One of the biggest contradictions we have now in this day and age is social media. While it has opened up ways for us to connect, it has also managed to heighten the need for outside validation, giving birth to more and more people putting a façade online and faking it. One of the recent documentaries that explore this social dilemma is HBO’s Fake Famous. In this episode, Jason Wrobel and Whitney Lauritsen share their reactions and reflections on this thought-provoking show. How is this fakeness on social media affecting those who have been working hard to be authentic, organic, and real? How is it redefining the term “influencer”? What is it saying about capitalism and marketing? What are its effects on our mental health? Jason and Whitney explore these questions and provide insights into the lengths the influencer culture has impacted us all.
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Exploring The World Of Social Media Influencers: On HBO’s Fake Famous Documentary
One of the subjects here on the show that we love to explore is the nature of social media and how that affects people on a mental level, emotional level, level of their self-perception and the ripple effect that that has on human society. In previous episodes, we’ve gone pretty in-depth on the subject as Whitney and myself have been trying to move away from the word influencers but it’s going to come up a lot in this episode when we tell you, dear reader, what we’re going to discuss but we prefer words like content creator or impactor or other words other than influencer. By virtue of being in the food and wellness and sustainability industries for well over a decade, we’ve had a lot of experience in navigating the world of social media, which is one of the reasons why we talk about it so often.
We did a previous episode about The Social Dilemma in 2020, which is a documentary on Netflix. Whitney and I both decided to dive into a new documentary that came out on HBO Max called Fake Famous. This is a bit of a divergent path than what was discovered in The Social Dilemma but it’s definitely related in terms of the subject matter. This documentary, still fresh from watching it. I’m still digesting some of the impressions from it. It’s not that there was anything that per se blew my mind or shocked me but it reinforced a lot of the concerns and critical issues in the lengths that people are willing to go to get famous, to get attention, to leverage their numbers on social media, to parlay those into brand deals and free vacations.
We‘re going to cover all those things in this episode when we talk about Fake Famous but the thing I suppose, to me, that has stuck with me more than anything in this documentary. By the way, anybody who’s reading, there are going to be massive spoiler alerts because we are going to be dissecting this documentary in great detail. If you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t think we’re going to spoil it per se. It’s not like watching a movie. It’s not like watching End Game or a Star Wars movie where you’re like, “Don’t tell me.” We are going to dissect and get into our analyses and our emotional impressions of what we feel the impact of influencer culture is. Some of the behind-the-scenes mechanics and business practices that are going on that are feeding the illusions that wrapped up in this industry.
The thing that has stuck with me is the statistics they were discussing regarding celebrities, influencers and what percentage of their following are fake. They cover a lot of ground in this documentary around bots. For the reader, if you don’t know what a bot is, there are companies out there that are based not only in the US but in foreign countries that will have coders and programmers creating fake profiles that are run by algorithms and AI that they call bots. These are appearing to be actual people that have profiles with pictures of them and their animals and their families.
They look like regular everyday profiles of actual humans but they’re run by programmers and machines that not only you can purchase to increase your following but you can purchase likes, comments and engagement. The point of this, they were bringing up Kim Kardashian as an example of many that they estimated by some investigation that up to 50% to 60% of her following are bots, fake. This isn’t something that is beholden to the Kardashians that this is standard practice. They were saying with a lot of celebrities in building up their profiles. This documentary takes three people that have “smaller followings” and only a few thousand or a few hundred followers.
The whole documentary is an experiment in making them famous. Using these technologies of faking it until you make it is what the core message of this is. They show you the lengths that people are willing to go to and the money they’ll spend on the technology they’re used to create a completely illusory version of themselves online that has nothing to do with actual reality. The thing that I want to dig into is how much of this is going on. There are people in our industry that we’ve known for years that are doing this.
I personally am glad that this documentary came out to maybe have a more mainstream conversation with average people but it doesn’t solve anything because if you spend the money and you have the budget, you can create an extremely convincing online persona of yourself that the average person or even brands aren’t going to realize is fake. The thing is I love the message of this documentary but I don’t think it offered any solutions on how to combat this. Did you feel that way? I don’t feel like the takeaways from it, it didn’t offer any ways we can combat this.
It’s like, “Maybe you have a moral compass or you have some ethical standards. You won’t do this as, spoiler alert, one of the people profiled in this movie at the end of it said, “She didn’t feel comfortable or it was okay to keep doing this.” Other than a person perhaps cultivating a different moral or ethical standard for themselves, there’s no way I feel like we can stop this of people buying followers, creating fake profiles and creating a complete illusion of what they are. I don’t know that there is any stopping this. Furthermore, does anybody even give a shit to stop it?
Does anyone care enough to stop it? The other part of it too was there was a gentleman they interviewed who owns and runs a company that specializes in creating and maintaining these fake profiles, these bots. He was saying he was grossing something like $3 million a month. He was saying, “Some of these companies are making upwards of tens of millions of dollars a month by creating, maintaining and offering these fake profiles, these bots for people to buy and leverage. We could say we want this to stop but there’s too much money in it to stop. Who wants to stop it?” That’s the big issue here is it’s not going to stop because there’s too much money involved.
When I finished watching this documentary, I stepped back to reflect more on my involvement in all of this because so much of my life has been about social media for the past several years. I’ve worked as a content creator also known as an influencer. I’ve advised people on social media strategies and I continue to do that. I love social media as I’ve talked about before on the show. When I see things like this, it gives me a lot of pauses. The psychological ripple effects of this are dangerous for us. They are harming our mental health in ways that we might not even fully understand yet and that was the subject matter of The Social Dilemma.
When you take a deeper dive into the influencer world, I find it disturbing because I’ve always been frustrated with people who fake it. There’s a part of me that hate–watches things like this because this is so irritating. To see the statistics on it is further irritating because you recognize how much of this is fake. It irritates me for a few reasons. One, it’s been an interest of mine for as long as I can remember. I’ve been very frustrated with fakeness. I remember when I was in film school, I would write down all of these concepts for the scripts that I was writing and they often revolved around realness.
This is a subject matter that I think is close to home for me. I haven’t fully dug into the origins of it but I know that I would get irritated by things like popularity and people getting rewarded for being superficial. I would get irritated by people cheating. I would get irritated by anything that felt like it was too contrived. In film school, I was interested in writing scripts that were based on real stories. It’s interesting because I didn’t have a massive passion for documentary filmmaking. I wanted to do narrative filmmaking, which was often fictional but I wanted that to come from a real place.
As I exited the film industry and then started the work that I do now, it does feel more real in a lot of ways. You look behind the curtain and you wonder like is what feels real actually real or is it all designed to be real but not real? The other level of this that irritates me is that it affects those of us who have been working hard to be authentic organic and real. Those of us who work hard to build a community from scratch and from a place of truth.
I’m not interested in buying followers. What’s interesting about Fake Famous is it did point out some reasons I hadn’t fully considered for the fakeness. It’s like, “Maybe it’s temporary.” I had a conversation with a client and they were talking about buying followers. The reason for them doing it makes some sense because I’m completely blanking on what their reason was. I remember thinking, “I never thought about buying followers for that reason.” Some people do it very genuinely.
I was dating a guy years ago that was an actor and he bought followers for one of the reasons that are highlighted in the movie. He was finding that casting agents would give priority to actors with a certain following. I can understand how in that industry it is beneficial but it is a shortcut. It is cheating. It is fake. It hurts this industry because we start to lose sight of what’s real and what’s fake. That compromises our integrity. It also gives a benefit to people who are faking it and takes away from the people who are doing it from an authentic place.
That’s what ultimately made it challenging. It’s almost in some ways feels like it’s leveling out the playing field but not at the same time. It’s like, “Everybody now has access to big numbers if they have money to buy them.” However, it skews the entire industry. It makes it harder for people that either don’t have the money to buy followers or who don’t feel like that’s worth compromising their integrity for me. People will question whether your followers are real.
This dates back pretty far for me. I was at a conference in 2013. There was this one content creator back then who had a large Twitter following. Behind the scenes of this conference, there was so much gossip around that one person. Many of us were irritated that this person had bought them. You were able to go and run their username through a system that showed what percentage of followers were real and everyone was outraged.
This was several years ago and that had already been happening in the industry. That was before Instagram picked up speed. It’s interesting now to see this documentary because here we are several years later and it’s happening. It might continue to happen. My curiosity is, how long will this go on for? What ripple effects will it have? Are we moving towards a future where everybody is faking it? If you look at faking things, you can attribute that to so much of our lives, you can fake your appearance digitally very easily.
Deep fakes are a big concern now. Every once in a while, I stepped back and think as somebody could easily take my identity and use it and everyone would believe it was me. That can lead to destroying your career, destroying your reputation. That’s terrifying. There’s a lot of deep fakes happening in pornography now and that can ruin somebody’s life in some ways. It may even lead them to a very dark, dangerous place. I do think sadly a lot of this will be happening because of the access that we have to technology.
There’s like some deep human desire to find a shortcut. That’s ultimately what this is about. If we look at it from a survival standpoint, we have designed a society that is placing so much emphasis on status and human beings now feel like, “I can achieve the status I want completely by faking it.” Instead of taking the long road because the path I’ve been on has either been taking way too long or it doesn’t even feel possible.
You’re telling me that I can become famous overnight simply by changing my appearance or buying followers or having the right clothes, knowing the right people, all of these little shortcuts that in some ways, most of us do. I felt like after watching that movie, not only do I want to shift the way that I do things online. For instance, in 2021 and also towards the end of 2020, I’ve been working on not using filters and posting pictures of myself that weren’t edited.
For years, I used to do that stuff and it was acceptable because a lot of people do that. A lot of people use filters. I was on an Instagram live and I thought about it. I was like, “Should I use a filter?” I thought, “No, I don’t feel right about it.” There are two levels. A) I don’t want to fake my appearance and B) I feel embarrassed about using filters. If somebody can tell you’re using a filter, you’re advertising that you’re faking it or you’re insecure or something.
That doesn’t feel right for me. The person I was with I think was using a filter. I remember afterward thinking like, “Am I going to look less attractive because I wasn’t using a filter?” I’m at a point where I’d rather be perceived as less than somebody than being perceived as fake. This documentary made it very clear. Secondly, I want to start working with people like my clients that I advise on social media who don’t want to do the fake stuff, who aren’t obsessed with the metrics. I want to guide people towards more authenticity in my work because I don’t align with people that are in it for status and fame. It’s not something I want to be part of.We have designed a society that is placing so much emphasis on status. Click To Tweet
I’m curious to get uncomfortable for a second for both of us other than the filter usage, Whitney. Are there any other ways that you feel like you have been, for lack of a better word, complicit in this whole game? Other than filter usage, have you been looking at the types of content you’re posting or the kind of copy you write in the captions? I’m curious about this self–examination, self-awareness you’re cultivating, what are some other things that have come up for you? I want to hear from you so that I can start to examine maybe in some ways how I’m also complicit in this game, maybe more subtly because we haven’t bought followers. In subtle ways by you and I having been in this industry for several years, we are complicit in certain ways. What other things have come up for you other than using filters to alter your appearance?
The roots of Wellevatr, our brand, that this show is part of you and I initially, were supporting other content creators and business owners and trying to help them do it in a more authentic but also impactful way. I love that you have chosen to embrace the word impactor. I also feel like impactor and influencer are not that different from each other. It’s saying the same thing but maybe less of an icky feeling because not everybody enjoys the term influencer anymore, including myself.
You and I were focused on that with Wellevatr at the beginning. I remember when we did that speaking appearance towards the beginning of Wellevatr where we were pointing out these things about how the facial expressions people use. In fact, for the reader, in our Free Resources section, you can see a whole series that we did on social media. One of the videos in that series is about to be more authentic on social media. We’ve been passionate about this for many years now and previous to that too. I remember one of the things that we hit upon was all these poses that people do.
I don’t resonate with certain facial expressions that people use like the cliché lip pucker, mouth wide open with the teeth-baring, the certain stances and I’ve been complicit in it. You have too, Jason. There’s evidence of it online. I think about that when I post pictures. I think about the times that I’ve edited photos and it’s rough because we are often rewarded for our appearances. We feel like if we can pose in a certain way that makes us look better.
If we can use angles and lighting, filters and editing tools to make ourselves look the way that we want to look, that we will be rewarded for it. I don’t want to be rewarded for being something other than my true self. It’s tricky because it feels very vulnerable. It feels vulnerable to not wear makeup or not doing my hair a certain way and all of these different techniques that we utilize. It only feels vulnerable because I’m used to it and I see other people doing it. I’m afraid that if I don’t do it too then I won’t fit in. I’ll be ostracized.
I won’t get the rewards that I’m seeking. This even reminds me of a conversation I had with someone in Clubhouse who was talking about the keto diet. She admitted openly that she’s afraid of no longer doing the keto diet. She doesn’t want to put the weight back on. I was reflecting on that thinking like, “There is so much fear around weight,” and all these other elements of appearance. We are doing everything in our power to control our bodies and the way other people perceive them.
I’m disturbed by that. This influencer marketing side of things is another offshoot of capitalism, marketing and the way that we’ve each been conditioned to believe that we’re not good enough. We see everybody else doing things a certain way. We may be deep down don’t want to do things that way but we do them that way because we want to fit in. We want to get the results or we want to stand out. I have started to feel more and more uncomfortable with it.
Constantly examining not only my role in it but how I am perpetuating this through my work as an advisor, coach and consultant. It’s tricky because then you wonder like, “Are people not going to hire me if I don’t do these certain strategies or whatever?” Every time I have those thoughts, I have to check myself and realize deep down, I would rather be struggling financially and integrity with myself than thriving financially and out of integrity.
That feeling comes up for me every time I see something like this documentary. It triggers me to think this doesn’t feel right. That’s your gut instincts. It does feel right for them. My aim is not to judge or shame. It’s just not right. It doesn’t feel good to me. I encourage people to reflect like, “Does it feel good to you if you’re participating in this?” Even if you’re not participating, does it feel good to you to follow people who are operating from that place? I’m curious what will happen over time?
Will people like the Kardashians continue to be so influential? As long as they are, they are all perpetuating fake standards of beauty and success, to your point, Jason. There are elements of them that are impressive. I’m not against the Kardashians but certainly, they have done things that are impressive. They’ve had long careers. They are hard workers. They’re entrepreneurs. The Kardashians have each done a lot of very impressive things but they represent as a whole a lot of fake and superficial living and status that other people are trying to achieve. As long as that family is dominating social media and media in general, it’s representing the rest of the country in the world that idolizes that and wants to do that too.
One of the things that I found disturbing isn’t the right word but it’s the only word that comes to mind was how easily accessible these fake scenarios were for influencers to access. There’s a segment in the documentary where 1 of the 3 influencers that they take in this experiment of making famous takes them to a soundstage that is set up to appear like a private jet. In one other segment, an acquaintance of ours takes one of the other influencers and they rent a mansion for $600 a day, a gorgeous Los Angeles palatial mansion for $600 a day. You can rent a Lamborghini or a McLaren or Bugatti for $1,000 a day. For a very small budget, reasonably speaking, one could do a photoshoot in a fake private jet cabin.
One could rent a Lamborghini for a day or a McLaren or Bugatti and do a photoshoot with the car. There are jewelry rentals where you can rent platinum and gold jewelry. There are agencies that you can hire to basically create a fake image of yourself. It colors so much. I laugh because like in the ‘80s and ‘90s, do you remember those infomercials, Whitney, that was on when we were kids? There’s a guy that comes to mind that I remember. He was an Asian American guy who was on a yacht. He was surrounded by bikini women.
He was like, “Find out how I made millions of dollars.” There were these infomercials in the ‘80s and ‘90s of guys like him. I can’t remember his name. I remember as a kid that the idea of shysterism, faking it, using an image to sell products and someone becoming a millionaire, teaching other people how to become a millionaire. This is a scheme that’s been going on for decades. This is nothing new. This whole idea of people faking their image and people purporting something that they are not to sell products or courses or get sponsorship. What we’re experiencing, it’s on a scale we’ve never seen though. That’s the thing.
Back in the day, you had to have a significant amount of money to buy infomercial time. That wasn’t the thing that you could just go on the internet and pay $1,000 to get 50,000 followers. You can do that now. For a few hundred dollars, you can go on and buy 50,000 followers overnight. The access and the ease of that didn’t exist back then. The concept of people bullshitting their way to success and faking it until they make it. This is nothing new. This has been something that I would imagine in the pantheon of human society and hierarchy has been going on since the dawn of time. It goes to what you were saying, Whitney, which is knowing that people will be rewarded for this.Being an influencer is draining. It can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout. Click To Tweet
In the documentary, we saw small snippets of this. We saw one of the influencers getting free jewelry, free clothing and being taken on lavish, fully expensive, paid trips to do photoshoots and promote fashion brands. We saw another one who was faking being at a private gym and then getting an invite from an actual celebrity private gym to go train there for free. If people understand that through fame and popularity, they get access and power, they’re going to keep doing it because we see it all the time.
You and I have been at events or dinners or gatherings where we will see famous people getting preferential treatment. You see it at restaurants. You see it at events. You see it in every capacity of witnessing especially in places like LA and New York, famous people getting pushed to the front of the line, famous people getting their dinners comped, famous people getting free shit. I’ve told this story about Joe Manganiello on the show many episodes ago but he echoed it. He’s like, “When I moved out to LA from Pittsburgh and I was a nobody, nobody wanted to give me shit. Now that everyone knows who I am and I’m married to Sofia Vergara, people throw free cars at me, free clothes, free dinners.” That’s why people do it. They know that through fame and popularity, they will get higher recognition and they will be treated differently in our society. They will, flat out, that’s it. They’ll make more money. They’ll get more opportunities. They’ll get more auditions. They’ll get free shit. They’ll get preferential treatment.
If we talk about our complicity, Whitney, how many meals over the years have you and I had comped. I’m not throwing you and me under the bus. I’m just being real about it. You and I get sent free stuff all the time. I suppose in the pecking order of this whole system, micro-influencers or whatever bullshit term they use now. We’re not on the level of millions of followers but you and I still, we get comped meals. We’ve had free trips.
We’ve had stuff sent to us. We continue to do that. In a way, we’re not doing it through being fake but we are taking advantage of a system that rewards popularity. There are many levels beyond what you and I are doing. I remember years ago when I was personally cheffing for Jeremy Piven. We were talking cars because he’s into cars. We bonded a little bit over that. I was asking him about his Audi. He’s like, “They gave me this car.” I was like, “Audi just gave you a car.” He was driving an S5 convertible. I’m like, “Wow,” but that’s the level. It’s at that level.
Whereas in this documentary, you’re talking about Kim Kardashian where she’ll charge a minimum of $500,000 for one Instagram post. To piggyback on that since we’re talking about how the system is set up to reward people for fame and popularity, and why people are so desperate and hungry for it, there was that other social media marketing manager that said that she had paid an influencer once $80,000 for one post and two tweets. You and I have an acquaintance of ours who’s an entertainment lawyer who he told me once in confidence during a meeting, he’s like, “I paid so-and-so $50,000 for one post.”
This is why people are desperate, hungry and are willing to do whatever it takes to get there because hell, who doesn’t want to make $50,000, $80,000, $500,000 per post? What are you doing to get there? What are you compromising ethically? Is it a matter of the end justifying the means, Whitney? Where someone can say, “Yeah, I’m buying followers. I paid $80,000 for these bots but I know that I’m going to be making $80,000 per post. It’s worth the money.” It’s the end justifying the means. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in the end justifying the means if it means that you’re faking your way to the top but it is fucking frustrating to your point, Whitney. It’s fucking frustrating when you put your heart, your soul and you’re trying to be as real as you can with the self-awareness you’ve cultivated. You see colleagues of yours who all of a sudden, “How did they get to that place?” It’s defeating and disconcerting at times because you see people getting rewarded for this behavior.
The thing that I realized though on a pragmatic level. I want to speak about this from a perspective of a brand or a company that wants to hire an influencer because you and I have been on both sides. We’ve promoted brands. We continue to promote brands that we believe in and use. That’s a standard that Whitney and I have is if we use something and we’ve had it and we’ve experienced it, we can speak from a place of truth because we’ve experienced the product.
Now in the past, have I represented brands personally that I didn’t agree with for money? I have. Talk about being complicit. There are a couple of brands that come to mind that my gut said not to do it but I did it anyway because I wanted the money, just being totally real about it. You can fake likes, comments, followers, an image and the thing I’m about to say but it’s more difficult. You can’t fake sales conversion. We know people who have leveraged fake followers, bots and an image to get millions of followers. There’s one person that comes to mind. They got a huge book deal.
They came out with the book. When you look at the reviews and the comments of which I believe reviews on Amazon, as an example, are pretty indicative of how well a book has sold, generally speaking. For the millions and millions of followers, this person has, there were barely any reviews of this book that came out years ago. When I say you can’t fake sales, you can fake all this bullshit. When it comes down to it, if you have a brand that’s giving you a ton of money and expects a certain number of sales based on how they perceive your following, you don’t convert and you don’t sell, you have the potential of damaging your brand and damaging your image.
That’s another thing you can fake that too because we know there’s so much bullshit we know in this fucking industry. There’s fucking bulllshit that goes on. There’s a person who is not as prominent now but was prominent several years ago in the wellness industry. She went out and paid hundreds of people to go to Barnes & Noble, Borders when it was still open and independent bookstores to buy her books so that she would be guaranteed a spot on the New York Times bestseller list.
I know this for a fact, she spent tens of thousands of dollars to land on the New York Times bestseller list. She knew that she could leverage that to get more money as a speaker, as an author for her next book, for live TV appearances. You can gain that system too. This is frustrating. We go back to it because if you can buy your way to success, you can gain the system and go on Craigslist and post, “I need 500 people to buy my book and I’m going to pay you $50 each to do it.” You can be fucking game anything.
That’s the frustrating part. If you’re dedicated to trying to be authentic and truthful and you see people bullshitting and paying their way to the top because they have the money to do it. It can feel defeating. I do feel sometimes defeated by it, Whitney. It’s one of the reasons why I want to pull the plug on the whole thing sometimes, I do because I’m like, “What’s the point? Everyone’s just paying their way to get to the top. What else is new?”
That’s relatable. I’m sure some of the readers feel the same way. It’s hard to talk about these things because we often feel like we’re alone and there’s shame in it. There’s guilt for participating in it. From my standpoint, we can’t change the past. We have to be present and think about what we want to do now. We don’t have control over other people. Sometimes it gets frustrating. It can look at any cause. It can look at any challenge that we have as a society whether that’s racism or the environment or politics or all of these things that take a lot of people to be on the same page with, to make a change. It can feel defeating. It can feel hopeless when we personally work hard and take a stand on something and it feels like the changes aren’t happening fast enough.
A lot of the time we feel like we’re going in the worst direction. That can lead to us feeling sad, hopeless, frustrated, angry, resentful and all those different emotions that come up. After or sometimes even before I go through those emotions, I get to a place of thinking like, “What can I do? What small step can I take to contribute in a positive way? Sometimes that works for your benefit and achieves your goal of standing out because sometimes you stand out because you’re not like everybody else. There’s that advantage. As I go through different phases of my life, things become more important.You can fake likes, comments, followers, and your image, but you can't fake sales conversion. Click To Tweet
One thing I reflect a lot on is how a lot of this influencer culture is dominated by younger people. Many of us go through a phase in our inner teens and twenties where we want to be validated. We want to be important. We want to be famous. I remember as a teenager and a preteen, I wanted to be an actress and I wanted to be famous. That was so important to me. Every day I would think about it. I grew up in a small town. I didn’t have social media or YouTube or any of these outlets that teenagers have now. I imagine that it’s intense for these teenagers because not only are they probably going through the same emotions that you and I did as kids, Jason, but they’re presented with opportunities that you and I didn’t have. That might make things worse because they see kids their age becoming incredibly successful as we did. We had child stars and all of that growing up and we thought, “If so-and-so can do it so can I.” I remember thinking like, “I need to get into acting and have an agent.” Going down this whole path of interest in that world but felt challenging.
Now, we hear stories of people being discovered on platforms like YouTube and TikTok and on and on. It feels within our control in a new way. These kids, as in the documentary talked about like such a high percentage of them, their dreams for their careers are to be influencers because they see how flashy this life is. You brought up, Jason, so many examples as you and I went on a cruise for free in exchange for our influence. I had a car for however many months, 6 to 9 months for free because of my influence. I’ve received many things over the years because of my social media presence.
Now, granted I’ve mostly looked at that as marketing tools. I do think there was a fair exchange in most cases happening because the cruise, for example, you and I spoke on the cruise and we are professional speakers. We’re bringing a value beyond our numbers, doing the car. I’m creating video content because I went to film school and I have a whole background in film production. The videos I make are perhaps even more valuable than the influence especially that I had back then. I try to look at it as not the number side of things.
I try to share my experience, my talents, my skills, the things that I’m producing are far more valuable than my influence. What most people see are the numbers. There’s so much emphasis on that. These teenagers and kids of all ages, even much younger, are seeing people get free things, free experiences, get rewarded socially for their status, their appearance and they’re getting money for it. It sounds great and easy. One thing Fake Famous did a good job at is showing that this isn’t easy. It’s a lot of work.
I love that segment in the movie where they go on that road trip and they’re in Vegas. The girl in the documentary is looking around at the influencers and she’s like, “It sounds cool to do this full-time but these girls are working hard.” You see them on their computers and they’re taking the business cards and strategizing. I’ve been there. It’s a lot of work. I feel like my numbers aren’t super high because a lot of times I wasn’t willing to put in that work. I‘m not willing to work on my Instagram and YouTube accounts on and on for twenty hours a day.
Some people do. Some people are working for twenty hours and sleeping for four hours. They are sacrificing everything in order to make it at what costs after being in this world for so long. What you and I can share with other people who are interested in being influencers is that it is draining. It can lead to anxiety, depression and burnout. I’ve seen more influencers than I could count who have ended up in bad mental places because of the pressure, the depression that comes along with reaching these high numbers and still feeling empty. That’s not talked about nearly enough.
We see all of the perks of influencer marketing but we don’t focus on the drawbacks of it. The mental health side of this is daunting. Over time, we will see more and more people talking about it just like there are a lot of studies coming out about child actors. There are documentaries about that too. In fact, one came out in 2020. A child actor made a documentary about the impact that being a celebrity at a very young age had on their life.
You see drug addicts. You see people going to rehab at young ages and you see people doing harm to their bodies. I watched another documentary about Britney Spears. The New York Times did one on her. It’s the same thing. This documentary does such a great job at laying out Britney Spear‘s whole history. You see this sweet, talented little girl transform into a woman and all of the shit that she went through that sucked away her soul as far as we can tell.
It’s sad. Seeing something like that makes me grateful that I didn’t have that path. When I was growing up, myself and many girls my age thought that Britney Spears was the be-all, end-all. Girls now see all these big influencers and celebrities and they think they’re the most incredible thing. They look up to them. They want to be them. They want a career. They create their Instagram accounts, their YouTube channels and on and on without realizing what happens after 10, 20, 30 years of being in that industry.
In some ways, you’re doing a deal with the devil. There are terrifying people in these worlds too. That’s the other triggering side of this, Jason. There are many people in these worlds, both on the media celebrity side and the influencer celebrity side, you and I come across them all the time. I get emails almost every single day of someone wanting to use me for something or another, “Create this video and you’ll get our products. We’ll give you publicity or we’ll give you free things if you only just spend ten hours slaving away on a video using all of your talents that you paid good money for in film school.”
The things that people want me to do, to take advantage of all my hard work and all of this community. To your point, Jason, I often step back and think, “This isn’t just about me. This is about the integrity that I’ve created for our readers, for the people on Instagram that I truly care about, for the audience on YouTube, on TikTok. I don’t want them to be a number.” That to me is the other side of this that we don’t play so much time on.
If I’m going to play all these games and maybe in a way it feels ethically easier to have bots because you’re advertising to fake people. When you recognize that the people behind your following are real people with real emotions, who follow you because there’s something within you that they either aspire to be or they admire or they relate with. The mental impact that you place on them when you’re constantly advertising to them and manipulating them to try to get them to like the things that you do and follow it and to place purchases.
That was the other thing and the final thing I’ll touch upon in this documentary is that Fake Famous talks about how influencers are part of the marketing machine. We play a major role in capitalism trying to get people to do things in a way are we puppets in the influencer world that the big brands are controlling by paying the money and giving them products saying, “We‘ll entice you with this thing that you want so that we can reach your audience.” I would rather have bots in that case. Maybe that was part of my point. It’s like, “If it’s just a numbers game, maybe bots are a better way to go because I don’t want to be part of manipulating other people so that I can get somebody else more money.”
I loved Justine Bateman in this documentary because even though she wasn’t prominently featured, the things that she said were poignant. One of the things that cut deep for me, one of the many golden nuggets she dropped of wisdom was that to paraphrase what she said. It’s like, “You’re not an artist. You’re not a famous person who’s being rewarded for your talent and your time and working on your craft for years and years. A lot of these influencers are essentially infomercial hosts.” That’s the terminology she used. You are pitch people. You’re a brand pitch person. You’re an infomercial host. I feel like a lot of my career I’ve been that. I’m not using it as an opportunity to beat myself up.Most influencers are just marketing ambassadors for brands to sell. Click To Tweet
I feel sad about it because I feel like in some ways that a lot of people in our industry and this is by virtue of how I’ve chosen to be, they want me to show products. They want me to be a pitchman. They want me to be like, “This thing can wipe up ten times more water. Look at how it works.” I’m a modified fucking pitch person. I don’t want to be that anymore. I’ve done it so much. I’m not doing this to be hard on myself but to your point and to what Justine Bateman said in this documentary, it’s pretty much on point. Most influencers are marketing ambassadors for brands to sell shit. It’s not that I haven’t believed in the things that I’ve sold but there’s been a reductive effect of, “He’s fun. He’s great on camera. He’s entertaining. He’s the fun guy. Have him sell the blender, have him sell the protein powder.”
In certain ways, I have felt an infomercial host and that’s of my own doing, that’s of my own choosing but legit, I don’t feel good about it anymore. It’s not interesting. It’s not creative. Even when I do believe in a product, I still feel to your point kind of icky about it. I’m a cog in the marketing machine. I don’t know that we can get around marketing and commerce. It’s so embedded in the capitalist system that what I’m saying, as we explore this, there’s got to be a better way to do it. Like you, I’m taking a critical look at how I want to move forward and how I want to present myself.
In many ways, the ways that I have been presenting myself and the way that I have been doing business, I don’t want to do it anymore. My heart is not in, it doesn’t feel good to me anymore in certain ways. This is all food for thought, this examination, all these documentaries that are coming out, all the mental health studies that are coming out around social media and influencer culture. This is something we need to take seriously. We need to ask ourselves critical questions of, “How are we complicit in this? How are we feeding the machine? Is what we’re contributing good ultimately or is it fodder for a system that isn’t benefiting people in the long run?”
These are the deeper questions we need to ask ourselves. For you, dear reader, we want to hear from you always especially when we’re getting into deeper ramifications of how these things work on society. We always love to hear from you. If you have any thoughts on influencer culture or how social media is affecting us or any of the subjects we talked about, we love to get personal emails and our email to reach Whitney and me is Hello@Wellevatr.com. You can also go to our website for that video series that Whitney mentioned in this episode about how to have a more heartful, authentic presence on social media. That’s in the Free Resources section on our website, which is Wellevatr.com.
We want to hear from you. Any ways that maybe we can show up for this conversation in a more honest, open, heartfelt, authentic way and maybe start to steer the boat in a different direction. The direction that all of this is going, I personally don’t feel great about and I want to figure out how to do it differently. That’s all of us as a collective community having that conversation. If you also feel like this boat is not headed in a great direction, we want to know some solutions from you too so we can discuss. We love you. We appreciate you going into these deep conversations with us. They’re extremely meaningful to Whitney and me. We hope they’re meaningful to you too. Thanks for getting uncomfortable with us. Thanks for being open to a lot of the stuff Whitney and I had to share. We‘ll be back again with another episode. Thanks for reading.
*We use affiliate links in our show notes. This means we receive a small sales commission if you purchase an item based on our recommendation.
- Fake Famous Documentary
- The Social Dilemma Documentary: A Closer Look at Sociale Media and Technology – Previous episode
- Free Resources from Wellevatr
- A Raw Conversation About Money: Seeing Wealth Beyond What Meets the Eye – Previous episode (featuring Joe Manganiello)
- [email protected]
- Wellevatr Free Video Training Series
- Framing Britney Spears – NY Times article
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