Picture Credit: Gary Miller/FilmMagic

Brass and bullshit

Influencer is just another name for snake-oil salesman


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Having embarked on writing careers just as the web ripped the financial guts out of the paper industry, my idea of a good time is to phone my best mate every couple of months and bitch about how, ten years before us, even the lowliest hacks had an expense account, whilst, ten years afterwards, world-famous media types make fortunes from unboxing videos.

The abuse of language is, naturally, endemic

I’m not on TikTok. I had never heard of Clubhouse until last week. Hell, I don’t even have a LinkedIn account. Why would I? My idea of self-promotion was to post my article on Facebook. Once.

Then, last October, my friend sent me a Wall Street Journal article about a 21-year-old Texan “electronic music producer” who, having amassed 52,000 followers on social media, dropped out of college to go full-time, and in the last two years has made the best part of just under $70.

One feels for the poor fellow

Symeon Brown’s Get Rich or Lie Trying opens around the same time, 15-20 years ago, when hip-hop up-and-comer Soulja Boy used LimeWire, YouTube, and appropriated 50 Cent song titles to send his breakout “Crank That” viral. He netted himself $7 million in the process. “By design or good fortune,” writes Brown, Soulja Boy “created a formula for viral success that is still being used today by artists, companies and social media influencers.” Still, at least he was creating something.

Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy by Symeon Brown (Atlantic Books, £16.99)

That shift away from the dominance of the traditional media “generated a new global currency: influence”. The current highest-earning influencer, Kylie Jenner, can make over a million dollars from just a single post on Instagram — most often in association with brands like Fashion Nova, “a market leader in ghetto chic and timeless hoochie wear”, which has paid rappers for shout-outs (i.e. product placements) in their songs, and signed up ex-reality TV superstars such as Cardi B as brand ambassadors.

But the apparent glamour of Fashion Nova’s couture is somewhat at odds with the reality that it is hastily ripped off and poorly made in rat-infested, wage-thieving sweatshops, and by and large even marketed for nothing on — literally — the backs of young women, many of whom have paid for kit decked out with slogans of female empowerment.

The majority of Brown’s investigations into the corrosive effects of influencing are saturated with this and every other conceivable flavour of dishonesty.

For a flavour of what is involved, there are Turkish cosmetic surgeons who offer “aggressive discounts” to surgery obsessives (some of the least alluring paragraphs you’ll ever read) who then proceed to advertise on their behalf. There are also the meme-humour accounts that are built up and sold on with their followings (one offered me a dildo just the other day).

A Kylie Jenner Instagram post

Borderline non-existent dropshipping “businesses” at best sell cheap Chinese crap and at worst take your money and then simply evaporate.

“Traders” who flat-out fabricate high-flying lives, recruit — for cold, hard monetary gain — “fellow investors” to finance their own dreams, while it turns out they are living with their mothers. Inexorably, of course, we come to cryptocurrency: “A culture where nothing needs to be intrinsically valuable or true about a commodity”.

Many of Brown’s targets are little more than good old-fashioned “direct selling” pyramid schemes — “the default business model of the social media age” — get-rich-quick wannabes duped into paying fees and subscriptions for supposedly elite training/goods/access privileges.

A depressingly instructive read

In one instance, students signing up to market nutrition drinks found that 97 per cent of them would have made more in a minimum-wage job. Another company — in a nicely circular bit of legal logic — had to pay out $4.75 million in a consumer (sic) protection suit brought by its own “staff”.

And in almost every situation, from breast-implants to bitcoin, “the challenge was to make as much money as possible before the game was up”.

In this eye-watering environment of chicanery and cynicism, the abuse of language is, naturally, endemic. “Platinum 150” is the lowest rung of one particular Ponzi scheme. “Boss Babes” routinely turn out to be “young women, single mothers and housewives short of money”. When a fly-by-night plastic surgery outfit is eventually embarrassed online they respond, “Clinichub pays great attention to BODY AWARENESS and BODY POSITIVITY” [their caps].

So: where there’s bullshit there’s brass. But at least social media enables us to come together for the most obvious (and least monetisable) causes such as social justice, right?

Wrong. “The infighting between the most prominent figures attached to #BlackLivesMatter has become a lesson in how social media incentivises competition and disincentivises collectivism.” One leading light became a brand ambassador for Twitter itself. Another amassed a private million-dollar property portfolio “while publicly proclaiming socialist values”.

Dreams can be a dreadful poison, and “the addictive rewards of accruing followers by any means necessary are warping human behaviour both on- and off-line”. Influencers get their teeth, tits, and everything else done to mimic Insta filters. A modish (and highly marketable) preference for the “racially ambiguous” has even caused a few to “fake their ethnicity”.

What possesses anyone to compete in these “attention hunger games”? A late-millennial black man from a Tottenham school that gave out more free meals than it did GCSEs, Symeon Brown is well placed to empathise with the “immeasurable pressure to be rich, especially among young men and working class racial minorities”.

Boosted by mantras of Blair-era “aspiration” (“the internet’s most exploitable economy”), Brown’s generation grew up at the roiling convergence of celebrity culture, high fashion, hip-hop, and the technology explosion, and went to work between the 2008 financial crash and Covid, in a world of instant gratification where “modern apprenticeships barely pay and rarely lead to job progression”. Many of them have, if anything, gone backwards since.

It’s nonetheless noticeable that few of the chaotically-failed influencers portrayed in Get Rich or Lie Trying ever conclude that they should get a proper job. But then why would they? In the context of the current, desperate, gigging economy, a Cameroonian immigrant paid to be racially abused by livestreamers says it is “child’s play” compared to being homeless. Besides, the “hustle” ethos, epitomised by rap musicians and the likes of fraudster Jordan Belfort, is now “so pervasive that even having a well-paid job is regularly derided as selling yourself short”.

“We are all influencers now,” Symeon Brown declares. Well, no. But Get Rich or Lie Trying is nevertheless a depressingly instructive read — and the nightmare of the influencer (and “influenced”) economy is probably still only halfway through getting started. So if, as Brown asserts, social media is now “where the first draft of history is written and where the discourse that informs our civic institutions is set”, please take this opportunity to look up “Influencers in the Wild”, and see just how much trouble we’re all really in.

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