I was out for a walk the other day when a lovely young woman came around the corner towards me. It is general etiquette these days when you’re about to pass someone on the sidewalk that one or the other of you will move to the side to create the recommended 2m distance. The person who didn’t move says, “Thank you,” the person who did says, “No problem,” and you continue on your respective ways firm in the knowledge that the unspoken social contract is intact. This young woman, however, was absolutely engrossed in her phone, so much so that she didn’t even realize I was there. I jumped over a snowbank onto the road when it became clear that she was not going to move, and said a rather snarky “You’re welcome” as she passed. That got me wondering, after my initial annoyance had abated, exactly what she was looking at with such rapt attention.
I have never been one to follow social media. I check Facebook a couple of times a day, but do not even have Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok accounts. None of these thing have ever interested me in the least, and I only use my phone to text people and to play music – it has never functioned as a pocket computer for me as it does for so many others. My guess is that the young woman who was completely oblivious to my existence was caught up in one or another of these apps, which begs the question of what it is that makes them so damned interesting.
It seems logical that social media sites evolved from reality TV, which itself has changed dramatically over the past decade. The only reality television I ever watched with any regularity was the Food Network. I began watching Food in the early 2000s, and at that time almost all of its shows were instructional. Ina Gartner was very congenial and had great recipes, Anna Olsen was a master baker and incredibly creative, and my favourite, Nigella Lawson, employed a wonderfully rich and evocative vocabulary when describing her food, and was, like me, a little more slap-dash in her approach. She was also an unapologetic eater – every episode ended with Nigella, clad in pyjamas and a robe, brazenly launching a late night raid on her fridge to gobble up leftovers with wild abandon. Women are not usually shown eating with such relish, and I always found it incredibly cheering and liberating to see a beautiful women displaying such a devil may care attitude about her love of food.
I became a much better cook thanks to the Food Network, but about 10 years ago its programming began to change. Chefs were replaced by cooks who in turn were displaced by hosts. Instructional shows started to dwindle, and shows featuring cooking competitions and restaurant reviews and makeovers became the norm. Food morphed from a place where cooking enthusiasts could improve their skills into a network full of mindless programs, many of which bore only a tangential relationship to food. This trajectory has been mirrored on other networks that started out being educational like HGTV and TLC, and this trend capitalizes on the voyeuristic nature of our species. Why do something when watching someone else do it requires no effort yet can be equally diverting?
CEOs of social media companies have simply picked up where reality TV programmers left off, but they have added a brilliant and addictive new twist. For years I have been baffled by people in crowds who act like attention seeking idiots as soon as a camera is pointed in their direction – partly because their behaviour is often embarrassing, but mostly because I would simply never consider acting that way. I am an intensely private person, and despite having for decades seen masses of crowd members jump up and down and pull faces for the camera, I always assumed that those individuals were the exception and most people were like me. Turns out I had it backwards all these years – the average person not only likes watching others on film or TV, but they would do almost anything to be seen themselves. The men who designed social media sites cleverly exploited this common desire and thereby secured their immediate and lasting success while ensuring ever rising profits.
For some time now there have been many individuals who are famous for being famous. I think the first person I was aware of who fit this description was Paris Hilton. Her position as a well known socialite led her to being dubbed “New York’s leading It Girl” by the tabloids in 2001, and her fame exploded when a sex tape featuring her and her boyfriend was “leaked” in 2003. She starred in the vapid television series The Simple Life with fellow socialite Nicole Richie for five years, and the show regularly drew up to 13 million viewers. Hilton is sometimes called out for her uselessness, like when she was named the most overrated celebrity in the 2007 Guinness World Records, but her fans still slavishly love her. She was the first to be dubbed a celebutante – a portmanteau used to describe someone who has become famous not through talent or work, but rather because of inherited wealth and a lavish lifestyle. I think most would agree that this term applies perfectly to Donald Trump as well.
The Kardashians are the most recent and successful iteration of the celebutante phenomenon, led by momager (mother/manager) Kris. Here is a woman who is perfectly content commodifying her children, even turning a profit when her second eldest daughter Kim’s sex tape was somehow “leaked” to TMZ in 2007. Eventually the tape landed in the lap of a porn company that released it under the title Kim Kardashian, Superstar. Kris advised her daughter to sue. In the end they allowed the company to continue playing the film, thus increasing the family’s fame and bankability, and received a $5 million settlement for damages. Kris then parlayed the notoriety gained from the tape into the incredibly successful show Keeping up with the Kardashians, which ran for more than a decade and made the family $30 million per season the last five years it ran – all for just allowing themselves to be filmed as they led their lives. Meanwhile the Kardashian and Jenner children have become Instagram darlings, with the youngest, Kylie, becoming a billionaire at 21 thanks to the cosmetics she hawks to her more than 200 million followers.
Instagram stars are known as influencers. I was curious how many followers one needs to become an influencer, but the numbers I found were all over the map. My understanding after reading several articles is that you earn the moniker as soon as you begin to represent a brand. The whole point of posting on Instagram is to amass likes and followers, and some people do so as a way to launch a company or service. I read more than one piece featuring entrepreneurs who achieved success through their savvy use of the platform, and I applaud their initiative. Most people, however, are hoping to be influencers to feed their egos, and to gain swag. Many businesses have employees whose sole job is to scour social media looking for people who fit their brand. Once these individuals are found the company sends them free wares on the understanding that they will tag and feature these products in their posts. The company thereby receives advertising at no cost, and the newly coined influencer gets free stuff. The term influencer is actually just a fancy word for salesperson, the only difference being that they are paid in merchandise rather than money.
I recently watched a documentary on HBO called Fake Famous which explores Instagram and the explosion of influencers it has spawned. The film was written, produced, and directed by Nick Bilton, a tech reporter who often writes for Vanity Fair. Fake Famous opens with vignettes of dozens of different people taking selfies in front of an expansive, bubblegum coloured wall in Los Angeles. Bilton’s voiceover notes that this wall has been the backdrop to so many pictures in the last few years that it has become the largest tourist draw in the entire city. He then goes on to describe a recent change in the goals of American children. Whereas their top answers to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” used to be astronaut, teacher, and doctor, now their number one answer is famous. They don’t necessarily want to be famous for anything – no skill or effort or achievement – they just want to be famous. This new aspiration comes from somewhere, and Bilton suggests that the ready fame made possible by social media has made it a part of the zeitgeist. The overwhelming desire to be seen and known explains the unprecedented popularity of a blank, pink wall in a city which is home to such iconic sites as The Walk of Fame, the Hollywood sign, and Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Everyone wants to be famous, and there is no better avenue to reach that goal than Instagram.
Bilton is fascinated with the rise of Instagram, and Fake Famous records his efforts to make regular people into influencers. He holds auditions and eventually chooses three subjects for his film – Wylie is an anxious young homosexual who recently arrived in LA looking for a broader gay community and work as a model or actor; Chris is a confident black man who already has a bit of a following for his custom designed clothing; and Dominique is a pleasant if rather bland young actress who has landed a few small roles in student and independent films. These three all agree to be part of Bilton’s experiment.
Evidently many Instagram posts are counterfeit. People use inexpensive techniques to give the appearance of living the high life, and Bilton employs several of these in the initial photo shoot with his subjects. He holds a toilet seat behind their profiles to mimic the window in a plane, he puts cucumber slices on Dominique’s eyes then has her lay her head in a kiddie pool full of rose petals as though she were at an exclusive spa, and he poses Wylie seemingly choosing from a tray of large chocolate bonbons which are in actuality generous pats of butter sprinkled with cocoa powder. The more glamorous an Instagram story appears to be, the more people will buy into it.
The next part of the plan involves purchasing bots to pad the number of followers on the three subjects’ Instagram feeds. I had heard about bots and their dissemination by Russia to sway opinions about, and the ultimate course of, the 2016 American election, but I didn’t know what they actually were. Bots are basically electronic amalgams, or virtual identities, which are made by bringing together bits of information garnered from the profiles of real people who have an online presence. One woman’s occupation, plus another guy’s hometown, a third person’s face, and another’s name all come together to form a convincing yet completely made-up individual. There are numerous companies whose sole purpose is to create and sell bots without any regard for how their product will be used. Bilton deploys the bots he buys to increase the followers on the sites of his three subjects, and also to bolster their likes and comments. This is evidently fairly common practice on Instagram, and seems to fall under the heading “Fake it til you make it.” In other words, the more followers you have, the more you are likely to get, so padding your viewership in the beginning only makes sense.
Two of Bilton’s subjects leave the experiment at this point. First Wylie goes because the combination of waiting for likes plus having to weather negative comments makes him unbearably anxious. Next Chris, who feels he will be genuinely famous before long for his clothing designs anyway, finds that he can’t stand the phoniness of the enterprise and drops out. That leaves only Dominique, whose inoffensive demeanour and willingness to play along in short order make her into a genuine influencer. She begins to receive all kinds of swag which she dutifully features in her posts, which leads to more and more products rolling in. At one point she works with an established influencer who has, with Bilton, rented an empty mansion for the day’s shoot. She helps Dominique choose clothing to bring to the event and the two of them don various outfits throughout the day as they travel from room to room having their pictures taken. It all seemed rather surreal and ridiculous to me, especially considering that this is actually how more and more people are making a living – putting up pictures of themselves in the hopes that companies will pick them to shill their products. Weird.
I discussed this documentary with a former colleague a couple of weeks ago, which prompted her to relay the following story. She was recently at Winners with a friend, and as they wandered through the store they repeatedly encountered a pair of young women. While my friend and her companion conversed as they walked, the young women were busy independently filming the products around them and then repeatedly stopping to talk to the camera about what they were doing and seeing. I have encountered people acting in a similar fashion – filming their surroundings and themselves while engaging in the most mundane of tasks. As strange as I find this behaviour in and of itself, odder still is the fact that others avidly watch these films, or stories, as Instagram calls them. Not only do they watch them, but they actively search them out. My mother used to say that watching boring programs was “about as interesting as watching paint dry,” and in my estimation, the film those young women took at Winners that day falls squarely into this category. Why in hell would I waste my time watching people shop? What is the appeal?
I doubt that anyone knows the answer to that question. I’m pretty sure that social media companies don’t, but they are laughing all the way to the bank nonetheless. They couldn’t possibly have predicted in the beginning just how hypnotic and consuming their sites would become. After all, the explosion and influence of social media is a real-time experiment we are all currently living through. I fear that this cultural obsession with hollow fame and irrelevant content is distracting people from larger issues of concern, such as growing income disparity and the climate crisis. On the other hand, it is young people, the ones who seem most obsessed with their phones and social media, who are leading the charge for positive, systemic change. Maybe they can multitask after all. Let’s hope so.