Culture 10 April 2017
Influencers have the ability via Instagram, Facebook and YouTube to determine what you buy, where you buy it, and why you should buy it. To make a living from merely influencing, you are deigned to drive consumerism via your page. You are a new medium of advertisement - a gallery of small real-time ads or a video with product placement, and if you're big enough you can become as sought after as prime time ad placements in Times Square.
SWAAY recently visited the historically beautiful Beacon Hill in Boston to talk to a blogging couple about 'micro-influencing,' rewriting the Instagram rules, and how they're on the brink of abandoning their entire life here in the U.S to pursue full-time travel blogging.
Created by Anna Lisa Falzone and her boyfriend Porter Grieve, @recesscity, which began in Ireland and has been based in Boston for the past year, will be packing up and embarking on a journey across the world that will cost its founding team exactly… nothing.
"When you're in a business where you're constantly interacting, and, in some ways, helping to propel the realization of other people's dreams, you've got to stop and think hard about whose dream you want to see fulfilled, and, more importantly, whose you don't."
- Anna Falzone
The account was born out of Falzone's penchants for travel and photography. Having spent a year sailing in the Caribbean, and studying in both Ireland and Switzerland, she had a wealth of experience with which to begin a blog.
In the beginning and to grow her audience, @recesscity - based then in Dublin - would play with fun flat lays, punny captions, and flamboyant editing before becoming the moody minimalist account we know today. Falzone launched her blog at the beginning of her final year in university, and recorded her time abroad. The following grew quickly on both platforms and before long she had a decision to make about the future of the brand and what direction it might take. Having finished her time at Trinity College in Dublin, she would return home to her home town to begin working with brands on her first sponsored content.
What began as an art project - an expression of creativity, quickly developed into a business opportunity, and instead of taking a job after her English Literature degree, Falzone determined she would pursue Instagram and blogging full time.
Unconventional as it might have seemed, she was resolved to prove her content would stand up to the best of those in the lifestyle category, and with the help of her photographically-inclined boyfriend, Porter, it quickly did.
“I wanted to see if the shared love my boyfriend and I have for photography, minimalist style & travel could help us connect with people; positively impact the social media sphere; and simultaneously create the kind of freedom we both felt our lives could never really be our own without."
Having originally cast the potential sponsor net far and wide in the beginning of @recesscity, Falzone and Grieve have now narrowed down the brands they will work with and curated a set list of ethical and environmentally friendly companies that will set the standard for future partners.
It's most certainly the road not taken by many on the Instagram circuit, given the delicate nature of making money through one's photos. Making a living on posts and branded content means influencers, a lot of the time, cannot afford the luxury of choosing who to work with, but the minds behind @recesscity are steadfast in their resolve - ethical, or nothing.
“Encouraging consumerism isn't always rewarding," she says. For Falzone, her partners, which she painstakingly hand picks, are integral to her brand. Among her new favorites is Australian hat company, Will & Bear, which will be featured in the duo's year of travel. The brand was picked in part because for each hat sold, ten trees are planted by the company. Another brand to be featured by @recesscity next year is Soko, an accessory brand that provides fair trade wages and jobs for women in developing third world countries. For their part, Allbirds and Vere Verto are also on the couple's short list, chosen for their ethical manufacturing of goods in home countries.
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"When you wear an item of clothing you're wearing the realization of someone else's dreams. That's a powerful notion, particularly when you become a liaison for promoting that dream."
It's an incredible journey the pair have ahead and nothing short of astounding that it's all paid for. How did they do it? It's simple really. They stuck strictly to their aesthetic; they got creative; and most importantly - they were bold.
It's perhaps a huge benefit to any entering this industry that nothing is written in stone. “Almost every brand I've worked with has had an entirely different set of criteria, found our rates reasonable, laughable, or negotiable, and seemed as though they're saying what they think sounds right, rather than what they know to be true," she says. When they travel, they will stay exclusively in hotels that fit within the aesthetic of their account, and their mission. She is resolute that there will be no compromises in her future when working with brands who aren't aligned with @recesscity's ethical mission. Looking back at the beginning of her branded collaborations, however, Falzone acknowledges she wasn't always true to her mission. “I was losing myself on the slippery slope of sacrificing my blog's identity in the hopes for exposure through brand collaborations I wasn't passionate about," she says. “Even if you're being well compensated, don't work with anyone out of fear that passing up will somehow slam shut that already small window of opportunity to 'make it.' Stick to your guns."
Casting their sights over Europe to begin - @recesscity will be journeying to the isles of Santorini, Mykonos, Crete and Folegandros, and will then venture up along the Italian coast before a brief respite in Croatia's capital - finishing up in a chilly Scandinavia come November.
The jump from home-grown brand - the safety net of the familiar - to an indefinite travel arrangement is not, however, without risks.
"When we took a step back and really thought about what we wanted to be doing, it was still photographing and still incorporating our love for minimalist style, but we wanted to serve a humanitarian purpose, and we wanted travel to take center stage," says Falzone.
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Despite her growing success, Falzone admits there are lingering fears in the "influencer industry." What happens if the audience doesn't grow? What if the brands falter in their support?
These are the constant worries that full-time bloggers experience, especially those in the 'micro-influencer' category who are just getting their footing in this fledgling industry. Furthermore, this is especially difficult for those growing their brand organically, rather than paying for Instagram 'farms' or follow counts. It's numbers that brands are interested in for the most part, so for those growing through the quality of their content, are most challenged in terms of turning a profit.
"What we want is to portray minimalist, ethical fashion as the backdrop for pursuing a lifestyle of consistent, conscientious purpose."
- Anna Falzone
This is, after all, the first generation of the Instagram sensation.
'Micro-influencing,' which typically includes those accounts with between 20K and 70K followers in a specific niche, is a term they use with trepidation. On one hand fun, exciting, and perhaps the most engaging aspect of Instagram currently, but on the other, difficult to navigate without guidance.
“There are no hard and fast rules to this industry," says Falzone. So for now, the pair will write its own rulebook, blindly. There are no 'how-to's' when weaving your way through the blogging stratosphere. Sure, there are strategies, hacks, life-lines, but how do you achieve that pinnacle of success, your ultimate goal ? Nobody really can tell them. Nobody really knows.
Falzone and Grieve tell SWAAY they are prepared for every eventuality or outcome that may emerge from this trip around the world, sink or swim. For now they are focused on finding fulfillment in the potential this trip could have to open consumer's eyes to the ethical fashion industry. The wanderer's lifestyle – with its dually terrifying and exciting elements and the incredible photography it reaps, certainly draws millions of eyes on today's social platforms. If a fraction of those find @recesscity's ethical mindset an asset rather than a drawback, we're certain you'll be seeing more of these twenty-somethings in the months ahead.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.