TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, The Little Red Book, and other social and gaming platforms are part of daily life for many students.
The average student uses social media at university to find their communities and interest groups – as well as access online content. This blurs the boundaries between campus-based and online learning. But growing group of students are creating content themselves – and many have a significant number of followers, and share in such a way that they attract “influencer status”.
Our recent project on youth and studenthood in digital spaces centred around how and why some students develop a large following on social media and become so-called ‘influencers’.
The first stage of this project involved interviewing 12 UK-based student influencers with a follower count ranging from a couple of thousand to over a million. We have interviewed home and international student content creators from different types of HE institutions.
It’s cool to be clever
What it means to be a student content creator differed widely among our interviewees. Some embraced and others rejected the ‘influencer’ status. Some produce academic and study skills content; others focus on activism, lifestyle vlogging, humorous memes, and TikTok dances.
The common characteristic for all influencers was related to being a good student. Even if some were rejected from the most elite universities, their identity in social media was centred around being a successful student with either a clear career path in mind or having a successful university experience that was important to share with others. They create their legitimacy – and thereby, their following on social media by being a successful student from a particular university
Dealing with a deficit digitally
To a certain extent, student influencers are compensating for the sector’s shortcomings, capitalising on their university experience in an environment where UK higher education has been massified and student support less personalised and readily available
They produce for a new market for future and current students to gain quick and easy insights into student life. It is more likely than ever that today’s applicants turn to TikTok or Instagram to make their university choices. We found that some students are more likely to watch another student telling them how to write an essay rather than ask for support from their already overburdened lecturers or tutors. While this peer-to-peer content is undoubtedly valuable, it portrays a one-sided view of university studies and experiences.
Study skills sell
Many student influencers work with agents and marketing companies to monetise their content. For some, it has led to £15-£20k a year from advertisement work.
Interestingly it is not necessarily the follower numbers that attract brands and advertisements but often the correct type of content. In our experience, the ‘good student’ doing study skills is the most lucrative avenue for generating income. Students often make between £1000-£2000 for a short TikTok video; many have contracts with reputable retail companies and banks.
However, if you do dark comedy or advocacy work, e.g. disability activism, the chances of being approached by brands or agents are much less likely. Those who end up making the deals argue that no other part-time student job would be so flexible or well-paid.
Our research has also shown that at least fifteen UK-based marketing companies work closely with student influencers to match them with brands. Although some students we avoid agents and engage directly with their followers. A Law student we spoke to reasons that agents would not understand the professional field of Law and, therefore, could not be trusted to manage their work and public engagement opportunities.
As researchers, we learned early on that contacting student influencers who work with agents is quite tricky: the gatekeeping is meticulous, and the mailboxes are heavily monitored by agents who select what is worthwhile (read: profitable) for the influencers
Being an influencer is not a distinct phase in student life. It overlaps with social media use during secondary school years and with planned or imagined professional careers. None of our participants dreamt of a celebrity influencer career. Rather, they positioned themselves as ‘good students’, and for them, graduate jobs were hugely important. Some students had already signed contracts with professional firms (e.g. law and banking sector) or consultancy companies, and they had held difficult conversations with their employers about any restrictions on their ongoing social media use.
Interestingly, while employers had placed some restrictions on the content that students could publish, their social media activity also gave them an advantage at a job interview. Producing social media content helped students to evidence their entrepreneurial mindset, initiative and wide-reaching influence. Being an influencer is perhaps not only the best-paid part-time job but also an avenue that supports rather than hinders students’ transition to a professional career. This requires quite a lot of understanding of what types of social media posts ‘sell’ and are appropriate without damaging one’s career prospects.
The heavy monetisation of this activity requires us to understand better the types of paid work students undertake on social media. While working with agents and brands might help subsidise academic studies, it also creates various legal issues, e.g., from understanding to committing to contracts with brands, which universities should be responsible for educating their students about.
Our research shows that active social media use doesn’t always come at the cost of academic studies – rather, the opposite. Being “a good student” drives many of the motivations for developing a large following. But we do need to consider where our students get their academic support and why.
Student influencers are peer tutoring hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of other students on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram. While this might come with benefits, it may also reflect the broken state of our universities that drives students to look for advice and support from elsewhere.