Last month, Rest of World published a short interview with Enioluwa Adeoluwa — one of Nigeria’s leading male social media influencers, with nearly 3 million followers and brand deals with MAC and Crocs. In the interview, he mentioned that finding brands to sponsor content is not as easy for him as it is for creators in developed markets. “They could create 10 videos, and all of them will be ‘sponsored by’ something. In Nigeria, you don’t get that. When you know your dreams are limited to what your finances can handle, then you’re not allowed to dream that big,” he said.

This got me thinking about the massive boom in influencer culture in India.

By now, we all know at least one person who has given up a comfortable day job in the hope of becoming a social media star. Or, you might have a friend who is hustling on the side to find success on the internet.

News headlines would have us believe that being an #influencer is the most lucrative career option in India at the moment. The country’s highest-paid influencers — Prajakta Koli, Kusha Kapila, and Ranveer Allahbadia — all have a multimillion-dollar net worth.

But if you ask a regular person who is attempting to find fame on the internet about the #influencerlife, there’s a high chance they will tell you the reality is not so pretty: The millions don’t come to most, and fame is very hard to get.

“Realistically, no, I cannot live on the money that I make from Instagram with the 20,000 followers I have,” Monalisa Panda, a Bengaluru-based lifestyle influencer, told me. “Brands are not okay with spending too much money on nano- and micro-influencers.” Panda has been active on Instagram for over five years now, but that is her side hustle. She continues to hold a day job as the social media head for an e-commerce company.

Around a year ago, Prajakta Paudwal Padgaonkar, a homemaker from Mumbai, decided to start creating content on Instagram. She has so far made Reels of all kinds: trending dance videos, modeling montages, transition reels, and more. Recently, she also won the Mrs. India Iconic Diva 2023 beauty pageant. But she is yet to make a single rupee from social media. She has a little over 2,000 followers, and has invested a small amount from her own pocket to promote her content.

“Monetizing and gaining followers is much easier for a celebrity or a big influencer because people want to know what is happening in their lives,” Padgaonkar told me. “So even if a celebrity puts out average content, it goes viral. But that’s not the case for me. Why would anyone want to know what a regular person is doing in a day?”

Both Panda and Padgaonkar said consistency was the key to winning on Instagram, which can be challenging if you’re working a day job to make ends meet. “If you don’t post consistently, people will unfollow you,” Panda said. “If you have a full-time job, you can afford that. But if you are looking to make an earning via Instagram, then you cannot let that happen.”

The two creators also said social media has become “too noisy” in recent years, with everyone trying to become an influencer, making it hard for anyone to stand out. “Instagram is very difficult to understand,” Padgaonkar said. “After spending a year on Instagram, I have now started understanding who my audience is.”

“When I started, I thought it would be easy. But in the last year, I have realized it’s very hard,” she said. “What keeps me going is the thought that in this world of virality, one can never know what clicks.”