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Under the influence: A look at the students who have made social media more than a hobby

Content creation can be more than light-hearted fun — for some, it’s hard work


Under the influence: A look at the students who have made social media more than a hobby

Content creation can be more than light-hearted fun — for some, it’s hard work

Whether you're chronically online or actually outside touching grass, we all know influencers are taking over our world. They fill our feeds with ring light-illuminated brand deals and 15-second clips of their latest self-tanner routines. Gone are the days of viral sensations like Jenna Marbles and Connor Franta, who once ruled the internet without the help of weekly brand deals. Chapstick challenges, music video parodies and flash mobs have now faded into trends of the past.

These days, a catchy username, a functioning smartphone and a dream are all you need to kick-start your career as an influencer. The simple act of recording your life may be enough to put you on the map, just as it did for TikTok star Emily Mariko, who rose to internet stardom after sharing her beloved salmon rice bowl recipe with the world.

Back when YouTube and the now-deceased six-second-video app Vine captivated the internet's attention, users needed to amass millions of followers to be considered a celebrity. Unless you reached viral territory, your name was largely unheard of on these platforms.

In 2015, Vine began curating users' feeds with a personalized "For You" channel, which was similar to TikTok's "For You" page. With the rise of these personalized algorithms, a user with 100 followers can now achieve virality just as a user with 1 million followers can. And some students at ASU are no stranger to this.


From TikTok to Instagram to YouTube, influencers seem to have infiltrated every corner of the internet. In fact, over 50 million people worldwide consider themselves to be influencers, Forbes reported in 2022. 

As influencer culture continues to seep into users' everyday lives, criticism of these online personalities has only grown louder. Many online viewers have mocked influencers for being out of touch in their digital bubbles, especially when they complain that content creation is exhausting.

Even though working as a full-time content creator may not be a true 9-to-5, stereotypes that influencer work is effortless could not be further from the truth, according to ASU alum Caitlin O'Reilly.

"People only see the end product," she said. "They're used to seeing a 10-second video, and that's it. They don't see what goes on behind the scenes."

O'Reilly, who graduated from ASU in 2018 after studying marketing and entrepreneurship, has been creating online content since her junior year of college.

"I have a passion for fashion, and I love to combine that with my Navajo culture," O'Reilly said. "My mission with my brand is to encourage other people to reconnect with their culture and embrace it through style and everyday living."

O'Reilly currently boasts over 10,000 Instagram followers under her handle, @nizhonifulme, and she's also amassed thousands of followers on Facebook and YouTube. Her brand name, Nizhóníful Me, takes inspiration from the Navajo-English slang term "nizhóníful," which means "beautiful." On her Instagram, you can peek into her moccasin collection, try her recipe for Native peach tea and journey along with her through traveling vlogs. 

"It definitely took years to grow my Instagram following," O'Reilly said. "What helped me nail down my brand was focusing on the areas I wanted to create content in and finding my target audience."

Since finding her brand's niche, O'Reilly said she plans to stick to the more "traditional" online platforms she is already established on, instead of breaking into the complex, algorithmic world of TikTok.

"TikTok is really foreign to me," she said. "I haven't dedicated much time there."

O'Reilly's YouTube channel, which has over 1,000 subscribers, is where you'll find some of her most recent projects, including thrift hauls, lookbooks and discussions about her Navajo identity. Even though she said the process of filming and editing YouTube videos can be "intense," the end result is always rewarding.

"YouTube is great for building a deeper connection with your audience," O'Reilly said. "I feel like it's more of an investment because you're watching longer videos from a creator."

Student creators

"I really wouldn't consider myself an influencer," said Maggie Barry, a senior studying music theater performance. "But in 2022, I posted a silly, little video poking fun at theater kids that got 1.5 million views."

Like many during the pandemic, Barry began creating videos as a way to distract herself from the monotony of her everyday life while COVID-19 put a pause on all outside activity.

"I started posting content that romanticizes my life to break up how mundane it can be," Barry said. "I like to offer opportunities for people to find joy online."

On her TikTok page, @magsnificent7, Barry has cultivated a close-knit community of over 2,500 followers, who loyally watch her videos and leave comments of encouragement as she shares her talents as a singer and dancer.

"I wanted to make content for people who do theater," Barry said. "I'm a midsize dancer, so I want to show that other midsize dancers can work professionally, even if our bodies aren't what the industry typically wants."

Instead of being wracked with nerves, Barry feels excited by the prospect that her fan base may grow.

"I feel like I should be freaked out," Barry said. "But I grew up in the age of YouTubers, and I learned so much from them."

Although she does not have any long-term plans for her TikTok account, she does not completely discount a future as a full-time influencer.

"Right now, it's a way for me to have fun," Barry said. "But if I somehow got a bunch of followers, having a (bigger) platform is something I’d be interested in."

For another ASU student, maintaining an online platform is more than a hobby — it's a source of income.

"My brother and I saw something on Nike and thought, 'What if we made that?'" said Enasia Colon, a sophomore studying communication. "Then the idea started growing, and everything picked up pretty quickly."

Colon's brand, the EC Collection, provides clothing for all athletes who "represent the everyday grind and hustle," according to its website. The brand's clothes are defined by athleisure pieces featuring minimalist designs, such as solid-colored hoodies and caps embroidered with the brand's "EC" logo.

"This is year three for our brand, and it's doing really well," Colon said. "But as far as social media goes, it's a lot of work, and it's not easy, especially since I'm the face of it."

Because the turnover of trends on social media is so fast-paced, Colon's brand is constantly innovating to keep up with new style fads. To gauge what colors should be included in her brand's merchandise, Colon and her team rely heavily on their audience to tell them what’s trending.

"You have to figure out what colors are 'in' and look out for what people like," she said. "Your brand depends on everything that's trending in the world."

"I use apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat (to see what people are wearing). I also see what famous people are wearing because if they’re wearing it, other people will wear it too."

On her Instagram, where Colon showcases the EC Collection’s pieces, she's amassed over 1,300 followers. Currently, the EC Collection offers hats, hoodies and shirts for $40- $65. While the average shopper may consider these prices to be more expensive than athletic gear at major stores like Target and Walmart, Colon said purchasing clothes from her brand is more meaningful than buying from a big-name corporation.

"If Nike sold a sweatshirt for $60 and an independent person was trying to sell a sweatshirt for $70, to Nike, it's just another $60 in the bank," Colon said. "But to the independent person, that's success. And I think that's something people don’t really understand."

Eventually, Colon envisions the EC Collection blossoming from a small business to the shelves of larger stores, like Dick’s Sporting Goods. "I just know (my brand) is going to be at that point," Colon said.

Being authentic

After sharing her life on social media for the last few years, O'Reilly has mastered handling negative comments on her accounts. She said she maintains a positive attitude by learning to look past detractors' negative words and see into their humanity.

"It's hard at times, and right now I’m trying to shift my mindset into thinking, 'It's not so much about me as it is about them,'" O'Reilly said. "I don’t know what they're going through at this moment. Maybe something I posted triggered something? I try to stay focused on, 'I don't know what their circumstances are right now.'"

For O'Reilly, one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is when fans leave positive notes on her page. 

"I always love it when I get comments saying my content has helped someone in some way," O'Reilly said. "Those are always the best, and it motivates me to keep going."

More than money or a massive fan base, O'Reilly's ultimate goal as an influencer is to foster a connection between herself and her viewers while maintaining a standard of authenticity.

"I want to build a personal connection with my audience and not focus so much on the materialistic side of things," O'Reilly said. "I just want to connect with my audience by showing them a more realistic look at what life is like (for an influencer)."

Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen.

This story is part of The Culture Issue, which was released on Feb. 28, 2024. See the entire publication here.

Reach the reporter at and follow @leahmesquitaa on Twitter.

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