studying, relationships,” says Kashyap.
And others her age started tuning in. The Gen Z audience invariably turns to influencers they feel are closer to their age and experience. This, in turn, motivates creators to open up—to share their little triumphs and their bugbears from living with acne to financial literacy to bad partners. Everything is up for discussion.
Instagram content creators are to Gen Z what Femina was to women in the 1990s and Seventeen Magazine to millennial teenagers. The only difference is that this content is visual, short, and hyperlinked.
Relatable, innovative content
What Sayanti and Aaliyah are striving to offer is niche content. Aaliyah’s handle gives her followers a peek into the carefully curated life of a Bollywood director’s daughter. It’s an irresistible hook for the curious voyeurs of celebrity lives, but the appeal is not her famous father, but the life his fame affords.
“It is wish fulfilment of a kind of life you might never have access to in real life. But you can at least watch what goes on and contribute to it,” says Sshreya Kalra, a 19-year-old student who follows Kashyap and Ritvi Shah, another Gen Z influencer with 1.7 lakh followers on Instagram.
Shah is known for her engaging fashion reels, style tips and travel videos—all packaged in a quirky, colourful aesthetic. “Ritvi’s unique lens and approach towards content creation is something that her fans, including us, admire the most about her,” wrote Miss Malini.
Sayanti Mahapatra, on the other hand, specialises in making content for women with curvy bodies. However, it is her focus on affordability that makes her stand apart. Looking good and being up to date on fashion trends on a budget is an art, one that Mahapatra has mastered and exploits to keep her followers hooked.
Successful influencers keep it real. They address ‘flaws’ like a not-so-lean body, underarm fat, pimples and cellulite while telling viewers how to pull off that backless, strapless dress selling for a steal at Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market.
Decoding the influencer economy
Even 15 years ago, influencers were not taken too seriously by brands looking to flog their products. But influencer marketing has become “one of the fastest growing industries in India and across the world,” says a 2022 report published in Businessworld. It pegged the global influencer market at $6 billion in 2020. In India, its value is at Rs 900 crore, but is expected to reach Rs 2,200 crore by 2025.
Popular influencers have sponsors—and the taxman—lining up for a piece of the pie. Brands pay influencers based not just on the number of followers—who can also be bought illegally—but also on the level of engagement their posts generate. If engagement is low, the money and endorsements will also decline.
Influencers also have to declare their income and pay 10 per cent tax on freebies worth more than Rs 20,000 unless they decide to return the products. But it is still a lucrative space for those seeking to be financially independent without the restrictions of a traditional office job. Their appraisal? The ominous unfollow button.
“People are quick to unfollow if they find they are not getting what they signed up for,” says Mahapatra.
Not everyone is convinced about the impact of the content created. This endless wheel of Reels, vlogs and self-promotion has critics, even among influencers. Santoshi Shetty, who tried to sell therapy on Instagram and was ‘cancelled’ for her insensitive behaviour, is a reminder of just how badly the tables can turn.
But until then the wheel never stops turning in an endless cycle of content, consumers and cash. “The creators walk away with a cheque, and those consuming such content have their own half-baked ideas validated,” says De.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)