At a time when public trust in traditional institutions is collapsing, our fascination with scams and those who perpetuate them seem to be intensifying.
The age of social media is a cultural fascination. You’ll find it in Netflix’s most-watched lists (see Invent Anna and The Tinder scammer) and, in the case of Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal, in headlines around the world.
Symeon Brown Get Rich or Try to Lie: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy speaks directly to this moment, cutting through the alluring promises of internet fame to dissect the scam-based logic at the heart of much of what is touted as “success” online.
The Channel 4 correspondent, who approaches his subject with a welcome balance of curiosity, compassion and intellect. It studies not only how people behave online, but also the broader cultural and economic factors that shape their choices.
Brown is also sensitive to the uncomfortable reality that while his book explores what might be considered the more extreme end of the “new influencer economy” as he calls it, all of us who are active in spaces digital are engaged at least to some extent. in questionable influencer-style and self-branding practices.
“Whether we have 200,000 followers or 200, the rewards of a social media presence encourage us to represent ourselves in a way that benefits us,” he writes. Social media, he writes, “encourages us to glorify ourselves and distort our reality because it introduces a profit motive into our social lives, with a profound impact on how we behave.”
This profit motive encourages people to commodify themselves in exchange for the currency the internet is built on: attention. This quest to rack up likes and followers is, as Brown and many others have argued, warping human relationships. To stand out in an already saturated attention economy, potential influencers must adopt increasingly extreme behaviors, producing sometimes unpredictable and extremely degrading results.
What these would-be influencers are looking for is a 21st century iteration of the classic rags-to-riches tale, where winning on the internet is akin to winning the lottery.
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But every rags-to-riches story has its dark side; those Brown explores are heavy on the negatives, thin on the riches.
Among his many interviewees, he talks about so-called “dolls,” young women acting as ambassadors for sleazy cosmetic surgery clinics. These would-be influencers would rather endure the consequences of botched procedures than be honest with their followers about their real-life experiences, the horrific results of which: rotten breasts after failed augmentations, deformed hips looking for a small waist, blood clots after excessive surgery. , the inability to sit or play with your children after undergoing what is called a “Brazilian butt lift”.
These “dolls” are desperate to become models for fast fashion brands that enjoy high visibility on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. For many of these women, being photogenic is simply not enough; to stand out, they pursue cosmetic procedures to achieve the exact specifications demanded by today’s social media beauty standards.
This can mean undergoing so-called ‘adjustments’ such as lip fillers and Botox alongside much more invasive and risky procedures, like the aforementioned Brazilian butt lift, where young women attempt to achieve the type Kardashian body fat by having fat from other parts of their body. bodies injected into their buttocks.
In a quote that encapsulates the extreme self-objectification these women are willing to engage in, one tells Brown, “I went to the girl who does my filler and said that I wanted my face like it was in the filter, so I don’t.” no need to use the filter. Now when I use the filter it doesn’t change my face.
While cosmetic procedures can make people feel like they can “become” their idealized digital selves, Brown shows how difficult it is to translate the dreamscape of internet success into reality. Integral to the many scams he explores is the relentless selling of this aspiration on a myriad of platforms to people ripe for prey.
The attention economy certainly offers benefits to those at the top, especially tech companies and the small minority of influencers who turn their online profiles into tangible financial success. Those below are fighting for scraps in ever more dangerous and undignified ways.
As Brown writes, “All too often, getting attention means appealing to the worst parts of the internet — or, more accurately, the worst instincts of humanity.”
Nonfiction: Get Rich or Try to Lie by Symeon Brown
Atlantic Books, 304 pages, hardcover €18.99; e-book €6.99
Dr. Mary McGill is the author of “The Visibility Trap: Sexism, Surveillance and Social Media”