Most Harvard students use Instagram to document quintessential Harvard student experiences: sweaty dorm room parties, the Harvard-Yale Game, and candid laughter in the leaf-flooded Yard. But for some individuals on campus, Instagram takes on a whole other dimension.
“I’m not trying to be an ‘Instagram influencer,’” says Nian Hu ’18, an inactive Crimson editorial writer and travel blogger who has accumulated a following of over 15,000 on Instagram and worked with brands like Daniel Wellington, NA-KD, and Windsor Store, “I probably need a day job.”
But that’s exactly what brands call her, and other students with comparable followings —influencers. They partner with brands, advertising the sponsor’s products on their Instagrams in order to score some free stuff and, in the case of Sabrina Xiong ’19, to make some extra cash.
“This was more of just, ‘It’ll be a fun way to get some money and also work with my friends,’” Xiong says, one of the campus ambassadors for LaCroix Water, a sparkling water brand based out of La Crosse, Wisconsin. She started working with the company when one of her friends became an ambassador and put her in touch with the program.
For most, becoming an influencer wasn’t their goal when they got on Instagram. Xiong’s Instagram account, which she started early on in high school, was private before she became a brand ambassador.
“I never really posted that much on Instagram. I would post only when there was a special occasion or something like that, but because of this program, I was required to make a post every single week,” Xiong says. “That was a change.”
In addition to the sponsored Instagram picture, Xiong is also required to post one sponsored Instagram story every week. She is also expected to advertise for LaCroix on other social media platforms and speak to 40 people every week about the brand.
Sanoah LaRocque ’19, a Bumble Honey and nuyu clothing ambassador, has a similar story. Her Instagram account was always private, followed only by her friends and family, until she began working with Bumble Honey.
Although the perks are enticing, being a social media influencer comes with challenges, too.
“On the one hand, it’s so great because I’ve met so many people through Instagram. This is something I did not realize until I got more into it—it’s a whole community out there,” Hu says. “But on the other hand, I struggle sometimes to think about what kind of social good I'm doing. Ideally, what I want to do with my following is to talk about what matters to me and what matters to me is feminism, but I don't know how to work it in there."
Grappling with the impact of becoming an online pseudo-celebrity isn’t the only challenge. Social media is already deceptive in that it only reveals carefully curated snapshots. With the added element of company sponsorships, that image is even more blurred.
“I wouldn't show this Instagram to people and be, like, ‘This is me in a nutshell.’ I'm more than just these pretty photos, but I'm also less, in that when I meet up with people in real life, they're a little disappointed, just because, like, I'm a real person,” Hu says.