Long gone are the days when ‘Influencer’ was only a vague job title fit for a Bachelor contestant. Now, with the recent rise of ‘Influencer’ as an official (and often lucrative occupation), I think it’s safe to say that fashion and social media have entered into a marriage that is overwhelmingly defining the styles of the 21st century. Instead of waiting for your monthly subscription of Vogue to arrive at your front porch every month, one just has to tap an app and start following these tastemakers to get the latest on ‘must have’ pieces of the season.

Depending on your taste and style, there are seemingly endless combinations as to who you can follow for outfit inspirations, sale alerts, and discount codes galore. Yet, there is most definitely an unspoken tier system to blogging that we should be aware of.

I’m sure that when you scroll through your Instagram feed, you stumble across some #ootd pics by major-leaguers like Chiara Ferragni, or some wanderlust inspo from accounts manned by the likes of Leonie Hanne from @ohhcouture. These bloggers, who have amassed millions of followers and partner with some of the largest fashion houses in the world, are considered Top-Tier Influencers by those in the blogosphere. These are the women that hundreds of thousands of other aspiring “Influencers-with-a-capital-I” strive to join the ranks of. In hopes of reaching that title, hours upon hours and, not to mention, money are spent on finding ways to gain more followers, increase engagement, and influence more people’s fashion decisions.

Instead of waiting for your monthly subscription of Vogue to arrive at your front porch every month, one just has to tap an app and start following these tastemakers to get the latest on ‘must have’ pieces of the season.

In noticing this social media trend, commission based platforms, such as rewardStyle, were able to break onto the influencer scene and create massive communities amongst bloggers. These programs recruit both influencers and merchants onto their platforms and act as a middlemen, ultimately encouraging bloggers to purchase certain brands’ clothing in exchange for a commission on sales they generate through their featured posts.

Now, scrolling through my feed, there are hardly any bloggers who don’t have a rewardStyle watermark on their Instagrams or post annual Holiday Wish Lists that covertly advertise a bunch of affiliate pieces in hopes of making a sale. Because of this pattern, I have to wonder if the the amount of influence that top-tier bloggers have is still attainable, or has influence (and thus trust) been bought out by these monetization platforms?

As a blogger myself, I think there is quite a misunderstanding of the industry. Nothing is ever as glamorous as it looks behind the ‘perfect shot.’ In fact, I’d confidently say that only 15% of a blogger’s work is shown via those Instagram images. The other 85% of work is spent staying up burning the midnight oil while planning content, writing and designing blog posts, editing pictures, engaging with other influencers and businesses for possible partnerships, organizing one’s calendar for the next three months, updating marketing stats and so on – often in addition to working a 9-5, attempting to maintain a social life, and taking care of one’s health. Not to mention that starting and maintaining a blog is expensive from both a supply-side and technical point of view.

Spoiler: It’s hard to pay the bills with another free watch or necklace.

Sure, many assume that bloggers get paid for sponsored content, but usually only once they have grown their following to a sellable point which can take years for some. Spoiler: It’s hard to pay the bills with another free watch or necklace. So, when rewardStyle walked onto the scene in 2011, bloggers finally found a way to potentially be paid for all of the work they were putting into their blogs. Because the program is by invitation-only, being a member of this monetization platform also adds the allure of exclusivity to one’s blog – you really have to be at the top of your game, have an established aesthetic, a decent amount of followers, and be relevant across a few social media platforms, whether it be Instagram, YouTube, or your own website, to be accepted into the program.

With a current team of 16,000 influencers, rewardStyle has been highly successful in using the affiliate system to drive over $1 billion in sales since launching in 2011 and rewarding influencers with some hefty paychecks along the way. But, by providing such an easy interface to connect with brands and receive a paycheck, rewardStyle and similar programs have received some backlash within the blogging community regarding the integrity of ‘influence’ nowadays.

As if trying to crack the code of Instagram’s algorithms wasn’t hard enough, the hunger for making a commission is seemingly overriding the search for new trends and styles. According to many, the industry of fashion blogging has become homogenized thanks to rewardStyle’s e-mails where they tout best practices, including how and when to promote specific clients. By dangling the possibility of being kicked out of the program for underperforming over users’ heads, the program only reinforces the conformity of the blogosphere as struggling users turn to purchasing higher-commissioned or most popular products on rewardStyle’s website to create posts about instead of taking the time to explore newer brands or their own personal style. Aside from the lack of creativity, bloggers also claim that the introduction of programs such as rewardStyle creates an ‘us vs. them’ environment on the internet. Those who do not have access to rewardStyle’s partnerships, community, and hashtags often fall under the shadow of those who do have all of those opportunities. This results in their content being hidden from followers’ feeds as the more popular hashtagged #liketkit posts become easily discoverable in social media feeds all over the world.

For those who are not involved in blogging, but enjoy following and supporting their favorite influencers, there are also mixed feelings about the rise of affiliate platforms. Probably the biggest complaint those in this demographic have is that social media has turned into one giant commercial. Very rarely can you scroll through your feed without seeing a discount code, a Like To Know It link, or a #sponsored hashtag in pictures and captions. Instead of providing influence and viewing their audience as fans and a support system that they can organically grow, many feel that bloggers have switched gears and now look at their followers as customers they can make a quick sale off of. This has lead to many users unfollowing some bloggers in hopes of ‘cleaning up’ their feed from what they consider spammy content.

As social media and Influencers become more integrated in marketing models across industries, it will be interesting to see how the landscape of social media will be changed. Will Instagram fizzle out and be deemed a marketplace similar to Amazon or eBay, or will regulations be set up across social media platforms to separate art and online friendships from bloggers and businesses? Sound off below!

Thoughts?