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Invasion of the Influencers

We’re under social media assault from paid personalities willing to sell us anything — even a music festival that doesn’t exist

Nathaniel Allen
Apr 26, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo: DisobeyArt/Getty Images

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How would you like to kick off your summer at the world’s most exclusive private island, surrounded by beautiful models and celebrities coming together to experience the same transformational weekend?

The promises forever tied to the catastrophic Fyre Festival may sound outlandish now, but that’s only because the scar is still visible from our collective blunder. Expectations of five-star luxury and bikini beauties delivered by private jets were quickly dashed as the supposed #fomo event of the century went viral for all the wrong reasons. Billed as the exclusive alternative to music festivals like Coachella, Fyre is now the most famous scam in the age of the social media influencer.

Rather than being another footnote on the list of failed music festivals, Fyre serves as a cruel display of the digital economy, providing a cautionary tale about the deception inherent in modern marketing tactics. Organizers achieved an unprecedented amount of hype by deploying over 400 “Fyre Starters,” paid or otherwise seduced social media personalities, to synchronously post the same jarring orange square to their profiles. The posts directed viewers to the Fyre promo clip, essentially a high-def fantasy video featuring the world’s most expensive collection of video vixens. The media coverage that followed acted as little more than clever advertising copy.

It’s easy to mistake today’s paid advertisements as a genuine attempt to connect.

The idea of finding the right “it” girl to sell your product is tried and true in America, and Fyre simply took the strategy to new heights by bringing all of them together for one glitzy product launch. (Kendall Jenner, for her part, was reportedly paid $250,000 for just one Instagram post.) The difference between the influencers of the digital economy and celebrity endorsements of the past, however, is that it’s easy to mistake today’s paid advertisements as a genuine attempt to connect with fans.

Using Instagram models to dupe rich twentysomethings into shelling out for a music festival that doesn’t exist is extreme, but subtle and pervasive advertising has continued to fester in our social feeds since Fyre blew up. The digital world also has a clear ranking system that bestows benefits on a sliding scale according to follower count. Amid the chaos of Fyre, some influencers were still entitled to private bungalows and VIP amenities. For the rest, let them eat cheese on bread.

Earlier this year, dueling documentaries from Netflix and Hulu offered an inside look at the calculated deception and gross incompetence that led to a bunch of marooned millennials fighting over FEMA tents. Festival leadership, instead of preparing logistical solutions to the chaos, were depicted as spending the sinking moments of the Titanic deleting comments and hashtags that would spoil their image. Skepticism and uncertainty from decent employees subjected them to public flogging for a lack of brand positivity.

Such absurdity shows that the marketers have won the day, that likes and comments have replaced real-world delivery. Regrettably, one leaves the films unsure of who to blame, largely because this grand public fleecing comes not from known enemies like evil government or Madoffian schemers, but from us, the tweeting masses.

Given the power of the social media economy, it’s easy to forget that it has only recently taken crystallized form. Just four years ago, a technology writer at the Atlantic still had high hopes for the overall quality of Instagram, referring to it as an “almost serene” social media platform that “achieves something like intimacy” among users. But even then, the influencer invasion was beginning. The following year, Kylie Jenner posted a FitTea shot that exposed the brand to her then 59 million followers and gained FitTea nearly 3,000 new followers of its own, according to data reported by Racked. Such product placement became the ultimate sign of star power, resulting in top influencer Kendall Jenner earning a reported $26.5 million for just 53 sponsored Instagram posts in 2018.

What started as the buxom and buff selling beauty and fitness “hacks” is also evolving into something potentially more serious. Last year, Wired reported that an app offering a “therapy-like service” had paid YouTube influencers to encourage followers to sign up for a form of video counseling. While the infomercials were presented as a message of positivity for fans, a more cynical view is that many of these influencers were exaggerating their own anxiety and depression to profit off their viewers’ insecurities. For marketers, the strategy remains the same no matter the medium. Have the impossibly fit sell weight loss, the charismatic sell mental health, and the pampered, Spanxed, filtered, and Photoshopped sell natural beauty.

Unless you are on the right side of 10,000 followers, hawking products and hashtags, you are just another advertising target.

There is, after all, a considerable rush in thinking that a favorite artist or celebrity may just react or respond to your comment this time. Whether it was actually them, an intern, or a bot hardly matters. This false camaraderie is one of main tenets of “influencer 101” as these paid personalities delicately work their sponsored inceptions, seemingly without guilt. Fyre used this gray zone to great effect, establishing a cultural moment out of thin air, promising to let you in on the secret life of the rich and famous.

The Fyre debacle may have increased awareness of our modern predicament: Unless you are on the right side of 10,000 followers, hawking products and hashtags, you are just another advertising target. A New York Times piece on “nanoinfluencers” hints that the younger generation sees this distinction, and feels pressure to “make it” online.

These digital hustlers, mostly in their twenties and thirties, make up for their small follower counts with grand ambitions. As one such innovative entrepreneur, a 34-year-old woman promoting a skin care brand, describes it, “I feel kind of like an infomercial, and I’m generally kind of uncomfortable pushing things on people. But I’ve seen a return on that, albeit small.” Apparently, the digital age means being converted to an infomercial in exchange for free lotion and some extra cash.

Even Burning Man, a festival that has earned a reputation as an anti-capitalist haven of free-spirited creatives, is apparently not immune to this sort of social media assault. To prepare for their event this summer, festival planners have issued a detailed decree as an official act of aggression against invasive influencers:

In the spirit of Decommodification, you may not use Burning Man, Black Rock City, or any imagery from the event to promote a product, service, or brand. The playa is not a backdrop for your business!

In recent years, a growing number of “burners” have displayed photos flaunting desert-rigged scooters, dustproof lotions, and gilded steampunk, all hashtagged backdrops for monetized personal brands. This career path is the work that defines our new era, leveraging your digital image to sell online ads to followers. Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell, however, writes that the festival “strives to stand in technicolor contrast to the typical consumerist, status-driven, brand-saturated, optimized-for-your-convenience world.”

Influencers may be useful in overthrowing the old media tyrants, but it is only to establish a tyranny of their own.

The Burning Man declaration is one of the first official bans directed toward the parasitic influencer economy that is often based on using the stunning work of others to attract eyeballs to unrelated moneymaking schemes. This scam has carried on for years, but perhaps is reaching a breaking point as high-profile frauds such as Fyre excite the public’s ire.

Influencers may be useful in overthrowing the old media tyrants, but it is only to establish a tyranny of their own: culture, governed by the whims of social media stars, governed by the laws of viral economics. Soon we will be hounded by ads as relentlessly as in the science fiction film Minority Report. Instead of having our eyeballs barcoded into the grid for safety, though, we’ve done it without coercion, fueled by voracious appetites for frivolous entertainment and self-validation.

Making matters worse, the altered, enhanced, and exaggerated are increasingly undetectable, or simply too commonplace for us to care. Despite being the primary feature of our digital reality, preliminary research suggests we aren’t very good at detecting altered images. Most frightening is the effect on the young and impressionable, who are imprinted with a daily barrage of unachievable physical and material standards.

In a recent Guardian article, an aesthetics doctor in the U.K. reveals that a growing number of his clients have been requesting procedures to resemble their filtered image, an ailment dubbed “Snapchat dysmorphia.” For once, the very same tools used by the super rich are available for one and all. Where patients once brought in pictures of celebrities to model their noses or jawlines, they are now pointing to their filtered selves.

Like much of the entertainment industry, the top percentage of influencers make an exorbitant amount of money, while the rest are forced to take advantage of any opportunity for a viral image or tweet. Another Netflix feature, American Meme, paints a surprisingly depressing portrait of influencers going about their business and reflecting on their notoriety. Kirill Bichutsky, who goes by @theslutwhisperer on Instagram, was forced to post responses to his fans letting them know he was in no danger of self-harm once the footage was released. As a glorified “Girls Gone Wild” redux, his main shtick is to get obscenely drunk in clubs and post clips of his adventures for others to enjoy vicariously.

Paris Hilton, perhaps the first influencer, is the star of the film. In one memorable scene, she defends the craft, remarking that while it’s a shame that face-to-face life has deteriorated in the wake of digital economics, at least celebrities can now publish their own narrative, disrupting the tabloid business. However, there is no rest in a global social media market where the competition is endless. Paris laments, “I’ve been a 21-year-old for the past two decades. It’s all part of an image and a brand and being a product.”

The ghost of happiness past is apparent in even these wildly successful digital stars. Hilton, now 38, admits that the stress of pleasing fans has taken a toll on her personal life as the digital persona and whatever is left of her “self” grow further apart. Unwilling to hit delete and retire to the Bahamas, though, she has a more befitting solution: virtual reality. Taking exceptional care in scanning her every curve and perfection, she is filmed building an avatar that will allow fans all the partying, hanging out, and shopping they wish they could do with the real Paris, all from the comfort of their couch.

“It looks so real that you actually feel like you’re there,” she says.

Almost real — the moniker of the new age.

Nathaniel Allen

Written by

Writer and Researcher based in Washington DC. Twitter @unfshnable_guff

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