Agency of Influence

Content warning: quick mentions of suicide and depression

Spoilers: The Girl Who Was Plugged In, James Tiptree, Jr., 1973

In December 2022, Channel 4 in the UK reported on the very bad factory conditions of Shein (pronounced shee-in), a fast-fashion clothing company. Given that during Shein’s July Fourth holiday sale a plain t-shirt was on sale for $2.06, it’s difficult to imagine how the manufacturing process could possibly be safe for the workers or the environment.

But Shein says its operations are transparent and within the laws of the countries where it operates. To prove it, the company flew six influencers who have accounts on TikTok and Instagram to their “innovation center” in Guangzhou, China, to see for themselves. Videos posted by the women showed a clean facility with worktables draped with cut and partially sewn fabric, and staffed by smiling women in aprons. There were also videos of the luxury-level air travel, expensive hotel rooms, and elaborate dinners. The influencers made a point of saying they were not paid to post any content, and Shein made a point of saying it did not pay the women for content. But everyone agrees that the influencers did not pay for their travel, accommodations, or meals during the trip.

When the half dozen influencers posted their photos and videos of their Shein travel experience, backlash was fast and fierce. Their followers—and internet denizens who just love a good pile-on—berated the women for swallowing Shein’s line without being critical. Some of the women said they’d done their research and believed Shein to be transparent, then later posted again saying they did not do enough research and that this was a learning experience. One of the women was a designer for the company, not merely an influencer, and she noted that being flown to a company’s HQ and seeing the manufacturing facility was not at all unusual in her line of work. She left her videos up, and she received maddeningly typical death threats in the comments in addition to the usual social media insults.

Leaving aside the cultural horror show that is any social media comment section, the wider ethical question is one of agency and knowledge. What kind of agency can an influencer exert? What can she realistically know? When a company repeatedly publishes reports of its transparency, what kind of responsibility does an influencer—who is not a journalist or part of an oversight agency—have for finding the truth? In this case, the Channel 4 report had already been published, and a quick online search for “Shein factory conditions” turns up that report as well as others from the BBC, CNN, and Business Insider. So information was readily available without investigative training or an organizational budget.

The question of an influencer’s agency and knowledge was taken up in a sci-fi novella by James Tiptree, Jr., in The Girl Who Was Plugged In, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novella nearly fifty years ago, in 1974. In the story, a disabled seventeen-year-old girl named P. Burke is “rescued” from a suicide attempt by a company called GTX. She is plugged in, as the title says, so that she can operate a separate being, one created in a lab to be what we’d now call an influencer, from a clamshell in a lab “500 feet underground near what used to be Carbondale, Pa.” The company offers to introduce this girl from nowhere to her favorite boy band, Breath. The tradeoff is that she will never be able to see anyone again. She will be legally dead. P. Burke’s response: “Show me the fire I walk through.”

We know that real-world teenagers are reporting more suicidal ideation and depression. We know that student loan debt is ridiculous. We know that the climate is unstable and so is employment. There are millions of kids who watch influencers’ TikToks and Reels every day and see it as maybe the most viable way to get out of whatever situation they find themselves in. Show them the fire they walk through, even if that means remaining willfully ignorant of a company’s unethical manufacturing practices and enduring a barrage of violent language in the comments.

In Tiptree’s novella, advertising is illegal under the Huckster Act and even mentioning it is taboo. This sounds utopian, but of course it’s not. Companies get around the ad ban by using influencers like the one remotely animated by P. Burke, who’s named Delphi. It’s explained to Delphi/P. Burke that she will be given products so that people can see her using them on a system very like today’s internet. It’s important, she’s told, that she do this so that the people who work so hard in the factories to make these products can have jobs. But she can never reveal that she’s been given these products to use or that she’s showing these products off so that viewers will buy them. “She’s going to be a girl people watch,” Tiptree writes. “And she’s going to be using fine products people will be glad to know about and helping the good people who make them.”

But remember, Delphi is only a construct that operates in the physical world. Her mind, heart, and soul are in that chamber under what used to be Carbondale. Surely this moral being has qualms? “In P. Burke’s starved, seventeen-year-old head, the ethics of product sponsorship float far away,” the narrator tells the reader.

There’s a modern tradeoff not imagined by Tiptree: enduring the vitriolic comments. P. Burke and Delphi have no interactions with the masses who watch Delphi use products. The tradeoff in Tiptree’s story is that neither Delphi nor P. Burke have bodily autonomy. Delphi, who is presented as being fifteen, has her breast groped by a camera crew guy, in addition to being told what she can do, where she can do it, and when to sleep. P. Burke has her body wired and monitored, and she is forced out of the dream world of her clamshell to perform bodily functions while Delphi sleeps. Everyone on the internet thinks they own the bodies of women of all kinds and the LGBTQIA2S+ community—particularly people of color—and they show it in the comments. People are told they are too fat, too thin, too dark, too light, too masculine, too feminine, too disabled, not disabled enough to count. They need to run more, or run less, or run differently before they hurt someone, probably themselves, maybe their unborn baby, maybe even someone who happens to see them running so badly. They need to cover up or be sexier. They need to be more proud of their queerness or climb back into the closet where they belong. The only person in the history of the internet who gets this right might be Beyonce, and she has posted barely a word of her own in years. Outfits only, and the crowd goes wild.

Delphi was created to show products to the ultrarich, the “gods” of the novella, the Beyonces of the world. But she’s so good at showing herself using the Things that it’s trickling down to the masses, because “what gods have, mortals desire.” She’s able to make pet macaws go viral. She is popular and beloved and people want to have what she has. P. Burke may be physically atrophying in the lab, but she is experiencing joy for the first time in her life. Her happiness shines through on screens: “One look at Delphi and the viewers know: DREAMS CAN COME TRUE.” If you can compartmentalize a major aspects of your being, you can climb out of a painful life and onto a jet headed for Guangzhou.

The influencers received backlash for their Shein trip, but Delphi starts experiencing rashes and dizziness from the products she’s using. Her handlers are surprised she’s using the creams and pills as directed, even though they’d told her doing so was her entire job. She insists on using the Things, as Tiptree calls them, as her viewers will use them. This is similar to the logic used by the influencers who accepted the Shein trip: they just wanted to see for themselves.

For Tiptree, Delphi is not to blame for being created and used as an influencer. And P. Burke can hardly be blamed for wanting to escape her life without having to end it completely. Tiptree places all of the blame for this cynical end-run around an advertising ban squarely with GTX, the company that created Delphi, and its exploitation of P. Burke’s humanity and of Delphi’s manufactured innocence. Much of the blame for the cynical end-run around basic workplace requirements in order to sell inexpensive clothes rests squarely with Shein and its alleged exploitation of its factory workers in Asia and of the influencers it wooed with expensive international travel. But I credit real-world human influencers with more agency and ability to think critically than the fictional pair in Tiptree’s novella. Most of them admitted to an error in taking this trip at face value, a realization denied the plugged-in girls of the book. There was no chance for a different future for P. Burke and Delphi, but the influencers who traveled with Shein have the chance to create a different future for themselves, for their followers, and for fashion’s impact on workers and the world after this experience. Here’s hoping.