Silicon Valley is a startup sanctum—a region ripe with opportunities for optimists and spirited entrepreneurs. Apple, Google, Intel, Adobe and eBay all got their start here. And countless other hopefuls are looking to take their shot in what is arguably the global headquarters of innovation.
But location alone will not guarantee success. Venture capital and technical ingenuity isn’t enough. To get the word out today, businesses are aided in no small part by an army of limelight-loving individuals who promote themselves along with the businesses they believe in.
They are the influencers, an online cadre whose reviews, vlogs, unboxings and tastings drive customers to brick-and-mortar businesses. Locally, this community is exemplified by the Instagram-famous SanJoseFoos but, their numbers are always growing, and they’re changing the culture on a grassroots level. They have learned to use the software created by tech juggernauts like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to their advantage—and to the advantage of the businesses they promote.
But recently the game has begun to change for this diverse group of food enthusiasts, DJs, photographers, parents, teachers, students and graphic designers. A growing appetite for authenticity has social media influencers and content creators vying to meet demand. With the advent of TikTok, Reels, a changing algorithm and a trend known as “de-influencing,” the landscape has shifted so much that influencers and content creators, big and small, are all struggling to adjust.
John “Gordo” Mendoza (Instagram’s @el.gordo.foodie) was born in San José. Mendoza met his wife when they were 12 years old. The foodies married young (at 19) and settled down in San José, and they’ve remained ever since.
The pair run an event company as their day-to-day. Influencing remains a fun side-hobby, he says. Unlike other San José food influencers with expansive follower counts like @missfoodiebayarea, Gordo’s hobby is a labor of love.
Mendoza first forayed into content creation by posting BBQ-related material during the lockdowns of 2020. BBQing was always a major pastime, he says, and sharing photos and videos of ribs, rubs and recipes online for friends added to the fun. Now veering into food diary territory with the addition of restaurant reviews, Mendoza’s account has swelled to 10,000 followers.
While some influencers collaborate with the subjects they post about, as El Gordo Foodie, he takes a more guerrilla approach.
“I don’t tell them who I am, we just go, I do a review, and we pay for our meals. The restaurants don’t know we’re coming,” he says. “Later when they see my review they go crazy for it. Honestly, I’ve made a lot of very good friends by reviewing this way.”
Mendoza says he enjoys surprising local business owners with his reviews more than the collaborative posts he creates when approached by a business.
These opportunities sometimes mean trades—a business offers a free meal in exchange for a posting or review published on social media—or monetary compensation. Because these negotiations often happen without written contracts in place, compensation for content creators’ work continues to be shrouded in gray. Mendoza says some start group chats to share insider knowledge, and others just figure out what works best for their individual brand or business and carry on.
“I know a lot of ‘foodies’ get a bad rep. Some businesses say we’re in it for the freebies, for the free food. While it may be a great way to market and get revenue, my wife and I aren’t like that,” he says. “We started our Instagram account page to support our favorite local businesses and help them grow. As a family man myself, we still love to support small, family-owned ‘mom and pop’ type businesses.”
Community-minded The Last Round, a pizzeria and tavern located in downtown San José, is the latest mom and pop joint to receive some digital love by El Gordo on Instagram. The local gem was founded in 2016 as a sandwich shop, rebranded as a joint pizzeria and tavern, and is now considered a neighborhood institution by locals.
“He had no idea we were showing up,” Mendoza says. “We just went, bought pizza, and had a good time there. And that’s what I love doing, supporting local businesses in my community instead of setting up collaborations for nice perks.”
Alexis Frost (@lex.loves_ on Instagram and @alexis.frost on TikTok) has had one of the more unconventional journeys through social media.
In 2019, the high school math teacher became the subject of a short video series titled: “Daily Ms. Frost.” Donning her signature smile and that day’s colorful outfit, the Design Tech High School teacher was recorded by one of her students for over 80 days. The short, lighthearted daily check-ins lead with the student asking how she’s doing. “‘I’m fine! Where were you this morning?’” laughs Frost in one of the videos from the viral TikTok compilation.
Frost was praised online for her warm demeanor and stylish outfits. Soon, there was demand for more “Daily Ms. Frost.”
“I didn’t know what TikTok was at the time, I couldn’t believe this video she made went viral,” she says. “At that time, there were no teachers on the platform. People were commenting on what a great relationship this student and I had. And so, many videos later, this is how people knew me online.”
Frost began to post regularly, beginning with teaching, makeup, fashion and hair videos and developing a large fanbase organically on TikTok. One fateful day in September of 2020, she decided to upload a video of herself trying snacks trending on TikTok.
“I was sheltering in place with my family, and saw everyone trying these snacks popular on TikTok so I thought, why not?”
She started a new series, “Trying TikTok Snacks,” and went viral once more. Since then, Frost has honed a new niche as a food influencer, collaborating with major fast food chains like Chipotle and Taco Bell on food-related content.
Lately, however, she says videos aren’t performing as well on TikTok.
“Attention spans are shorter on the platform,” she says, “but maybe my audience is getting tired of watching me try fast-food combinations…I just don’t know.”
The accidental TikTok star and now full-time influencer takes her work seriously, posting regularly, recent content ranging from restaurant tours to city exploration videos. She says social media used to be easier. Now, she finds herself working harder to maintain output, trying to keep watch times high and fans engaged. She only recently pivoted to Instagram to experiment with Reels, hoping to carry over fans from one platform to another.
“Everything on Instagram is just a lot more difficult lately from an influencer’s standpoint,” she says.
Like Frost, others who use Instagram professionally have felt that they’ve had to increasingly work harder to see less engagement on the platform.
“The algorithm lately sucks,” says San José-based DJ Lexapeel (@djlexapeel on Instagram). “If I post something that is not a Reel, a video—and one that is on trend—it’s not going to get as many eyes on it.”
The ATL transplant has called San José home for more than five years now. Though it took some of those years to break into the Valley’s nightlife scene, she eventually did, noting that social media helped bridge a gap.
“I’ve been able to do a lot of cool gigs during the pandemic and coming out of it because of social media,” she says.
But lately, the feeling has begun to change.
“Social media is starting to feel like this game that you’re forced to play,” she says. “When everyone is only posting their accomplishments, you start to think, ‘Maybe I’m not accomplishing as much as I need to.’”
For Alexis Frost, she says, with her, what you see is what you get: a genuine introvert-extrovert creating content that’s enjoyable for all ages. She says by being authentically herself, she’s been able to maintain a fairly successful cross-platform transition so far.
Some of the local influencers she’s encountered in the last few years through collaborations or meetups have been awkward, weird or standoffish, she says—a drastic 360 from the personality they portrayed online. These days she only collaborates with creators whose online personas feel as “real” as hers.
“How someone may act online doesn’t always translate the same when you meet them in person,” she says.
The content creator has had the same Instagram for over a decade, only recently transitioning it to an account for content creation. What was once a fun hobby is now a full-fledged career with a workload that is seemingly never ending.
“I use social media for research. I need to stay relevant so I use it to keep up with trends.”
Among those recent trends is what’s known as “de-influencing,” an effort to lessen consumerism by lifting the veil over claims of “holy grail” products across all industries.
Frost says the trend is silly.
“For me, creating content is showing viewers all these different options out there for them. If they like it, cool. If they don’t, it doesn’t faze me or affect me in any way. People liking the things I show does not determine if I do well or not.”
Regardless of their algorithm’s popularity, Instagram still provides many with a platform.
“If it wasn’t for Instagram, none of this would’ve happened,” says San José native Anthony “Cola” Mastrocola. “Instagram is an immaculate influential tool. It changes lives. It changed mine.”
In 2015, Mastrocola founded a group that has recently been seen advertising around San José: Good Cult (@goodcult).
“It’s not a promotion company, it’s not a brand. It’s a cult, but a good one,” he says.
Legally speaking, Good Cult is a clothing brand that provides “heavily curated, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.” The cheeky content creator was raised in the South Bay. As its product, he’s an early adopter of technology and a natural risk taker. Growing up in various neighborhoods across the Valley, the artist felt inspired being surrounded by all the innovation and creative people.
“There’s so many life-changing companies that originated here in the Bay Area, which to me is still one of the coolest parts about living here.”
Being incredibly personable, he kept looking for ways to integrate community-building into projects when he could.
“To try to define San José’s culture or try to categorize it would be counterproductive. It’s a million things,” he says. “So many good people, working hard, creating cool things. So many socioeconomic, highly diverse communities [and] ethnicities.”
In 2020, Mastrocola and his father, Paul, were managing the Grace Solutions Homeless Shelter at Grace Baptist Church in downtown San José when the popular San Jose Foos Instagram account rose in visibility, streaming protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and generating memes and inside jokes that only locals would understand.
The Good Cult founder tuned in often, watching and engaging online when he wasn’t busy at the shelter. It was one of these livestreams by Jorge Anthony Gomez (@SanJoseFoos on Instagram) that Mastrocola says spurred their friendship and creative collaboration.
“He was streaming and all of a sudden he said he was going to cut the stream—his battery was about to die. Things at the shelter were slow. Knowing he was streaming from a protest nearby, I grabbed an extra portable charger I had stored and drove down to where he was. I got there and started yelling, ‘Where is this San José Foos guy?’”
Eventually, he found him, passing on the battery. When the two met again at another protest shortly after, they bonded over a shared love of film, music and art.
“The rest is history,” he says.
Since, the two friends have grown Good Cult to include a website that houses all of Mastrocola’s latest creative productions, an online store, and a link to opt in to a text-based subscription service that sends encouraging messages periodically.
“I’ve seen brands use the text service to push marketing and ads but it sucks. I use it to motivate, inspire and invoke conversations,” he says.
The latest text was their most unique yet: the announcement of Good Cult’s first in-person meetup. “Connectivity is something in the digital age I feel we sometimes lack. It’s been cool creating this platform that can facilitate connection.”
Inadvertently, Good Cult’s take on influencing is reminiscent of the de-influencing trend. The group’s push for connection over sales has contributed to their widespread growth online, and offline.
For photographer Marilyn Nguyen (@marilynnnguyen), Instagram is still the best way to connect and meet people.
“A lot of my clients find me on Instagram,” says the Dallas-born transplant, now based in Milpitas. “I’ve met a lot of my friends and potential clients through the app and it’s where I’ve seen my business grow the most.”
Nguyen has been photographing influencers and content creators for a little over a decade now, though she is mainly known for her creative conceptual photography. The artist first discovered her passion for the medium in her teens, while browsing social media blogging platform Tumblr.
“I was around 12, perusing these high-quality photography blogs on Tumblr, wanting to take photos just like that. I eventually got a nice camera and started taking photos, but nothing very good until I got to high school and joined yearbook,” she says.
She began to teach herself via YouTube. When word spread among Nguyen’s peers about her photography prowess, she started booking shoots: creative ones, portraits, prom and graduation. While in college, she marketed her other skills, design and illustration, and found herself diving headfirst into influencer culture, photographing content creators when she wasn’t busy attending classes at UC Irvine.
During this time, she was booking gigs for content creators and models near LA. Influencer shoots are heavily tailored, she says.
“We go into it with things in mind like what is the brand we’re shooting for and what are they looking for? What specific things do they want me to consider when photographing my client? There’s always product placement and brand highlights to consider in these types of shoots.”
These days, the content creator sessions she books in the Bay Area are mostly smooth sailing compared to her Los Angeles clientele.
“There’s definitely a bigger business aspect to it there, more criteria that I have to hit when I’m shooting for content creators who do this full time, depend on it for income, or when they have a brand deal. Most influencers I’ve worked with around the Bay Area see influencing as a side thing, a side hobby, so the shoots are less intense,” she says.
Ironically, the now 24-year-old artistic director has become an influencer or content creator of sorts herself. Since joining Instagram after Tumblr, Nguyen has amassed close to 54,000 followers.
Nguyen’s portraits and original conceptual photography led to a rise in engagement on the platform.
“During that time I felt so creative…I was doing a lot of conceptual shoots, getting my friends to pose for me. After Tumblr died, I started posting regularly to Instagram, and began to get a lot of clients through there.”
Though she prefers for clients to approach her via her professionally designed website, she still uses the platform to schedule shoots with prospective clients, book gigs and network.
With content creation, she says, there’s additional pressure added to her workload, meeting deadlines and client expectations—but nothing she can’t handle. Every experience is an opportunity to learn something new: about herself and the industry.
“My work now normally involves portraits, headshots, lifestyle shots, or shooting an event. It’s always tailored to what my client wants or what they do. I’ve learned that it’s always best to ask a lot of questions beforehand so there’s no surprises, and I can get a better idea of what my clients are specifically looking for going into a shoot,” she says.
Now in her 11th year as a photographer, Nguyen says she considers event photography her niche, though her expertise is in portraits. A lover of music, she continues to explore a new avenue of photography: still conceptual, but now for promoters and DJs. When RecRoom opened in 2020, the downtown San José bar hired her as its resident photographer.
“Now event photography is a big part of my life and I can’t imagine life without it, though I still enjoy doing my own shoots for fun the most, that’ll never change,” the young artist says.
Online, however, she’s also begun to notice changes that are hardly subtle, affecting the way her cultivated following interacts with her work and decreasing its visibility to push promoted content in its place.
“Social media has changed because of all of the data being collected from us. The algorithm will show you a photo I posted [today] a day or two days from now but will show you something it thinks you may like immediately when you open the app.”
Changes like this are detrimental to content creators, small businesses and anyone who relies on social media to grow their business, she says. She says she used to see a consistent, linear trend with her engagement, but now it waxes and wanes sporadically quite often. It’s disappointing, but won’t dissuade her from using the app, as it remains her main source for booking and communicating with clients, finding inspiration and discovering new trends.
She also uses it just like anyone else would. On her own page, none of the photography Nguyen posts is paid for by clients. Every photo is just for her. And that’s the way she intends to keep it, she says.
“Much of the work I produce is client work these days. The ideas are provided by the client, I shoot with their concepts in mind and I’m paid for it. Everything you see on my Instagram is what I create outside my client work, shot and edited in my free time. I think of the concepts, direct, and shoot them. They’re really my passion projects.”
Though Silicon Valley remains as fertile as ever for innovators, optimists and those with ideas or capital to invest, for those who live their lives through their social mediums, it is more of a gray area.
Frost, the mother of two teenagers, says that while influencing is the norm now for her and her family, if she had to go back and do it all over again, she says she might not have.
“It’s definitely not for everyone. … People online can be mean. I’ve had to work very hard and give up teaching, which is what I really loved. But going viral in 2020 came at a good time. I needed a break from everything that was going on and TikTok was a good outlet for my creativity. If social media dies out, I’ll go back to teaching. For now, I’m riding it out,” she says.
Between the influencing, content creation and now de-influencing, community still remains at the forefront of it all, especially in San José. There is power in numbers, and this mantra has become more important than ever for influencers, business owners and content creators like Frost, who are trying to retain visibility among ever-changing algorithms online.
Frost says despite all of the shifts happening online, she appreciates that social media is changing the way people relate to one another and their communities. Content creators like her TikTok collaborator Keith Lee (@keith_lee125) are using social media for good to cut through the noise, providing tangible, real-world support to local vendors and small businesses that are struggling with rising costs and post-pandemic worries.
“On a smaller scale… let’s take Keith Lee, for example. What he’s doing for small businesses with his reviews…he’s bringing in so much needed business to these small companies and restaurants by featuring them in his videos.”