As innovative as they seem, I think these up and coming social media personalities (especially, the marginalized peoples) have hard[er] times ahead. Because the more likes/followers/subscribers they see will do little, if anything to aid them as they face a glaring disconnect. Seldom do they discern that their lived realities [from which they draw reference] will remain incongruous to the faceless, gratuitous reverence of their online lives.
I find this to be a sad debacle, but the phenomenon is nothing new. Alan, Kali, and Damon** are MGMT majors who were kind enough to share some insights on this with me. They’re no strangers to social media, networks, or marketing; and their understandings of connections have been further augmented by their own anecdotes.
Together, we scroll through some of the more popular feeds; feeds filled with profiles who, in the wake of disastrous house bills and vitriolic campaigns, have ascended with viral insights and have cited their positionalities in opposition. For the most part, they’re all stars. There are few people unfamiliar with their handles, bylines, or explosive exploits. Beyond the sedentary, salaried constellations appear to be charismatic figures on the rise. Their statuses have been shared tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of times; many of which have been screenshot and shared longer and further. Some have been relayed offline to accessorize gigs and lectures. Others have been printed, then postered around to accentuate existent disparities.
The MGMT scholars I’ve met shake their heads. What strikes them are the crowdfunds, rustic crafts, and miscellaneous independent projects which are peddled by the creators—and drive home the callosity of capitalism wherein the survival of marginalized peoples is most precarious, visionary or otherwise.
It’s the paradox of social capital, I gather. It means nothing if it can’t be monetized.
Alan shrugs, then shifts in his seat: “This is the difference between people like these and celebrities.”
Alan is from El Salvador. He spent the better parts of his life backpacking through South and Central America as a volunteer for several outreach programs. He describes himself as a rolling stone: shuffled between homes and schools after his parents were murdered by the Contras. Business came some years after he became more involved in community service. He found himself alongside diverse personnel amidst various grassroots initiatives, many of whom were stretched too far and too thin. Alan resolved to take business in an effort to further aid; and he was impressed with how entrepreneurs prospered through free-access, social media technologies.
We met two years ago through an academic support network. Sharing many of the same politics, frustrations, and rants against the institution led us to become fast friends. Back then, he was relatively new to social media. Not much has changed, but he made a point to join Twitter.
“Less than a tenth of the people who are seen the most are paid the most,” he shrugs. “Nobody ever stops to think that isn’t a coincidence.”
As resourceful as most graduate students tend to be, Alan started an independent marketing company last winter. It’s one of many side jobs he’s taken since his scholarships have declined and academic employment rates have become touch-and-go. The most important yet seldom mentioned aspect of grad school is how things very rarely stay on schedule, which results in what essentially become indefinite degrees. I suspect this is why graduate admissions now require payment [bank] statements and funding outlines prior to acceptance; because the academic industrial complex need be assured students are able, regardless if they are willing to pay in the instance of whatever (or whomever) may prolong their programs.
Ceasing that tangent, I refocus on Alan’s marketing hustle. He retains several clients, all either founding independent brands or hopeful startups. Their biggest misconception, he says, is believing high numbers of likes/follows/shares are tantamount to success.
“It [this misconception] comes from celebrities,” he explains. “People see celebrities all the time. They think they’re seeing the whole picture, but that’s not even a fraction of the picture.”
“I think it’s apart of social engineering,” Kali adds. She muses about how commercials wire us to process things in a weird way, as if we’re granted an exclusive look although everyone else is also watching. Her anthropology thesis spanned surveillance and state control. What I read as the main takeaway: the irony of how it takes nothing for unseen sources to moderate hypervisible masses. Kali says her research and the humanities’ precarious job sector led to her marketing. Like Alan, she earns extra income by providing consultant social media [marketing-campaign] services. It takes very little for her to profile prospective clients.
“The thing is, business is a constant,” she states. “So is the state of crisis.”
Essentially, Kali thinks that the world hasn’t—and won’t—stop turning despite how bad things become. This is evinced in how no scale of devastation unnerves how seamlessly capital is maintained by popular culture and celebrities. It’s something Kali finds jarring to behold. She also mentioned this last year when we met at a conference, then again once we reconnected this spring.
On the surface, Kali relates to much of what’s said by these increasingly popular profiles; whose positionalities are also marginalized. However, she is cognizant of the reality that chafes beneath. Kali once comprised these ranks years ago. Before her accounts were resolutely suspended [due to notoriously faulty algorithms], then shut down after trolls doxxed her: her posts enjoyed a torrential traffic. Her virality earned her an occasional shoutout and invite to panels; and caught the eye of a publisher who solicited her manuscript. She remembers being awestruck after what felt like innumerable photo shoots, speaking events, and the odd compliment from an A- or B-lister who strayed into her mentions.
This recollection makes her eyes glassy—because it’s bittersweet. What began as a somewhat cathartic outlet to rage against the machine and pride an identity she’d concealed in her small town, became a hollow testament. All she put out in the world—for every person she’d served as fodder or inspiration—had amounted to little, if anything in return. Almost every labour or appearance had been unpaid; and she could barely afford trinkets with the rare, modest honorarium. Despite what seemed to be avid fans, her book barely sold. Her publisher shortchanged her advance: a loss she’s swallowed since it was substantially less than what she would’ve had to pay—and couldn’t successfully crowdfund—in legal fees. Moreover, her transparency had proven for the worst since she was eventually outcast from her IRL community and couldn’t garner any aid from her online one.
Kali and I have shared dark chapters with each other which I won’t detail, but I will say her spirit never ceases to amaze me. Nor does her ability to keep a clear head. In a rather objective fashion, she pegs a handful of profiles I’ve shared. Bound for hurdles, she says. That is, if they don’t log off indefinitely. She already recognizes two whose online presence have waned in the wake of IRL afflictions. She also notes their calls to aid and action which have been met with silence. Yet, their viral insights are crystallized. They continue to be shared, cited, and [I suspect] plagiarized.
Damon attributes this to the market itself. He holds a degree in communications with a minor in history. Social media, he believes, is like Hollywood. Rather, what we’re sold as the image of Hollywood. He discerns how much the picture varies from the reality: how inessential glamour or ambition are against the grain of contracts, cliques, and callbacks. Damon says going viral is a matter of making lightning in a bottle, then cultivating something steady from the static. The common ruts people find themselves in are to get hung up on trying to build the perfect storm or to glean something similar from the ensuing charge. For Damon, thinking in terms of lightning is key. The jolt is a practical metaphor. It illustrates that the means to success are just as fickle as their constituents.
Damon grew up in Buxton, North Carolina: a small town with the lion’s share of attractions in a string of islands known as Cape Hatteras. The kind of place where no nook or cranny is beyond a nodded hello or goodbye in passing. It was also the kind of place that thrived on tourism, which is how Damon came to consider business in his sophomore year. Seasons saw the town littered with what he recalls were “obscenely wealthy and wasteful” businessmen. Once he befriended their kids—who were his age at the time—he followed their suit in ways to connect, and that was how he got on social media. Intrigued by the burgeoning personalities and debacles, he resolved to explore how advertisements could abridge what he understood to be long lasting impressions.
In the winter of 2008, seemingly out of nowhere, Damon saw a dramatic shift online. Lightning had struck, then burnt out the cool kids. Scandals deposed royals whose reigns dated back to grade school. When tensions bled offline, the damage proved irrevocable. Damon recalls how the wave had been tidal, how nobody expected it; although in hindsight, he believes the outcome was inevitable. He muses that insecurity and malice underpin popularity; and that the public nature of respectability and social media graft a performative dimension which cheapen [what are purported to be] transparency or sincere messages. These elements would precipitate what people—players and onlookers alike—knew to be an unspoken creed of artifice and umbrage until they peaked to brew a perfect storm.
For Damon, this explained why and how easily the mighty had fallen—to be instantaneously replaced. He says the key in working social media to your advantage is realizing that inconstancy is the only constant. This is why many rising stars are fated to burn out. If they don’t wane under adversities on- or offline, they’re likely to dim against the lustre of shinier newcomers.
Unlike Alan and Kali, Damon works decidedly less in marketing. Odd, outdoorsy jobs—trades he’s learned from his family—make up the bulk of his extra income. In terms of MGMT, he strives for employment in the private sector. This semester is thankfully his last, he tells me.
Sifting through choice feeds, he adds: “The problem is…they forget there are people behind the profiles.”
This statement holds true as users wade through the drag culture online that fosters immediate albeit erratic esteems; a culture characterized by varying degrees of deprecation and harassment—often under the guise of tough love or comic relief as an offshoot. But Damon says this to address platformers directly; noting how particular figures peddle empowerment, but actually thrive upon the misery of others since they are unable to monetize or romanticize their own. He discerns that there’d been countless falling outs amongst the cool kids, many of which ended either amicably or in blocks. People buying their own hype is what set it ablaze, he says. Rather, too many people.
Alan, Kali, and Damon conclude that bearing in mind the people is key: real people exist within and beyond whatever discourse or canon they assume. Social media has afforded people relatively accessible platforms whereupon one might speak, be heard, and resonate apart from a world at large that silences them. It enables people to connect with one another, learn, educate, in addition to cultivating local and international initiatives.
However, the individualism of profiles is contingent upon the falsity of [what I’ll call] ‘lone supremacy’; that is, the misbelief of one being invaluable or holding inerrant mastery. Pillars within communities (however sincere or disingenuous) fail to grasp that people and therefore, ranks are interconnected. The engagement—likes and shares; subscribers and followers—that subsist profiles is no exception. Whatever social capital is generated becomes indistinct since all capital is controlled by the state. This is why voices alone prove fruitless for speakers. Mere statements, however insurrectionary or insightful, are rendered vacant once they manifest upon platforms which themselves are a form of enterprise.
Which goes back to Alan’s earlier distinction between these figures and celebrities. The latter are integral to (and consequently operant through) imperialist propaganda; endorsed by conservative corporate interests. Conservatism strives to conserve, not equalize or challenge modes of power. In contrast, independent figures tend to clamour for clout; marked by misadventures as they aspire to become ringleaders in the online circus—a futile distinction as hegemonic powers have commodified and now define the carnivalesque.
Neither prosper on their own merits, but the individual figures are discerned as particularly unremarkable. The world doesn’t revolve around them and under no circumstances will it cease to turn. Moreover, their virtual support systems are intangible; dislocated by the industrial complex wherein they struggle to survive. Those who pay them lip service pay them little, if anything else. What marks the circus is that it’s definitively performative. Whether audiences boo or applaud, their presence is always in passing. Their lives process beyond the tent. For the attractions, there’s not much beyond the ring.
Fame is a long, if not endless trivial pursuit for public figures of any variety. The same could be said about seeking validation. Catharsis is an even rarer prospect. People seem more intent to press forward than process lessons learnt from times past: another mortal flaw upon which social media thrives and exacerbates. The cursory ovation it corrals doesn’t hold up in the long run. The same can be applied to the historic decline of actual circuses which grew obsolete against entertainment technologies; and further into what derision, poverty, and isolation characterized the offstage lives of performers. We need only look at trenders to see that not much has changed in this vein.
Alan identifies this as a principle in advertising: “Everything is always great—even when it’s not. Happy or sad, people are on a soapbox.” The platforms imbue everything with a sensational aspect. People fall short as they yield wholly to the immediacy of social capital and what whims it bolsters therein, despite no operative prospect of what comes next.
Kali suspects this also relates to audience retention since the pretence disinclines people to look away. Because enmity coexists with fascination, people goad and gauge unhealthy or unrealistic behaviours. She says this is why folks muster little, if anything for the [figure’s] rise whereas they relish the downfall. This is an important dimension as marginalized peoples may be consumed as well as surveilled to the amusement of more privileged positionalities, only to be placated by saccharine acclaim. The truth is unspoken because it’s inconvenient.
As an avid reality TV fan, Damon agrees; nothing that independent figures are different than contractually obligated (and remunerated) personalities. Certain whims can be indulged within the realms they are dramatized. Lone figures aren’t so much “indulged” as they are misled to believe their adversities are mere brooks to pass. He thinks back to the circus parallel, saying that history really repeats itself.
We pride ourselves in this day and age for our “progress”; as if our modern technologies and sociological strides enable us to live easier and repress less than our ancestors. But the old world has a way of coming back to haunt us, whispering within until we are likewise aggrieved; and our foundations in life as we know it fracture, stone by stone. What we’re faced with is a myopic weight we can under which we may yield or moderate.
**Names have been changed in this story for personal reasons and to avoid associations with clientele
List of Illustrations
Swiss Landscape (1866)
Cows Under the Oak (1863)
Herd Under the Trees (1864)
In the Grove (1869)
Pine Forest (1866)
Pine on Sand (1884)
Little House in Dusseldorf (1856)
Birch Grove (1896)