Ireland: The next time you worry about young adults spending too much time on TikTok, consider that they might just be studying for finals.
Starting next year, a university in Ireland is offering a bachelor of arts degree in influencing. Courses include crisis management, public relations, celebrity studies, social psychology and video and audio editing. Several dozen students will join the inaugural class in 2024, hopeful for a leg up in a fierce, attention-driven profession that can be lucrative if successful, though still volatile.
Irene McCormick, a senior lecturer at South East Technological University (SETU) in Carlow, Ireland, who co-designed the degree, told The Washington Post that while shorter courses have been offered before, the university is likely the first around the world, to offer a degree specifically tailored toward the influencer economy.
Harvard Business Review put the value of the global influencer market at $16.4 billion last year, with estimates suggesting more industry growth in 2023 as businesses devote larger shares of their marketing budgets to influencer partnerships. And among Gen Z, the profession is particularly appealing, with NPR's Planet Money noting in April that one survey reported 1 in 4 Gen Zers aspire to the job. However, academics raise concerns about the viability of the degree in the years to come, given the ever-changing nature of social media.
SETU's Content Creation and Social Media degree did not materialize overnight. The seed was planted in 2019, when McCormick came home after the first day of the school year and learned from her daughter that one of the new students, Lauren Whelan, was a "massive TikTok star with a global following."
Her daughter's passionate reaction to Whelan's presence at SETU made McCormick recognize the hold influencers have on younger generations.
This led to the creation of a summer program, the Digital Hustle, for teenagers interested in learning how to become social media influencers, said McCormick. For at least two years, the summer program invited TikTok stars and media theorists to teach young students how to build a personal brand.
After that initial foray, "the degree was a not a hard sell," McCormick told The Post. "We knew there was a space and need for this, we just needed to develop the course into a bachelor's degree and get it ratified."
Some experts pointed out that the demand among young people for professions that steer clear of the traditional 9-to-5 job has grown since the pandemic.
"Now, more than ever, everyone wants to maintain a semblance of control over their lives. And an influencer career promises an independent entrepreneurial career," said Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor of communications at Cornell University. "Everybody wants to work remotely. Everyone wants to set their own schedule."
The nature of work has also been changing fast, requiring more specialized knowledge, rather than a broad education on unrelated topics.
"Degree programs have gotten hyperspecialized because work has gotten more specialized," said Dawn Lerman, a professor in the marketing department at Fordham Graduate School of Business. "As societies became more complex, so did our tools, thanks to technology."
Historically, universities trained students to be ready for careers, as opposed to jobs. "Companies and organizations today hire students who are ready for specific jobs on their first day," Lerman said. "And that requires a specific kind of teaching."
To an extent, SETU's influencer degree offers courses similar to those of a digital marketing degree. However, SETU's unique program could encourage students to be "scrappy and entrepreneurial," Duffy said.
SETU's new degree is also coming at a time when "platform companies are really pushing the myth that influencer careers are a dream job with dazzling provisions," Duffy added.
Reality might be less glamorous. Influencers Duffy has spoken to warn of constant battles with fickle algorithms that change frequently, social media platforms that unravel overnight, harassment from viewers and inequities in terms of labor compensation, she said.
Even if one does make it to the top rung, there may still be a stigma around that success.
"Influencing is a highly feminized field and any feminized field is going to be denigrated or relegated to inferior status," Duffy said, while pointing out that fields like coding, computing and social media marketing, first occupied by women, were dismissed in their early years.
"Such fields have historically been overpopulated by women and in certain cases, people of color," she said. "As more men have made inroads into these spaces, they are seen as more valuable."
Creative industries have always been volatile, but the influencer industry faces unique challenges because algorithms change abruptly, particular features, like reels or short-form video, can become irrelevant quickly and platforms can disappear entirely. Translating success on YouTube to TikTok, or Vine to Instagram is no easy feat.
"The level of uncertainty and precarity in today's platform environment is very likely to make a lot of the specific platform-based training outdated almost immediately," Duffy said. "Any program that tries to bill itself as a space to learn about the industry is really going to have to focus on higher-level concepts."
McCormick at SETU agreed that while the influencer market is changing fast, "it isn't unlike other aspects of media landscape, and we have been offering degrees in media for decades, so the staff are well skilled."
Next year, SETU will be enrolling 40 students, but McCormick isn't yet sure how many more will try to apply.
If the overabundance of applications from the summer programs is any indication, she said, they will have to turn scores of hopeful influencers away.