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Does capitalism cultivate influencer cults?

A culture driven by clicks, fame and money has a darker side behind those viral moments

Picture from David Dobrik’s Instagram @/davidobrik

To discuss influencers, YouTube titans, and viral moments it would be difficult to not jump to David Dobrik. The Vine Star turned six-second videos into an empire. This empire became known as the “Vlog Squad” — the epitome of the American Dream, where a child of an immigrant can become a multi-millionaire celebrity living in mansions, partying with the biggest stars in L.A, and enjoying the life most can only crave of having.

But in the world of social media where attention spans are shorter than ever and these viral moments pay for these insane lifestyles — toxic environments are cultivated. For David Dobrik and the Vlog Squad, their stunts got more outlandish, their pranks became absurd, and the Squad evolved into a cult.

While cult may seem like an extreme way to describe a gang of YouTubers, the world finally shone a light on the charismatic leader who had orchestrated traumatic events in the promise of clicks, fame, and money. These included allegedly filming an underaged girl being doused with alcohol and raped, a black content creator being tricked into kissing somebody he didn’t consent to, and a nearly fatal motorbike stunt. Most recently there was a near-death experience where a fellow member of the Vlog Squad, Jeff Wittek, was swung into an excavator almost killing him and causing brain damage, facial disfiguration, and an ongoing battle to keep his eye. Who was operating the excavator with a camera in his hand? David Dobrik.

Photo by Luan Cabral on Unsplash

When your whole world relies on a content creator to push out videos that will give you attention — allowing you to continue with this dream lifestyle, the line of rationality becomes blurred. Dobrik would allegedly pressure smaller content creators to make “bits” better, encouraging them to drink more, to jump higher, to be more outrageous. If you didn’t? You wouldn’t be featured in the videos causing you to become a has-been. The idea of cultural relevancy in the influencer sphere develops toxic environments, all so the rich can continue to get richer, most commonly off the backs of smaller creators who have the idea of the American Dream instilled in their brains.

What defines a cult?

Holly Meyer from the Tennessean defines a cult as “A group or movement held together by a shared commitment to a charismatic leader or ideology.”

While the Vlog Squad isn’t an isolated case of an influencer group with a cultish atmosphere, it is one filled with scandal and trauma. Jeff Wittek has only recently left the Vlog Squad. Even after the life-changing accident, he continued to stay loyal to Dobrik. The other members have blindly defended his every action including claims of racism and encouraging sexual assaults. It is worth noting that the vlog squad members have financial ties to the YouTube mogul including ties in stocks and shares and reliance on Dobrik to keep them “relevant.”

These power imbalances are a common form of manipulation used by cult leaders to keep their subjects loyal.

The cult of capitalism

In the late stage capitalistic society that we currently live in, we are living in a world where humans blindly submit to a system that prioritises privatisation, profit, and work over the social needs of the mass.

When the combined net worth of the world’s 250 richest individuals is more than the total annual living expenses of three billion people, we are living in a world that produces power imbalances, poverty, and an environment susceptible to manipulation and abuse.

The people in this system that benefit from the said system will also preach to those who look up to them. Molly Mae stating that “we all have the same 24 hours in a day”, is an example of this. Kim Kardashian is also guilty of evangelising capitalist rhetoric to her followers; “nobody seems to want to work these days”. These keep people idly believing in an economic system that fails the majority.

The American Dream, the concept that began as a synonym to equality, has evolved into a metaphor for capitalism. Brian Ott and Robert Mack said that ideology is “a system of ideas that unconsciously shapes and constrains both our beliefs and behaviours” — it could be argued that the American Dream does this exact thing to the working classes, at the benefit to the billionaire class.

The idea of the American dream ingrains the myth that poverty is a choice, being at the bottom is temporary, and that meritocracy is real. It ignores the very fact that most wealth is generational and not earned. Why? the idea of taxing the rich seems less appealing if you have been brainwashed into believing that you are one step away from being affected by it yourself.

This falls hand in hand with influencer culture. Dobrik’s millions of followers most likely believe that they too can achieve what they have. He shills off his merch to his loyal fans and promotes questionable brands. Those in the Vlog Squad remain trapped in this cycle, occasionally picking up sponsors of their owns and being gifted free Teslas by Dobrik — it breeds toxicity, blind loyalty and desperation.

The toxicity of influencer culture was inevitable

With all this considered, a culture that strives off money, fame, and clicks — it was inevitable to become a toxic sphere. With Team Ten, The Vlog Squad, and The Hype House just to name a few of these “mutually beneficial” influencer groups that only exist with the promise of money and success.

You have friendship groups that only exist because of content, relationships that have brand deals intertwined with them, and an evolving environment that is trying to outgrow everybody around them. The toxicity and danger become inescapable. It’s a concentrated whirlpool of capitalism that facilitates the most powerful.

Content, content, content

The social media climate mixed with capitalism has created these influencer cults. The commodification of art and content has made creativity lose its worth. It is now more profitable to create outrageously, offensive, easy content than well thought out, innovative content. Ten-second TikTok dances are monetised more than articles. A sponsored Instagram post gets more engagement than video essays. A Dobrik style stunt is more popular than a video essay. NFTs are invested in more than small artists. Ironically, the commodification of art has made art less valuable. Cultural milestones are scarce, creative careers don’t cover the cost of living, and creatives are disregarded.

It’s hard to imagine a future where these influencer cults don’t spawn at an alarming rate. The power ultimately lies in the hands of the platforms that individuals make a living on, primarily the executives that also benefit from content creators like Dobrik, creating a harmful loop of money, fame, and relevance.

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