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'Bloomberg' Reporter Enlists Experts To Become An Instagram Influencer


Until recently, Max Chafkin was an average dude - couple hundred followers on Instagram, new kid, occasional cat photos. Then he decided to become an influencer. Fortunately, he had the help of some professionals because Max Chafkin is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. And, Max, what was the mission?

MAX CHAFKIN: The mission was to become a professional Instagrammer (ph).

SHAPIRO: What does that mean?

CHAFKIN: It's people who basically collect money from, you know, businesses of all sort to basically post little ads on their Instagram feed. Often these, like, sort of beautiful people doing beautiful things are paid placements.

SHAPIRO: It's not a new phenomenon to be paid for stuff on social media, but is this kind of influencer on Instagram as your professional occupation something we haven't seen before?

CHAFKIN: I mean, it's been kind of happening slowly, as you say, for like the last 10 years. I think Instagram's, though, taken it to a new level because I think it has to do with the design of the platform. It really encourages people to present this version of their life that is kind of airbrushed. And I think that's sort of perfect for advertising.

SHAPIRO: OK. I want to go to your Instagram feed and describe the moments of transition and then you can tell us what went into it. Will you pull up the photos?

CHAFKIN: Sure. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: 'Cause the transition is really clear here.

CHAFKIN: Yeah, so...

SHAPIRO: There is an image posted November 4, which is like you and your baby making screaming faces into the camera. And then there is an image posted November 5. Describe this one for us.

CHAFKIN: So we shot all of these in a single day, which is pretty common for influencers. Basically it was like 12 hours straight of just changing clothes and then finding a cool wall to lean against...

SHAPIRO: You're leaning against a lamp post in this photo.

CHAFKIN: This one is a lamp post. It's a three-quarter shot. I'm just wearing a bomber jacket, kind of looking off to the side not smiling. And one of the interesting things is that when I sort of looked back on this and I compared the pictures that did really well during this Instagram experiment and the ones that I'd taken in the past, the ones that were sort of most honest to who I was were the ones that did the worst. So, like...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That's so sad.

CHAFKIN: Ones in which I'm, like, smiling or - that look to me like me performed worse than ones where I'm sort of playing this character which is like a cool dude wearing cool clothes, you know, half smiling off into the distance or something.

SHAPIRO: There was a whole team of professionals making you this cool dude. Tell us what went into it.

CHAFKIN: Yes. I had an agent. I also had a professional photographer who took the fashion shots. I had someone helping me with styling. A real influencer would probably have a publicist as well. And the other thing that was crucial is, you know, pictures of people and especially pictures of yourself do the best on Instagram. But you got to mix it up, otherwise people get bored. So you want to have what you might call lifestyle shots. And I tried to do this myself, but it turned out that my pictures of, you know, beautiful breakfast with berries arrayed on the top just weren't up to snuff. So I was connected with basically a professional Instagram photographer who sells kind of like stock photos.

SHAPIRO: You actually bought pictures of lattes and avocado toast?

CHAFKIN: Twenty bucks a latte, exactly, yeah. And, I mean, I'm telling you, those did way better than my avocado toast. And it kind of completes the image.

SHAPIRO: You started this in early November. One month later, did you feel like it had changed your real-life-off-of-Instagram self for better or for worse?

CHAFKIN: Yeah. One thing for me that was most destabilizing, I didn't tell people that I was going to change my persona. I didn't tell my close friends. I didn't tell my mom. And I found it really stressful to just sort of like put on this new me. And it made me realize first of all just, like, how integral these platforms have become to our own identities. You know, and as it turned out after the experiment, a lot of people just, you know, assumed I was having a midlife crisis or had, you know, gone off the deep end. But they didn't even say anything. They just sort of quietly, you know, decided that I was going through something. And I don't know, it just makes me realize, like, how big a deal these platforms are, even as ridiculous as they are.

SHAPIRO: Max Chafkin is back to being a schlumpy (ph) dad in Brooklyn. He writes for Bloomberg Businessweek. And, Max, what's your Instagram handle?

CHAFKIN: It's mchafkin.

SHAPIRO: You can follow him there. I'm on Instagram at arishapiro, #nprlife. Thanks, Max.

CHAFKIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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