A Sponsored Con
Sometime during the first lockdown of 2020, Museum of Modern Shopping (MoMS) was born as an Instagram account – just for fun and to fill some time – to collect and share screenshotted pics of bizarre products that sponsored ads were trying to hawk. These felt increasingly visible at a time when many of us were glued to screens even more than usual and the content vortex of social media reconfigured itself in relation to a pandemic. As non-essential businesses closed and people stayed home, online shopping continued: factory, supermarket and warehouse workers were made to keep pace in unsafe conditions and couriers working under precarious terms became our only human contact from the outside world. As planes stayed on the ground and borders began to close, parcels continued to travel the world to satisfy boredom, despair and impulsive desire: retail therapy, a reliable form of comfort. Dogs were purchased on a whim and clothes for non-existent occasions were dispatched from the purveyors of fast-fashion. Online marketplaces like Wish.com seeped into every corner of social media, presenting incomprehensible items that were hard to believe: products designed as pure clickbait. Did these objects really exist? Or were they just images of things that might materialise if they successfully attracted enough clicks?
After a few weeks of posting, someone behind another, similar, account messaged MoMS making accusations of ‘copying’ and ‘stealing’ their ‘work’. MoMS had never seen this account before. Their feed featured similarly documented images of bizarre products, presented in front of blank white backgrounds to enhance their object-ness and turn them into something more akin to sculptures presented in a white cube gallery. MoMS enjoyed these images, understanding them as highlighting the unnecessary (non)functions of the products on offer. But MoMS couldn’t understand why someone would be angry that another account had shared photos of similar objects. After all, these were images of mass-produced products for sale via a multitude of online shops: images that are abundant and in no way belonged to either of us. It was as if they thought they could claim the right to the image of a shop’s products by simply reposting said image… as if they could singlehandedly rule the ‘genre’… as if MoMS was in some way trying to monetise this practice and detract from a ‘competitors’ profits. MoMS tried to reassure them that they had not encountered their account before and, anyway, didn’t think any ‘theft’ was going on as neither of us actually owned these images, and a significant proportion of the world encounter them on a daily basis. The conversation didn’t take off and MoMS was swiftly blocked on the basis of stealing their audience.
MoMS wondered if anyone had ever tried claiming ownership to the entire category of latte art, infographics on gender equality, or the use of a particular ‘selfie backdrop’ from the physical world. With MoMS and this other account both run by artists, it was perhaps an indication that they allocated some special status and privilege to the ‘artist’, over and above the ‘influencer’ (or general social media user): a hierarchy of content creation, an elitist and entitled assumption based on arts entanglement with university education and the supposedly contrasting ambitions of each pursuit? It is worth bearing in mind this relationship between artist and influencer: both are perceived as ‘creative’ industries but make claims to very different forms of capital - each industry framed by issues of class, aspirational labour, and the production of commodifiable content.
The influencer industry has propelled what Olivia Yallop, in her recent book Break the Internet, has called a ‘generic global taste’. Cute cats, #eatclean salads, sunsets, sun-drenched apartments full of plants, strategically arranged books, professional-looking street art and poolside cocktails abound. Yallop describes this taste as ‘consciously “curated” yet somehow still homogenous, turning out an uncanny cohort of interchangeable robots ready to be copied by consumers or regrammed by brand pages’.[i] Social media is a fluid architecture of influence, where people compete to find the next big niche or dominate a genre. Mumfluencers, curlfluencers, kidfluencers, catfluencers, sportfluencers, healthfluencers, thinkfluencers, dogfluencers, chefluencers, granfluencers, cleanfluencers, teachfluencers, thinfluencers, techfluencers, gymfluencers, grindfluencers, wifefluencers. The art of influence has become both product, skill and content, underpinned by a willingness to offer up every aspect of one’s life – even the most personal and intimate – as consumable chunks of content. Influencers develop their ‘personal brand’ and morph into advertising: human billboards whose online activity serves to sell the products and services of companies they are not officially employed by but who sponsor them to do promotions. Brands – individuals and international corporations alike – are engagement-driven and strive to go viral at the same time as appearing as a friend: relatable, within-reach and ‘authentic’. Social media has turned anti-capitalism into an aesthetic that can itself be monetised.
In tandem with the transition towards the gig economy and precarious self-employment, the influencer industry functions via aspirational labour: the promise that the work will pay off eventually, if one just works hard enough at being visible. Much as Andy Warhol – often now referred to as the ‘original influencer’ – proclaimed ‘anyone can do what I do!’, influencing promises itself as accessible and easy: an illusion that anyone with a smartphone and internet connection can do it. The influencer’s labour masquerades as effortless: they’re just living their best life, being their authentic self. But the amount of time and unpaid labour that goes into becoming an influencer prevents it from being as open-to-everyone as it pertains to be. The glossy aesthetic of a curated lifestyle hides the precarity that often lies behind it. Influencing is a competitive hustle that takes time and commitment, which not everyone can afford. Influencer and ex-Love Island contestant Molly Mae Hague recently attracted negative attention when she uttered the neoliberal mantra of ‘everyone has the same 24 hours in the day’.[ii] In line with this belief, if you don’t ‘make it’ it’s your own fault for not working hard enough, not being flexible enough, not honing your talents enough, not investing enough in your body.
Symeon Brown, author of the forthcoming book Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy categorises the influencer industry as a pyramid scheme.[iii] In fact, he describes the entirety of social media as operating through a pyramid scheme logic. The more followers you have, the more power and money you have, and it is possible to grow your followers by associating with others who have more followers than you. The more you put in, the more you get out. Positivity is key – it’s what followers want to see - and continues to plant aspirations of becoming-influencer in ever more people, thus the Ponzi scheme goes on. The industry expands, propped up by this phony performance of positive vibes and unrealistic lives that are out of reach for most but – relax - can be strategically faked anyway. One in five children in the UK now say they want to be an influencer when they grow up.[iv] The drive to gain followers filters into all aspects of life, many undergoing plastic surgeries in the hope of making their bodies more ‘Instagram friendly’, i.e. profitable. Reports emerge of wannabe influencers buying clothes and pretending they were gifted them, a perfect example of faking it till you make it. In Los Angeles, you can hire a photo studio that is staged to look like the inside of a private jet, for a small hourly fee. #headintheclouds!
Influencers are the trusty companions and representatives of algorithms. Algorithms similarly contribute to the shaping of a generic global aesthetic – what I call global blanding – by spreading the same trends and culture to disparate audiences across the world, in turn shaping tastes and desires. In Tom Vanderbilt’s book You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice,[v] he writes that taste is a story we tell ourselves about our relationship to objects in the world and our relationship to other people and their relationship to objects. Algorithms help shape our story and claim to get to know us better over time, the more we engage with them - a friend in the form of a mathematical formula. They are invisible but, with humans creating them, they struggle to break free from the damaging biases of the physical world. These computational equations maintain that they assist us but really serve the platform they were created by, enabling companies to increase profits, maintain an engaged audience, and operate in the most cost-efficient manner. The algorithm predominantly recommends itself and the influencer industry births algorithms dressed in flesh, vying for likes and clicks. The influencer and the algorithm work together, edging closer towards fully dismantling the boundaries between them. The more popular an influencer becomes, the more the algorithm favours them and the more powerful an algorithm becomes, the more the influencer panders to their preferences and aims. The images they share with us disguise a complex web of bias, precarity and manipulation.
To return once again to the ‘first influencer’,[vi] Andy Warhol: he was an ambiguous character, sometimes labelled as a sociopath for his machine-like lack of visible emotions. Writing about what he calls the ‘Warhol Delusion’[vii] in 2012, Bruce LaBruce quotes a review of the Met’s Andy Warhol exhibition of the same year, by critic Peter Schejeldahl who wrote that ‘We are all Warholians’, ‘immersed in a common chaos of signs, gadgets and sensations, and somehow detached from it too’. LaBruce argues that we should stop elevating this detachment into something mythical, into Warhol’s creative ‘genius’. Rather than critically commenting on the shallow and ironic culture of celebrity and mass consumerism, he acknowledges that Warhol actively created this culture. Art in the case of Warhol was evaluated in terms of fame and monetary value. Warhol proclaimed mass media as art and elevated well-known brands – Coca Cola, Campbell’s Tomato Soup, Brillo pads - to the status of cultural artifact, generating attention for both the brands and himself. Warhol is said to have used the camera as shield: compulsive photography to avoid unnecessary conversation, which is echoed by the ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ mentality that is the backbone of Instagram. The many Andy Warhol quotes that are inscribed online paint a picture of a cold, shallow, materialistic individual intent on making ‘business-art’. Much as with the contemporary influencer, the line between performance and reality is unclear. Parallels have been drawn between Warhol and Bret Easton Ellis’ sociopathic character Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. At one point Bateman famously muses: ‘…there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I am simply not there’.
[i] Olivia Yallop (2021). Break the Internet, London: Scribe, p. 26.
[ii] Molly-Mae Hague made this statement whilst speaking on the podcast Diary of a CEO.
[iii] Symeon Brown’s book Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy is due for release on March 3rd, 2022, published by Atlantic Books.
[v] Tom Vanderbilt (2016). You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Simon & Schuster: London.
[vi] This term has been used in many recent articles, for example, this one in The Varsity: https://thevarsity.ca/2021/10/16/andy-warhol-ago-exhibit-review/