In imagining social media influencers, on platforms such as YouTube or Instagram, it is tempting to visualise an individual as someone urban, young, most probably into fashion or into beauty. However, some of these stereotypes have begun to crack as the digital world continues to diversify and becomes a more inclusive space. One way we can ascertain this is by observing the diversification in genres of social media content that individuals are developing. This has coincided with the internet becoming physically and economically accessible in the remotest corners of the country. In an ongoing research project at IIM Udaipur’s Consumer Culture Lab, one such content creator group we looked at is Indian farmers as social media influencers.
In our research we found farmers who have created social media subscriber bases, sometimes running into many lakhs. Even as this has helped these farmers to diversify their income streams, it has also required to self-skill themselves for using the toolsets, including video creation and editing, photography, digital marketing, and understanding platform dynamics to maximise impact. Interestingly, in this journey of self-learning, their primary resource base continues to be social media. Though we often associate such technological upskilling with the urban people, our research forced us to question such simplistic assumptions.
Not only are these social media platforms providing opportunities to the farmers, they are also becoming knowledge sources to acquire skills required to build a career on these platforms. As information becomes more easily available, and learning becomes more democratised, it needs to be acknowledged that many of these farmer social influencers (FSIs) are exceptions in their own communities and are individuals who have demonstrated the necessary enterprise to make the best use of resources available at their disposal.
Conscience keepers of the community
As these famers become more successful as influencers, in contrast to social media influencers in other domains, they are aware that their online audiences often intersect with the communities they are embedded in. Many among their online audiences are neighbours or neighbours’ neighbour and are a part of their immediate communities. With the community rejoicing in the success of FSIs, they are constantly aware of their positionalities within the community. This creates a moral imperative to develop content that is not detrimental to other farmers and helps them to improve their existing situations. Many FSIs begin their social media journey with this express intention, which is often tested as they become popular, and their subscriber base multiplies. When these FSIs start getting approached by brands for endorsements, they are conscious of not losing their voices and carry a strong sense of accountability to their farming communities. These factors tend to drive their decision-making more than the urge to maximise moneymaking opportunities. It is this ideological bent and moral compass that governs them and often differentiates them from other categories of social media influencers.
Much of the content that features in FSIs’ social media revolves around farming practices. The variety of content ranging from addressing everyday issues, bringing forth newer practices and even interacting with farmers out of their immediate communities to showcase their work. This helps them not only to broaden their networks of acquaintances but also to become an intermediary who connects their online audiences and farmers featured on their videos and posts. Such acts over time tend to elevate the FSI’s status making it common for farmers in their immediate, embedded communities to reach out to them for problem solving regarding farming and connected themes. Such exchanges allow FSIs to acquire social capital, both in their digital and physical environments. In our interactions with FSIs, this was often accorded greater value than the monetary gains from their social media activities.
Our research on FSIs offers an alternate view of social media influencers. By closely examining FSIs, we look at a constituency of influencers who don’t appear in the mainstream often. Even as they gain economically, their work throws light on the importance of social and community ties in shaping their work. Overall, it gives us an alternate lens to examine social media influencing and influencers.
Prof. Rajesh Nanarpuzha is Associate Professor (Faculty), Marketing, at IIM Udaipur. Rupali Kapoor is a Research Officer with Consumer Culture Lab, IIM Udaipur.