Opinionista Toby Shapshak 22 June 2021

The future of celebrity: How to make friends and influence people for viral fame

Trying to create viral fame – often for a new dance move – is the bona fide dream of too many youngsters.

Toby Shapshak

Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

TikTok is the new MTV. Except you don’t actually have to have any talent or do anything original, like sing your own songs or choreograph your own dances. So-called influencers are the ultimate expression of hype over substance, real or otherwise.

I read an enthralling, but horrific, profile of the epicentre of so-called influencers’ activity, Los Angeles – or Lost Angeles – in Harper’s magazine, a New Yorker-esque publication that still spends time on so-called deep journalism. Thanks Anne Taylor, a die-hard journo in her soul.

“The Anxiety of Influencers” is a brilliant, albeit disturbing, feature about the TikTok generation by Barrett Swanson. It chronicles the activities of Clubhouse FTB (For the Boys), one of the most popular so-called collab houses for so-called influencers.

“Also known as content houses or TikTok mansions, collab houses are grotesquely lavish abodes where teens and early twentysomethings live and work together, trying to achieve viral fame on a variety of media platforms,” Swanson writes.

In Covid-hit 2020, while “most of us were making bread or watching videos of singing Italians, the houses began to proliferate in impressive, if not mind-boggling numbers, to the point where it became difficult for a casual observer even to keep track of them”.

What are they if not the modern version of the Hollywood “star factories” of the 1920s and 1930s? Back then, being a movie star was a one-percent job – for the very beautiful or the very talented (both men and women). Now, anyone can be an Instagram/YouTube/TikTok star.

Not surprisingly, 54% of Americans aged 13 to 38 dream of being a so-called social-media influencer, according to a 2019 poll. “A whopping 23% believed that this term already fit them,” reports Harper’s. “Once the purview of heiresses like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, it seems that influencing has become fully democratised, making a Jay Gatsby out of every intrepid Jimmy Gatz.”

Or as one collab-house press officer told Swanson: “It’s the new A-list celebrity, except it’s attainable for anybody. You can be in Cleveland, Ohio, alone in your bedroom, and you can get a million followers overnight. That’s fucking crazy. That’s never been possible. Wealth, fame, status has never been more attainable for anyone in the history of the world the way it is right now.”

In a way that is quite remarkable. Anybody can be famous.

But famous for what?

Winning a Nobel physics prize? Or a Nobel literature prize? (One can only dream.) Going platinum on an album like Queen? Being Keith Haring? (Who once painted a jacket for Madonna before she was even semi-famous.) Being Usain Bolt or Wayde van Niekerk? Having a truly inspirational life story like Siya Kolisi?

Or winning a season of a local talent contest? Or an amateur chef cook-off? Or just being rich and famous and married to a Cabinet minister, with a predilection for suits and self-satisfaction? Or just being thin and good-looking?

Perhaps because I grew up in the lacklustre 1970s and 1980s, through the final years of apartheid’s death throes, I recall how much work went into real success. Not being born a Trump and having a reality TV show. Or being born a Hilton or Kardashian in an age where flaunting your nouveau riche wealth was as publicly applauded as just being nouveau riche.

I do understand the analogy that Clubhouse CEO Amir Ben-Yohanan uses, given that I was born and live in a town built on gold mining: “It almost reminds me of the old days in the US when people got on their horses and buggies and went west for the Gold Rush. Some of them made a lot of money and some of them didn’t succeed, and it was totally unregulated. What dawned on me was that the social media market is a lot like the Wild West. A lot of people are just dropping out of college and moving here [LA] literally with a bag and the hopes of becoming an influencer.”

The gold rush analogy is an unintentionally good one. If you struck it rich in the fertile California goldfields, it was probably as much luck as anything else.

But here on the Witwatersrand, it took a lot more to dig out the gold, a lot more than being lucky or being thin and good-looking in an age when social media immortalises anyone thin and good-looking over having actual talent.

If collab houses and so-called influencers are the future of celebrity and the definition of success, so help us. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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