Instagram Influencers Are Standing Up for Creators With F*** you, Pay Me


(TeenVogue) What do we talk about when we talk about a fair working environment? The goalposts have certainly shifted during the past decade, not least as the coronavirus pandemic raged on throughout 2020 and 2021. Work in the United Kingdom, where I live, and in the United States is less stable than ever, as the proportion of gig economy workers has risen meteorically, rights have been eroded, and government policies have favored big business and increasingly unscrupulous employers.

Yet in the first year of the pandemic, 25 of the world’s largest publicly traded companies collectively increased their total market value by $5.8 trillion. That’s $231 billion each on average, according to a report by consultancy McKinsey & Company.

My book Reorganise: 15 Stories of Workers Fighting Back in a Digital Age explores the changing face of worker rights and organizing, in a world of zero-hour contracts and monopolies. It looks at ingenious new ways workers have moved the needle, in spite of the fact that union membership has fallen to historic lows. The 15 stories it tells features road workers that created their own minimum wage via a Facebook group, Amazon workers organizing through code, and Instagram influencers forming their own self-styled union.


F*** you, Pay Me: How Instagram influencers are standing up for creators

Some movements to combat poor or unfair working conditions start with a clear moment, while others are catalyzed by a pent-up collection of injustices over time. The platform F**k You, Pay Me (FYPM) is one such example of the latter.

The California-based company is working to make the labor market a fairer place for "creators" – people who make money by creating content for social media platforms such as Instagram.

It bills itself as a kind of “GlassDoor for social-media influencers.”

Aptly named, it was originally one woman’s “ode to frustration brought about by unfair pay”. “There's never been a baseline, or a place where you can safely discuss creator pay besides your own inner circle. And then even so that conversation feels invasive sometimes,” says co-creator Lindsey Lee Lugrin.

FYPM is working to plug this information gap in the billion-dollar global influencing industry by hosting a crowdsourced database of this kind of information. Users can submit what they have been paid for different branded campaigns, as well as details about themselves, including their follower count.

The goal is to give online creators a way to understand whether they are being paid fairly, and a reference point before they enter into a new contract with a new client. This is a space where traditional unions, no doubt, have a blind spot.

Influence for free

LA-based model Lugrin’s career began when she won a competition on the Facebook-owned photo-sharing platform Instagram. This resulted in her face being plastered on billboards and appearing in magazines for global fashion brand Marc Jacobs. At the time, she was delighted, but for the pleasure, she was only paid $1,000 – a minuscule cost for a fashion brand with millions in the bank – for a campaign that was getting global exposure.

Frustrated with modeling, Lugrin went to work in finance, where she built a following by creating satirical content about sexism in the workplace through the @MsYoungProfessional handle on Instagram and a blog. As she pulled long hours making original content and building a following, her engagement figures grew fast, leading brands to contact her for endorsements.

“Again, nobody wanted to pay me,” said Lugrin. “I lived and breathed this problem in several different areas of my life.” Over years in the industry, her frustration with the lack of bargaining power, that she and other content creators had, grew.

There was no open and transparent place for influencers to see what others are paid, and there is still no union that captures the complexities and power dynamics of working in this part of the online economy. According to the Digital Marketing Institute, the influencer-marketing industry is expected to hit $13.8 billion (£10.6 billion) in value by 2022, surpassing traditional print advertising by some margin.

Lugrin found growing, publicly unvoiced concerns among other influencers about what seemed to be increasing disparities in how much people were paid in the industry. Data has since backed this up. In 2020, influencer-marketing platform Klear polled more than 4,800 creators and found male creators were paid $476 on average per post, while women made just $348.

After years of thinking about how she could make a change, Lugrin and her co-creator ​​Isha Mehra, 25, a former Facebook data scientist, launched F*** You Pay Me. By July 2021, the app was up, running, and distributed to a small number of testers.

To get access, users have to verify their identity and share a review of a brand they have worked with. In its first months, the pair had approved 1,500 people and rejected almost 1,200. FYPM had also already received almost 2,000 reviews – including clothing companies, ranging from fast fashion to luxury, beauty brands, and even political parties.

Because the platform was first launched around the time of the United States presidential election, there’s data on the amounts people were paid here by political parties. There’s also a review of Yorkshire’s Kirklees Council in the UK, which paid an influencer to promote the coronavirus vaccine.

The platform quickly drew significant press attention – in August, the New York Times splashed the headline “The App With the Unprintable Name That Wants to Give Power to Creators'' across its front page. The Observer also profiled the app and Lugrin in September 2021.

Shifting the influencer-brand power dynamic

Lugrin says that what’s at the heart of the platform is a twisted power dynamic between influencers and brands. Influencers are usually one-person shows – often shooting, editing, and promoting all of their own content, usually across multiple platforms.

Most do so without an agent, and there are no standard rates for what it costs an individual like this to produce an image or video as part of an advertising campaign. Fees are often casually negotiated through emails or direct messages on social media platforms. Despite its huge and growing economic value, influencing remains an industry that isn’t always taken as seriously as other creative professions. “Influencing is not seen as a real job. But it really is. And I think a lot of that has to do with sexism and what we value as a society,” says Lugrin.

FYPM sits among a number of more unofficial collaborations that are attempting to help creators understand what their work is worth. Groups on social media such as We Don’t Work For Free, Influencer Pay Gap and Brands Behaving Badly have come some way in achieving this. Online communities such as Creative Girl Gang have also allowed influencers to lift the curtain on their experiences with different companies.

FYPM is trying to create an official place where creators can call out exploitation, providing the tools and data that may help people argue better for fair pay. As it grows, Lugrin wants to keep the platform free for influencers. She says that in the past, similar businesses in the space have tried to charge, or take a cut of what creators earn.

The goal for FYPM is to extend its remit to all gig economy workers, including freelance writers and filmmakers. “I really want this thing to help people. I have three degrees, I’m really f***ing smart, and I have never been financially independent. This to me is key to unleashing that for so many people all over the world,” says Lugrin.

New work comes faster than new rights

The value of this market, and the interest in FYPM, show that these new forms of value-creating work have appeared faster than the workers’ rights necessary to protect people. Holding companies to account isn’t easy at the best of times, but what influencers do have, is influence, which can only grow with a critical mass.

The creation of this, and other GlassDoor-Esque platforms, has to be a way of taking control of some of the billions of dollars that don’t seem to be flowing to the people doing the work. It is also a way of gathering the necessary data to try to bridge age-old inequalities, such as gender and ethnicity pay gaps.

As a platform created by someone in the industry, it has come from the needs of workers, people who are not being protected by traditional unions. New ways of organizing may need to be built specifically by workers, for their needs, rather than bending current systems to fit new problems.

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