Jess Miller from suburban Melbourne was a social media star. Two years ago at the age of sixteen she was earning $10,000 a week as ‘Pizza’ on Tumblr.
Miller was a classic social media influencer, with 700 thousand young followers she was popular with advertisers then along came the payday of reposting fake diet pill testimonials.
Miller started to make serious money. She’d already been able to make a little cash: fashion companies and some small Etsy stores paid her to post pictures of clothing on her blog, with a nudge to her followers to check out their sales. She’d earned about $4000 in this way.
But then the big one came along. Two 18-year-old American social media entrepreneurs, Zach Lilley and Jeremy Greenfield – fans and friends of Pizza – approached Jess Miller and other top-performing Tumblr bloggers in April 2014 with a proposition for a money-making scheme. It used a decidedly old-school lure: diet pills.
Lilley, Greenfield and their associate Dennis Hegstad ran a website called Exposely, which connected brands to people with strong followings on social media. Lilley and Greenfield used their social media skills to create diet pill ads that masqueraded as Tumblr posts, essentially fake testimonials from women talking about their weight-loss journey. Miller would re-blog these posts, and get a small payment if the user clicked on the link. If the user bought the pills, Miller would get $23 and Exposely would get $26. She watched the money roll in – to her mother’s PayPal account.
Eventually the breaches their terms of service, not to mention ethics, became too much for Tumblr’s management and they deleted Miller’s blog along with a group of others in the scheme.
Miller’s story illustrates the manipulation that is a big part of the social media influencer industry with behaviour that’s almost certainly illegal and most definitely unethical. It also illustrates the risks of basing an income or business on service where you can be closed down any time.
For Miller, she seems relieved her time of fame is over. Those building their businesses around these platforms may not be so philosophical.