'People are engaging less than they did a year ago': Is the tide starting to turn against Dubai's influencers?

Dubai influencers weigh in on Instagram's likes removal, dropping engagement and the future of the industry

As much as I hate to admit it, I am influenced. Sometimes it happens consciously; I choose who to follow, I click on their videos, I want what they have. Other times, I don’t even realise it has happened until it’s too late.

But recently, I've found myself hitting the unfollow button on influencers in my feed all too often - and it seems I'm not alone. Experts who monitor this young, unruly industry are seeing a nosedive in engagement - the equivalent of a Wall Street crash for influencers.

But unlike a typical recession, the root is harder to pinpoint. The general feeling among both influencers and us mere Instagram mortals is that we are approaching breaking point. The market is now so saturated that creativity and freshness have become buried below a sea of conformity and sponsored content, desperately fighting against a rapidly turning tide.

As a user, it has become near impossible to distinguish one VSCO-polished feed from the next, and for the influencers themselves, conditions have never been more challenging. Not only are engagement rates dropping, Instagram is now trialling the removal of like count on images, one of the key metrics considered when negotiating lucrative brand deals. While as it stands, this is only being tested in certain countries around the world - including Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - the move has been widely praised by social media users and mental health campaigners alike, a sign it might be here to stay.

You might think that such a move would leave influencers quaking in their Louboutins, taking away the validation and outward display of popularity they have worked so hard to build, but, in fact, quite the opposite is true. "Sometimes I just want to put up a picture of a really pretty landscape, but I know that's not the kind of content most of my users would engage with, so it would maybe put me off doing that," says Dubai travel and wellness blogger Carly Neave. "Without those metrics glaring me in the face, it would allow me more freedom. And a lot of other people on Instagram feel the same."

Neave, like so many others in the industry, tells me she does not like the term influencer. She prefers writer or content creator, saying the success of her Instagram profile is anchored in her blog of six years. This is something she says gives her credibility, although she admits that "98 per cent" of her paid work now comes from Instagram.

For many, their blogging careers started as a hobby; a way to carve out a space for themselves on the internet and a place to share their work. In those early days, making money did not come into it. Back then, it was all for the art.

Influencer. That implies something different, something that makes people shy away from it. It implies that your job is to infiltrate the minds of your followers. To sell them something, whether that be a product, an idea or a dream. A lot of veteran influencers, like Neave, started out as bloggers or YouTubers without knowing where it would lead.

But as the digital world evolved, their whimsical musings, millennial life lessons and European city guides were eclipsed by Instagram – a platform that could offer more visibility, more interaction, and ultimately more money without the effort of actually making much more than a polished image or video snippet. Now, many emerging influencers don’t have a blog or a channel to fall back on, they skipped the art phase and headed straight to the big leagues, knowing exactly where it could lead them and putting themselves at the unrelenting mercy of the photo-sharing platform.

The word 'influencer' is an uncomfortable one for me.

“The word ‘influencer’ is an uncomfortable one for me,” stylist Natalia Shustova, who runs the Shoestova brand and adjoining Instagram page, tells me when I ask about her role. “I feel it is being used to apply to ‘Instagram famous’ personalities, but in reality, for many of them, their influence can’t be easily measured.”

It is for this reason that she too believes Instagram’s removal of likes can only a good thing for the industry. “I am so pro this idea,” she says. “Likes today are there for trade and anyone could buy an unlimited amount of likes which don’t measure or mean anything.”

It's true. A recent global study by Swedish e-commerce firm A Good Company found that globally, 57 per cent of all Instagram accounts had engaged in some kind of online deception, whether that's buying followers or likes. It's another area that Instagram is cracking down on, announcing last year that any accounts buying or selling would be closed down.

But with so much falsity seeping into the bloodstream of the industry, is it any wonder that people are beginning to turn off? "We are so flooded with information that people don't have the patience any more, people just absorb content but don't engage," says Neave. "There are certain accounts that have grown very quickly with numbers and maybe not as much thought towards content, and brands have followed."

That, of course, means sponsored content, pictures or videos that accounts are paid to post, in order to promote a product or business. And it's this constant exposure to placed advertisements that Shustova believes is beginning to affect her engagement. "Over the past few weeks I have noticed that as soon as I add #partner, #sponsored, #ad or #gifted to my content, engagement lowers drastically," she says. "I can't be certain if it's a problem related to Instagram trying to commercialise the platform further and not expose sponsored content unless it is promoted for an extra fee, or if it's a stand from my followers who are not happy to consume sponsored posts and would rather engage with my personal, independent content."

Neave adds: "Every person on Instagram complains or remarks on the algorithm, but if you put that aside for a minute, regardless of whether it's 5 per cent of people seeing your content or 1 per cent, those 1 per cent are still engaging less than they did a year ago."

Both Neave and Shustova, who also lives in Dubai, agree that there is too much uniformity among influencers. There are so many accounts being influenced by influencers, it's hard to see the wood from the trees.

“Very few accounts have evolved enough to continue to create varied content,” says Shustova. “I want to engage with what I see; I want to be inspired to do something new, I need to be entertained - I simply need more.”

As such, she is limiting her own posting while she navigates this new virtual dynamic. “I am looking for what’s next,” she says. “I am taking a summer break to rethink my social media presence and how my platform could really grow into a bigger community.”

It feels as though a lot of influencers will be doing the same, given the current climate.

The next wave of social media personalities – the Gen Z age – looks very different to the millennial influencer. Their posts are raw, grainy and often labelled with cartoon stickers and filters, a far cry from the perfected shots that have ruled the roost for so long.

They are shunning Facebook and Instagram in favour of TikTok and Snapchat, and are sharing almost solely through short, unedited videos rather than traditional static posts. Neave says she believes this is where the entire industry is headed. "Culture on Instagram has massively changed. People are craving something more real and a more in-depth insight into people's lives rather than that perfect picture image," she says. "We need to be going back to people creating content that is for them, posting stuff that they enjoy posting rather than something they think is going to get them lots of likes."