How Instagram Recruits Girls to Sexualized Labor

Mark Zuckerberg Has a Harem of Sex Workers that Facebook Doesn’t Want You to Know About

Controversy broke last week after The Wall Street Journal obtained a trove of documents showing that Facebook has long been aware that their picture-sharing app  is harming girls.

The WSJ published their discoveries last Tuesday in their feature “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show.” The article is only available to WSJ subscribers, but Ryan Cooper summarizes the salient points in The Week:

The Wall Street Journal obtained a trove of internal Facebook documents, and used them for a series of articles about...how Instagram has created an epidemic of mental health problems among young girls... The Journal reports that Facebook has known for years that Instagram was mass-producing anxiety, depression, and eating disorders among teen girls who use it, and did nothing about it.

That's because giving teens eating disorders is very profitable. As Casey Johnston writes, "these companies know that it's addictive to make people think that, somewhere in their app, there's a solution to feeling inferior and incomplete. The influencer who makes you feel not pretty enough, who also seems to have the key to becoming pretty enough? That's Instagram candy." One Instagram employee admitted as much on a company forum. "Isn't that what IG is mostly about? [looking] at the (very photogenic) life of the top 0.1%? Isn't that the reason why teens are on the platform?"

As much as the recent scandal raised concern about the corrupting influence of Instagram, it only touched the surface of the problem. We need to dig deeper and ask why tens of thousands of Instagram-users are so concerned with looking photogenic. How are “influencers” making girls feel they are not pretty enough, and why is this leading to so many disorders?

These are questions that take us into the murky depths of Instagram, to a dark secret that Mark Zuckerberg has been trying to hide.

Instagram and a New Generation of Sex Workers

As the Facebook-owned company, Instagram, has transitioned from being a picture-sharing service to a self-branding platform, girls as young as 14 can cash in on stardom. However, in order for a girl to gain enough social credit to make the big bucks on the Facebook-owned company, she must be prepared to compromise herself, including posting pictures in her underwear, and participating in her own self-commodification through poses that conform to the porn chic aesthetic. This aesthetic increasingly demands a girl take close-up selfies of her body parts, and video herself on her bed with a look of availability. In every meaningful sense of the term, such a girl has become a sex worker.

Once a girl gets enough followers on Instagram, she can become an “influencer” and work with brands. Sometimes a girl is her own brand, simply marketing herself. Piper Rockelle, a 14-year-old who has become famous by posting suggestive pictures of herself, now earns around $1.3K to 10.6K monthly.

But Rockelle is an outlier: most girls remain at the bottom of the pyramid, never acquiring enough fans to make any money, yet continuing to post compromised pictures of themselves in the hope of becoming the next Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner. In the process, these girls become victim of low self-image and sometimes even human trafficking (see my earlier article “How Sex Traffickers Use Social Media and Modeling: The Dark Secret Instagram Doesn't Want You to Know About.”)

In this regard, Instagram work resembles the drug trade. Economist Steven Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh have shown that rank-and-file drug dealers earn hardly any money, and yet gangs have no difficulty recruiting new dealers to do dangerous work for hardly any remuneration. Why? Because occasionally one of these pawns rises to become an insider at the top of the pyramid where big bucks are to be made. As the mass of outsiders expands and the core of insiders shrinks, the latter become ever-more prosperous, which then attracts more hopeful outsiders ready to do anything for the chance of maybe hitting it big.

As in the drug trade, so with Instagram. When an Instagram celebrity hits it big, it can be really big. Kylie Jenner, who was the most-followed woman on Instagram last year, enjoyed a net worth of $1 billion at age 21. But this type of fame has come at a cost and is impossible without capitulating to porn-hungry audiences. Jenner is no exception, and routinely posts pornographic pictures of herself through the app. In every meaningful sense of the term, Jenner and others like her have become sex workers, offering their bodies in exchange for money.

But for every Kylie Jenner, there are a thousand imitators. As these girls watch the phenomenal success of the top influencers, they are incentivized to imitate them, even if it means submitting to their own self-commodification. These girls will then work at non-monetized low attention-gaining practices in the desperate hope of getting mentioned on an Instagram shoutout page and suddenly catapulted to stardom. As these hopes never materialize, it is typical for girls to fall victim to the problems of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders that have been the focus of the recent scandel.

How the Monetization of Attention Created New Forms of Sexualized Labor

When researchers Jenna Drenten, Lauren Gurrieri, and Meagan Tyler analyzed 172 social media influencers, they found “a continuum of pornified self-representations by these social media influencers on Instagram.” Their research, which was published in 2019 for the journal Gender, Work & Organization, urged that the concept of “sexualized labor” should be extended to social media, particularly Instagram.

Their article, “Sexualized labour in digital culture: Instagram influencers, porn chic and the monetization of attention,” surveyed earlier studies showing that “the rise of digital technologies and social media platforms has been linked to changing forms of work, as well as the mainstreaming of pornography and a ‘porn chic’ aesthetic.” They noted that “posting sexualised photos on social media has been related to wider cultural pressures that convey to women sexiness is both valued and a means of gaining attention.”

The authors went onto report the results of their own research, which explored “performances of sexualised labour on social media by analysing visual and textual content from 172 female influencers on Instagram.” The Instagram accounts of these influencers demonstrated that “sexualised labour is performed by influencers in the digital era” and has a “precarious potential to be monetised by generating attention, which for women is structured by cultural expectations of ‘porn chic’ sexiness.”

These girls work for free in the hope of eventually becoming popular enough to be an affiliate of brands. But “as the self-commodification continuum unfolds, more overt sexual objectification and pornographication can lead to more attention and therefore more opportunities for monetisation.”

Zuckerberg’s Harem

The only guaranteed beneficiary from this constant supply of free labor is Instagram itself, and its parent company Facebook. The more girls come to use the service, the more Facebook can monetize their low self-image through working with weight-loss apps and cosmetic companies

We call these girls influencers and wannabes, but they are essentially Mark Zuckerberg’s harem of sex workers, surrendering their bodies to consumer culture for the sake of actual or potential financial gain. The model only sustains itself because the most visible symbols of the system are a handful of phenomenally successful girls (some as young as 14) who have been able to cash in on their body-appeal, while the 99.9% of unpaid workers at the bottom are left to suffer in obscurity.

If this model were transferred to a giant warehouse or small village, where the same incentives were used to compel tens of thousands of girls to strip down to their underwear, there would be headlines across America about Mark Zuckerberg’s private harem. But because this labor has been decentralized and is organized through the cloud, and because the financial and psychological incentives are delivered through third parties, the true scandal of Instagram has bypassed public attention.

Perhaps instead of Facebook pouring so much energy into censoring Christians and cancelling conservatives, they should take a look at the scandal of Instagram. It’s time to cancel Mark Zuckerberg’s harem of sex workers.

Further Reading

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and writes for a variety of publications. He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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