Why is this interesting? - The Influencer Culture Edition

On the relationship between influencers, personal brand, and creative output

Larissa Pham (LP) is a New York-based artist and writer (and second-time WITI contributor). I’ve loved her work for The Paris Review, and she can also be seen in POETRY, Art in America, Bookforum, Guernica, The Nation, among others. We’re happy to have her writing for us again. - Colin (CJN)

Larissa here. (Again!) In the last few weeks, three distinct pieces have caught the internet’s* attention, as much for the notoriety of their subjects as for their prose. First, there was ghostwriter Natalie Beach’s essay about her friendship with crazy-eyed** influencer Caroline Calloway, best known for her creativity workshop scam; then a piece from wunderkind Tavi Gevinson, reflecting on a life lived on Instagram; and finally, a profile of polarizing #resistance activist Lauren Duca, by Scaachi Koul. 

Twitter took the Calloway/Beach story as a tale of female friendship; a kind of Manhattanite version of Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, though neither of the friends could have been said to be, well, all that brilliant. Tortured friendships aside, the essay’s most salient revelation had to do with Calloway’s rise to fame, which Beach discloses was fueled by buying ad space and followers on Instagram. That is: Calloway knew she wouldn’t become an author without an audience, so she faked it first. Beach just happened to be a casualty along the way.

Less shared, but tackling some of the same territory, was 23-year-old Tavi Gevinson’s first-person reflection on her relationship with Instagram. In lucid, self-aware prose, Gevinson describes, but does not always analyze, her relationship to the platform, acknowledging its role in her identity formation as, well, Tavi Gevinson. It’s a tricky one: “I think I am a writer and an actor and an artist,” she writes. “But I haven’t believed the purity of my own intentions ever since I became my own salesperson, too.”

Finally, it was the Duca profile that garnered the most Twitter chortling, propelled by Koul’s excellent (and “so fucking hard”) line of questioning. Duca is one of the internet’s most visible anti-Trump activists, first made famous by her spirited appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show and by her conversational, accessible approach to politics. Yet Koul’s profile suggests that Duca isn’t quite the figure she makes herself out to be—the brand is bigger than the woman, and the work—a book, in Duca’s case—can’t stand up for itself.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that three pieces on this subject would come out nearly simultaneously. Influencer culture isn’t new territory. We’re acquainted with, if perhaps skeptical of, the category of person who makes a living by living aspirationally online. And perhaps its rise has permitted some of the scaffolding to show in other realms. It makes sense that one might arrive at a career in media or the arts by gaining some kind of attention—think buzzy debut novelists or a fresh face on film. What’s new about how this process unfolds now is that one’s personal brand—be it Instagram celeb like Calloway, fashion tween genius like Gevinson, or #resistance activist like Duca—has become increasingly integral to one’s emergence in any given cultural arena.

Why is this interesting?

After the requisite period of processing, I tweeted the following:

the calloway, duca, and gevinson pieces are all variously self-aware facets of the same phenom, which is that crafting & monetizing a brand is now the easiest way to enter a profession, & which places its subjects in a never-ending trap reconciling one's brand w one's "work"

The tweet went semi-viral, pretty much in accordance with this entire phenomenon—I got about a hundred new followers who know nothing about me. If poetic justice is a thing, my career may soon become inseparable from this hot take. Nevertheless, life is short, so let’s unpack it.

There’s a difficult balance to maintain here. The “work” itself—a book, a memoir, a role in a Broadway play—is ostensibly why any given figure is feted with attention, with further book deals or roles or fashion shoots to follow. Correspondingly, you’d think the work is the product, but more often, the persona is the real product—it’s what we’re being sold and what we’re supposed to pay attention to. This obfuscation happens to varying degrees, of course; Gevinson is as much known for her groundbreaking magazine Rookie as she is for being Tavi, whereas it’s unclear what exactly Calloway has contributed to the world of arts and letters.

Yet this whole situation sets up a strange relationship between art, artist, and consumer. When the brand supersedes the work, the work can’t truly be separated from the persona, which paradoxically devalues the work, or at least makes it very hard to accurately read (no pun intended). Poet Anne Boyer tweeted some critical thoughts about book reviews, which feel in line with this pattern:

The praise machine does books no favor if they can’t hold up upon reading — in fact, overhype probably makes okay books seem kind of terrible, in that their shortcomings look more pronounced & readers feel conned

Boyer is talking about reviews here, but the hype is real, and magnified when it comes to name-brand creatives. Is it really Duca’s fault that her first book can’t live up to expectations, when her viral fame has ballooned so wildly out of proportion to her achievements? Wouldn’t it be better for her—and for all of us—if she were just a little more… ordinary?

Therein lies the trap—the creative must now constantly reconcile her brand with her work. Whether or not she prefers it, her platform is about her as a person, or an icon, or a role model; the art is only ever interpreted within the larger context of her brand. Gevinson, perhaps because she’s truly grown up in public, describes that particular struggle best, while the pieces about Duca and Calloway present both figures as victims of it. 

Obviously, this whole thing is a lot easier for a certain kind of palatable white woman: thin, able-bodied, conventionally attractive. An uncharitable read would be to call this kind of personal branding merely scamming, but none of these women are grifters—no, not even Calloway, who truly thinks she’s trying her best to be an artist and writer. It might be better to see them as reflections of the cultural machine, which uncritically seizes on the marketability of a personal brand, then spits them out when their work doesn’t live up to expectations. But the promise of fame, of influence, is beguiling—who wouldn’t want to ride that wave? It makes me wonder what the work of these figures might look like if it weren’t for their outsize personal brands—but then again, that’s what got them in the game to begin with. (LP)

* Or at least, the New York media internet’s attention.

** My roommate ran into her at the club once and reported this detail to me, so consider it fact-checked.

Influencer of the Day:

Some canny folks, having witnessed the power of influencer culture, have gone straight to creating a figure who’s essentially all brand—why bother with the creative window-dressing? Lil Miquela is a virtual influencer, literally designed by a mysterious California startup who exists to be an armature for advertising. Here she is at a Gucci party, which, being a bot, she physically cannot actually attend. (LP)

Quick Links:

  • Here’s the New York Times on private writing workshops, which frequently market themselves (and justify their hefty price tags) via the instructor’s personal brand (LP)

  • A VICE writer visits an influencer convention(LP)

  • A Vox explainer on Lil Miquela and other virtual influencers (LP)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Larissa (LP)

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