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The Rise of Social Media Influencers: Midlands influencers share journey

Social media has opened up a variety of opportunities. And for some, the future is being crafted around likes, clicks and follows.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — With the growing popularity of social media comes the rise of social media influencers.

They're people who have garnered a sizable following on platforms like Instagram, Tik Tok, Snapchat, and Youtube because of their charisma, knowledge, or passion for a specific subject. 

Two of these influencers call the Midlands home - Jessica Avent, a stay-at-home mom, and Kelvin Davis, a former middle school art teacher and father of two girls. 

Avent has over 770,000 followers on Tik Tok and over 50,000 followers on Instagram. "I didn't really expect it, honestly, on how fast my social media grew," Avent said. 

In the beginning, Avent says she was just posting videos of her and her son. "And then I saw on my "For You" page content for anime," Avent said. A fan of anime, Avent decided to start creating content inspired by this animation style to express herself and make friends. "And then, all of a sudden, my videos started blowing up."

Davis's rise in the social media ranks started in 2013 with a blog. "The whole purpose of the blog was to create a space for men of all shapes and sizes to really feel confident, you know, it was about body positivity," said Davis. The blog also served as a space to advocate for mental health. 

Davis says people would Google "male body positivity," and his blog and Instagram would be one of the first things to come up. "Just out of public curiosity, I kind of became like this voted voice of male body positivity. That's kind of what helped me escalate, and then in 2015, it just went all the way up." 

In 2018, Davis stopped teaching and transitioned into a full-time influencer, model, author, public speaker, and racial justice advocate.

His brand, celebrated across the country, has garnered him more than 100,000 followers on Instagram.

It's also allowed him to work with well-known companies, including Target, Gap, Nike, Timberland, and Academy Sports. "I've been blessed enough to have so many I can't even keep count," Davis said.

These partnerships are an example of influencer marketing. "So, very often what you'll see is either brands or companies or even ad agencies themselves, in the last several years, have been dedicating intentionally more of their budget to working with influencers," said Wesley Stevens, an instructor at USC's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

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Influencers have become so popular; businesses are shelling out billions of dollars to work with them. Stevens explained that about $14 billion was circulated for influencer marketing last year. 

Companies are willing to spend the big bucks because they know social media influencers can expand their marketing reach and give them access to specific groups of people. 

"More brands and companies are wanting to partner with them (influencers) partially because it's easier to access these kinds of specific or niche groups that an influencer might be able to speak to or already has built trust with," said Stevens.

These partnerships are one of the most common ways some people can make a living through influencing work. 

Stevens says it can be a lucrative career but cautions that clicks don't always turn into cash. 

"It takes a lot of time and pouring in resources." explained Stevens. "Even then, it's not guaranteed. It's difficult to get started. There's clearly a lot of challenges to getting into a position where you can viably make a living, doing influencing work, but it does happen. And it happens a lot more often than it ever has." 

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One of the obstacles influencers have to navigate is the negative comments. "People don't seem to understand how much hate a creator can get," said Avent. 

She says she has received negative comments about being "too dark" to cosplay certain characters, as well as body-shaming comments. "I know a lot of creators go through it, and I don't feel alone in that," said Avent.

She is currently taking a break from social media to focus on her son and mental health but plans to start posting content again. She is also active on Twitch and Discord.

 "I really hope to at least bring some encouragement to the POC (people of color) community," said Avent. "I really want them to feel like they can really cosplay whoever they want. Life's too short, and I feel like you can't really let it get to you."

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Davis has also dealt with his fair share of negative messages. "You have to be very mentally strong to do this job," said Davis. "People will send you direct messages that, if you aren't strong enough, will damage your spirit."

However, Davis says he is unbothered by the haters and wants to focus on spreading positivity and love. 

"My dad used to always tell me, once you do something that you love, it won't feel like his work, and that's truly how I feel," said Davis. "I just feel blessed that people see the authenticity in me and want to be a part of my journey."

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