Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy by Symeon Brown - review by John Maier

John Maier


Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy


Atlantic Books 239pp £16.99

Get Rich or Lie Trying is a depressing book to read, and not just because it is uncomprehending, lacking in irony and rather poorly written. It is about young people and the ‘new influencer economy’, a subject which depresses of its own accord. I suppose I should declare an interest, being a moderately young person myself (we young ‘are all influencers now’, I discovered to my disappointment in the book’s concluding chapter). In another sense, though, I want to declare a keen lack of interest.

That’s not to say that the book didn’t provide me with some very diverting lines of inquiry; it did – the question of what a ‘Brazilian butt lift’ is, for example, or what one can hope to watch on the ‘CX Network’ (I have had to change broadband provider to spare myself the shame). But the problem that the book faces, and can’t overcome, is that there is something awful, almost narcotically dreadful, about contemplating the internet and what goes on there. It’s like squinting into some hive of endless, senseless activity, or a hellscape by Hieronymus Bosch full of people, many of them naked, doing terrible things to each other for unimaginable reasons. But at least in the case of Bosch, the viewer has within reach some explanatory framework by virtue of which these chaotic spectacles make sense – some idea, at least at a celestial level, of why this goblin is sticking an arrow up that lady’s bottom. Symeon Brown does not orientate his reader in a similarly helpful way; in fact, his social and historical explanations of the phenomenon of ‘influencing’, while for the most part safely dull, are occasionally quite baffling. For instance, he seems to find the origins of ‘influencer culture’ in hip-hop music, as if it were somehow independent of other cultural forces, and he begins the book by making quite puzzling efforts to connect the deaths of the Notorious B.I.G., Princess Diana and Gianni Versace, the rise of televangelism, the Reaganite commitments of New Labour and the return of Hong Kong to China.

‘An influencer’, Brown explains, ‘is a figure who by accident or design has gained thousands or even millions of social media followers and converted their following into an income by making their feeds a living billboard or a peep show you pay to subscribe to if you are a superfan.’ There are various different species of influencer and there now exists a rather elaborate taxonomy for distinguishing them: ‘fashionista, campaigner, advice guru, specialist blogger, body inspiration, prosperity prophet or model’. Influencers are generally inclined to conceive of their identities as ‘brands’, often taking a highly exploitative attitude towards their physical appearances and intimate lives, viewing both as resources to be commodified and deployed as ‘content’. The profession’s low barriers to entry, the untaxing workload and the potential for high financial rewards mean that ‘influencing may soon be the internet’s most saturated hustle’. The remorseless competition for ‘the new global currency’ of influence, meanwhile, has driven incipient influencers to ever more venal, opportunistic and dishonest forms of behaviour.

In their defence, some influencers are merely tragic and exploited. We learn of the young girls desperate to become ‘NovaBabes’, online ‘ambassadors’ for the fast-fashion market leader Fashion Nova, a brand specialising in ‘ghetto chic and timeless hoochie wear’ whose products are made by undocumented migrants in LA sweatshops. In pursuit of desirable discount codes and free clothes, some women have been led to ‘fake their ethnicity’ in order to conform to the brand’s rather uncompromising ‘uniform aesthetic’, which is ‘light brown or mixed heritage and ethnically ambiguous’. Even those ‘ambassadors’ who don’t end up ‘cosplaying as black women on Instagram’ do not seem to realise or care that all they are doing is ‘providing the company with free labour as promo girls’.

Then there are the influencers fuelling the ‘boom in surgery culture’. There exist ‘freelance surgeons’ in Turkey who offer ‘aggressive discounts’ to influencers ready to promote their procedures to their followers – anything from ‘full-body lipo’, implants and veneers to ‘the infamous Brazilian butt lift’. (Incidentally, my doctor tells me that it is not generally advisable to undergo surgical procedures named after developing countries, or for that matter ones which are so readily modified by the adjective ‘infamous’.) The BBL, in case you didn’t know, is a procedure that ‘transfers fat from unflattering areas such as the waist or stomach and pumps them into the behind to inflate it like a balloon’. It was, Brown tells us, ‘made famous by Kim Kardashian’ and, among other distinctions, ‘has the highest death rate of any cosmetic surgery’. The women who promote and undergo these procedures are inevitably butchered by their surgeons, and Brown treats us to various stories of breast implants used as butt implants, infections, untreated blood clots and various parts of people’s bodies turning black and looking like they might be about to fall off.

Get Rich or Lie Trying contains many other examples of the kinds of disfiguring, debasing things people will do on the internet in return for money or attention. We learn of a Californian man who allows people to racially abuse him on a livestream in return for ‘tips’, a woman who willingly performs sex acts with a ‘black dildo’ attached to a remote-controlled robot operated by male viewers, and young men posing as ‘influencer CEOs’ of companies that do not exist and have no employees. This is all rich material. But the reader is left increasingly uncertain that Brown has either the capacity for irony or the critical sensibility that the examination of such subjects requires.

One problem seems to be the rather detached, documentary style Brown is committed to, one that leaves no room for serious or sustained analysis. A journalist at Channel 4 News, he carries over from television the news reporter’s habit of concluding a line of thought with a sentence of mind-numbing banality, the purpose of which is merely to communicate that the report is over. For example, he reflects that ‘in an age of winners and losers, being a loser has become a moral failure’, ‘the pressure to dress for success and fake it till you make it is overwhelming’ and ‘it’s difficult to hate the player when the game is fixed and we are all playing it in one way or another’.

The drift of these feeble and dubious pronouncements is to exonerate the individual influencers whose stories Brown tells. But why? Some of these people – those using social media to operate pyramid schemes, sell inferior or non-existent merchandise or press cosmetic surgery on vulnerable people – are utter crooks. Even many of those who aren’t behaving in straightforwardly illegal ways are operating with discreditable motivations. Their ‘obsessive desire to be internet-famous’ is explained and excused through broad arguments about financial precarity and intergenerational inequity, all forces beyond their control, which leave them ‘caught between unlimited ambition and limited options’. But ‘unlimited ambition’ is itself not an admirable motivation, quite apart from the corrupt means that might be used to pursue it. It is all too often and obviously born of a disastrous excess of amour propre that manifests in nothing beyond coarse-grained images of fame, power and domination.

Brown appears to me too far caught up in the ideologies and styles of thought that sustain influencers to be able to get any firm grip on these issues. He readily, and apparently unironically, talks of ‘side hustles’ and ‘fandom’, ‘the Kardashian look’, ‘micro-internet fame’ and a person’s life as their ‘origin story’ or ‘pitch’. This is the mental atmosphere that makes it natural to speak of ‘aspiring billionaires’. The internet age, I think Brown might agree, has not provided us with many non-rivalrous or stable examples of the kind of success worth aspiring to; one might also worry that it has to some degree warped our ability to articulate this complaint coherently.

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