Young fans are messaging social media creators and entrepreneurs seeking experience. But the terms of the arrangements can vary widely.
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In September 2020, a newly minted TikTok influencer named Audrey Peters secured her first brand partnership. An account called @Overheard asked her to recite snippets of outrageous conversation on her smartphone-filmed walks through Manhattan. But before long, Ms. Peters ran out of friends who were willing to trail her with a camera as she traipsed around the city.
A fellow content creator suggested that Ms. Peters, 24, seek out an unpaid intern — someone who could support her work in exchange for experience. This sounded perfect. Ms. Peters had interned for free during college and found it valuable. So she created an Instagram story advertising a part-time, unpaid gig.
The post was not received well. Commenters piled on, calling her classist and accusing her of exploitation. In retrospect, she said, the job description was incomplete: She planned to cover her intern’s transportation and meals, and introduce the intern to her brand partners.
Still, Ms. Peters said in a phone interview in November, “even after I got in trouble and got so much heat, I was still getting DMs and emails from people saying, ‘I’d love to work for you.’” More than a year later, the requests keep coming.
After a decade of labor activism, class-action lawsuits and legislation focused on making corporate internships less exploitative, it may be hard to see the appeal of taking such a position (paid or not) with a self-employed internet celebrity. But for people who grew up online and spend most of their time there, sharing carefully edited videos and swapping product recommendations, the opportunity to learn how to make a living off their content can be alluring.
In a 2019 Morning Consult survey of 2,000 millennials and Gen Zers, 54 percent said they’d become influencers if they could. Now, after nearly two years that have radically altered how people work and live, the appeal of creative freedom and flexibility (not to mention higher earning potential) may be even stronger.
“Younger people don’t want to live a corporate life. They want to have fun, be in something relevant, embedded in the culture,” said Gabe Feldman, 26, the head of business development for Viral Nation, which represents 300 influencers worldwide.
There are all sorts of ways to become an influencer. Sometimes it’s a happy accident: A video goes viral, and requests from brands follow. Some people spend money on boot camps and bots to grow their numbers, hoping that will help them get noticed. Others head straight to the source: DMing a favorite influencer to ask for a job.
Of course, there can be downsides to such arrangements, including odd hours, unstructured work, limited labor protections and accountability. Not to mention the whims of followers. “Let’s say you work with an influencer and they’re doing incredibly well in 2021 and then in 2022, their audience stops growing,” Mr. Feldman said. “The bragging rights are gone.”
Then there’s the matter of money. Mr. Feldman estimated that only 40 percent of Viral Nation’s clients compensate their interns with hourly pay, salaries or cash bonuses in exchange for delivered work. For many young people, who have debts and are staring down a 30-year high for inflation, giving away free labor is untenable.
Today, most large corporations pay their interns, after several media and entertainment companies were found to have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act in the 2010s. But unpaid internships are not illegal by default.
In 2015, an appeals court ruled that they were permissible if the intern was the “primary beneficiary” of the internship. The Department of Labor now lists seven criteria that an employer must meet to avoid offering compensation, including a clear educational component and a job description that “complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees.”
New York and California also have strict criteria for employers looking to offer unpaid internships. A business must pay its interns minimum wage and overtime if they are replacing an employee or performing employee tasks. “That’s because there’s so much abuse,” said Anita K. Sharma, a lawyer whose firm has a large roster of influencer clients in New York City and Los Angeles.
“In the influencer world, businesses scale up so quickly,” she said. “‘I’m overwhelmed, my audience is growing so quickly, and I need help. And people are messaging me: I want to learn from you and work for you.’ It’s the perfect storm.”
Several social media lawyers consulted for this article said they were not aware of any interns who had taken legal action against an influencer. However, Ms. Sharma said, “a disgruntled intern always has the option to complain to a state’s labor authorities, and they will take action, which will result in accountability.”
Lauren Berger, the chief executive and founder of Intern Queen, a career and internship advice company, cautioned influencers to be careful. “The guidelines are so ambiguous,” she said. “What are influencers going to do when one of the interns comes back in a few years and says, ‘I was helping her, and she didn’t pay me’? That’s a potential lawsuit.”
Kalyn Johnson Chandler, who runs a stationery and lifestyle goods brand called Effie’s Paper, said that when her brand was small, her interns received a MetroCard and daily lunch. As it grew, she began paying “a true monetary stipend” of $15 an hour.
Hala Taha, on the other hand, sees experience as the most valuable form of compensation. She built her company, Young and Profiting Media, with the help of some 40 interns and volunteers since 2018.
“They’re podcast listeners who ask how they can help, or say they look up to me or wish they could get into podcasting,” Ms. Taha, 35, said. “They want to break into the media industry, or TV or broadcasting, and they have a lack of experience.”
She had seven interns in the fall of 2021, who helped with copywriting, comment engagement and video editing. Most received a $300 monthly stipend for roughly 15 hours of work each week — about $5 an hour.
“I’m a master copywriter, a master video producer,” Ms. Taha said. “So to be giving them real-time feedback and comments, I feel like I’ve already leveled up their skills twofold in a month.”
“I don’t feel anything weird about not paying them,” she added.
Ms. Sharma noted that in some states only minimum wage meets the legal standard if an intern is doing “substantive work,” such as planning social posts, copy-editing captions and publishing content without oversight. “These are important tasks integral to an influencer’s business,” she said.
After four months, Ms. Taha said, she offers most interns a full-time position and a salary between $35,000 and $48,000, precisely because they’ve gained so much hands-on experience. Others, who are still in college, move to an hourly rate of $17 to $20 an hour.
Caitlyn Saw, 21, interned for Ms. Taha during the summer of 2020 for no compensation. For about 15 hours a week, she planned Ms. Taha’s social posts and reviewed her YouTube captions. She was able to take the job because she was living at home and working part-time for an advertising agency.
“I did two unpaid internships before the one with YAP. I was kind of used to not getting paid,” Ms. Saw said. “Obviously it’s not ideal, but I think her internship just has so much value.”
Katie Welch, the 44-year-old chief marketing officer of Rare Beauty, who dispenses her own career advice on TikTok, said that interning for an influencer could be a “great place to start your career,” especially if you’re pursuing marketing or public relations. But she also advised caution: “What I’d say to the intern is, ‘Are you being paid fairly and treated fairly?’”
Jon Rettinger, 41, who runs several technology-focused YouTube channels, said he hoped to provide his interns with useful guidance. It’s “a real job that’s not all Lamborghinis and boxing matches,” he said, noting that many creators are subjected to online bullying. “I would have wanted someone to tell me, because I was really unprepared,” he said.
Former interns said that they valued such mentorship. Sara Naqui, who started out taking photos on a volunteer basis for Ms. Chandler at Effie’s Paper, now has a contract with the company and her own YouTube channel. “She supported me in a way that I’d never had an adult support my creative endeavors,” Ms. Naqui, 24, said of Ms. Chandler.
Vela Scarves, a fashion-forward hijab brand, and its co-founder and creative director, Marwa Atik, have made a point of inviting followers to volunteer at photo shoots and apply for internships. “You’re reaching out to a funneled pool of people who support you, believe in you, see themselves in the product,” Ms. Atik, 31, said. “It’s a much stronger connection when we bring on our girls.”
Khadija Sillah, 23, a former Vela Scarves intern, said that “Marwa extended herself as a mentor to me and helped me connect with brands and brainstorm content ideas, even when I lacked motivation.” She was recently hired as a full-time social media associate with the brand.
Ms. Chandler said her interns built the social presence for Effie’s Paper — on Pinterest, Instagram and eventually TikTok — from the ground up. “A decade ago, I was a lawyer transitioning to entrepreneurship,” she said. “I didn’t have time to think about social media.”
Later, Ms. Chandler solicited the help of a former intern, Chloe Helander, who’d started her own social media consultancy. Ms. Helander suggested that Ms. Chandler should be the star of the Effie’s Paper social accounts; after all, many companies today treat their executives as the faces of their brands.
Ms. Chandler was skeptical at first. “I think I’m too brown and too old,” she said.
Now, Ms. Chandler said, “she is the reason my face is all over everything.”
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