Influencers are a large part of what I dislike about social media – until now
Perfect people in perfect places living perfect lives, and all the while getting paid to make me jealous and insecure. To my mind, that fake side of social media is eroding the self-confidence of young people who don’t know any better than to believe that this is real life and something that should be aspired to. Those were my thoughts until I traveled with two influencers to Botswana.
I like to think I’m a cultured under-30 (with a few months of contrived denial left).
My mom calls me an “old soul”. My friends call me “old-fashioned”.
Gen-Zs would probably use some neologism I’ve never heard of equating to “a grumpy, obsolete antique”, although they’ve never heard of me because I’m not on TikTok.
On the back of me telling my friend, Melanie, that I “enjoyed writing” and “would probably have been a journalist in another life”, I recently managed to crack an unexpected invite for an expenses-paid press trip across Botswana.
Despite an immediate onset of crippling imposter syndrome coupled with a rush of adrenaline and excitement, I had to feign acquiescence and accept her offer. Having never been to the country and having a special interest in wildlife, birds, and the photography thereof, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. When I asked who else would be joining, the vague response was “a handful of travel writers and travel marketing people”. Not wanting to ask any more questions in fear of having her realise her folly and revoke my invite, I stymied my curiosity and started feverishly researching the upcoming trip.
When we assembled in Johannesburg, the introduction was tame enough. Melanie and I met with Sharon, our representative from the Indaba Hotel group which, along with Kwando Safaris and Under One Botswana Sky, were assisting our escapades.
We started proceedings with a guided tasting at their on-site Gin School. We were well warmed up by the third, and last, sample and discussing the intricacies of sophisticated tasting notes and viscosity when the fourth member of our party rolled in. Senzelwe (IG: @senz_m) is a bubbly, braided, and beautiful woman, and her fashionably late entrance was paired with her likewise haute couture outfit. She joined us and immediately began to capture every visual detail of the miniature bronze pot still on her iPhone X. This fascination with photography amused me, but I thought nothing of it as journalists have to accompany their work with images. However, my observation was brought into stark relief when during our post-tasting chat I found out that she had joined the trip as a social media influencer…
Now, let me explain my rather aghast (and, I hope, successfully hidden) reaction to this revelation. I have a love-hate relationship with social media. I need it for work and it is useful to stay in touch with friends, but I happen to suffer from the ubiquitous addiction that afflicts my generation, of mindlessly reaching for one’s phone in any given moment of boredom or procrastination-induced pause.
Influencers are a large part of what I dislike about social media. Perfect people in perfect places living perfect lives, and all the while getting paid to make me jealous and insecure. To my mind, that fake side of social media is eroding the self-confidence of young people who don’t know any better than to believe that this is real life and something that should be aspired to. It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I resigned myself to the fact that I would be shackled to this person for the rest of the week.
The fifth member of the group, Richard, joined us from Cape Town. He is an established lifestyle and travel writer, and we immediately bonded over a mutual love we quickly uncovered for fine wines and whiskies. A man of my ilk. My nerves were somewhat calmed.
Imagine my dismay, however, when we picked up our sixth and final comrade-to-be in Francistown, Uyapo (IG: @nde_uyapo), another influencer. Uyapo and Senzelwe went on to form a formidable and feverish duo, fastidiously photographing every fine detail of each facility we frequented, but also inserting their own image into every scene. My initial impression was that this behaviour was quite benign, and, as long as they kept to the trip schedule and didn’t hinder my chances of glimpsing a chirping cisticola in the papyrus swamps or a collared palm thrush in the gardens of Chobe Safari Lodge, I could tolerate them.
However, a funny thing happened.
As the light disappeared along with the dusty, burnt orange Botswana sunset, the stars revealed themselves. Our two influencers swapped their cameras and cellphones for a G&T and/or a can of St Louis, and we got to know one another as we slaked our thirst and recounted our experiences of each action-packed and memorable day. We sat in a circle around the fire and stared in mutual admiration at our bush TV, our eyes fixed but our mouths giving way to stories and laughter and playful banter.
And so, the walls of prejudice that I constructed began to erode. Here were two young people, each successful in their day-to-day lives (Senzelwe is a medical researcher and Uyapo runs his own travel and marketing agency) who happened to be good looking, switched on, and knew how to monetise their image. In fact, I came to realise that they worked a whole lot harder than the rest of us for the duration of the trip.
Curating content for a successful social media account requires you to be constantly aware of opportunities for images, different angles on otherwise commonplace scenes like bedrooms and dining tables. The rest of us snapped shots here and there, otherwise gleefully indulging in the luxurious surroundings and soaking up inspiration for articles that would only later be penned. But between the two influencers, they were shooting terabytes of content to be edited, curated, and shared across different media platforms. And, most importantly, they were not self-obsessed. They were not vain. They did plan their outfits for each day, but that was only because it is required of them to satisfy the unreasonable, incessant demands of their dynamic following online. And they looked damn good.
I began to understand that these were two business people, supplying a demand created by the new world of media platforms and viral content. They operate in a competitive space, and in order to stand out, they have had to work hard to carve individual identities, carefully partnering with the right people and businesses to make their career sustainable without devaluing their brands, but also preaching important messages. This hit home one evening when Senzelwe told us that she is passionate about African tourism, but particularly that “Africans and people like me show our fellow Africans the way”. This is certainly something to get behind, especially in a context of travelling during a pandemic when local tourism is keeping countries like Botswana going, but also in a world where tourism is so often commodified and maintained as a cultural keepsake of the privileged and wealthy (and often white) elite. Suddenly, Senzi’s profile leaning over the railing overlooking the river below Mma Dinare Camp ceased to be an obstruction and rather became a necessary and important context for her audience.
Suddenly, “influencer” ceased to be a dirty word.
By the end of the trip, our little group had shared some incredible experiences and become quite tightly knit. I quickly grew a healthy respect for the social media experts and our travel gurus, and would readily call them each a friend. They uncovered parts of each destination and landscape that I would otherwise have missed, and my trip was undoubtedly enriched by all the different perspectives on offer.
I am still “old fashioned” and will still grumpily and begrudgingly swipe past the chiselled, sunglass-adorned Adonises perched on a California beach. But, when Uyapo or Senzelwe get around to sharing the mass of incredible content that they shot in Botswana, I will look at their images with the warm smile of an older genteel relation, knowing that there are passionate, colourful people behind these profiles who are intent on making a real difference in the currently struggling and segregated landscape of African tourism. DM/ML
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