The influencer economy has been on a steady incline ever since users found out that a lifestyle of fame, free stuff, and high earning power could be achived if they posted attractive photos and videos on their social media profiles.
With the right follow count, elite posters can earn as much as $250,000 per post for brand-sponsored content. Users with enormous star power like the Kardashian clan can quickly secure a $1 million bag for a single post on Instagram.
From the outside, the gig sounds like a better business prospect than sitting at a boring, low-paying desk job for more than 40 hours a week. However, HBO’s new documentary Fake Famous explores how much of an ugly sham the influencer lifestyle is behind the scenes.
Director Nick Bilton, a veteran reporter who’s covered the tech beat for Vanity and The New York Times for a decade, experimented with the idea of taking three regular people with a tiny following and transforming them into famous influencers.
By buying fake followers, or “bots,” and hiring photographers to capture their phony lifestyles, Bilton was able to manipulate Instagram’s algorithm to capture the organic follow count he was aiming to achieve. Ultimately, the experiment worked.
The wannabe influencers found themselves attaining the attention they thought they wanted, but at a severe cost for some.
“Fake Famous” revealed just how counterfeit and superficial the process is behind the scenes and subsequently opened the door for more questions about the industry’s future. It’s an oversaturated bubble that’s predicted to pop sooner than later.
In an interview with Vogue, Bilton talks more about his findings.
Not all three of the subjects in the documentary became an influencer, and there’s a reason why:
“I think it really came down to what you were willing to do to be perceived as a famous influencer. The one who makes it literally would show up to anything. We would be like, “All right, you’re going to go to Vegas on an influencer road trip, and you have to pretend that you have 180,000 followers,” and they were like, “Great, I’m there.” But for one of our subjects, they didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t their brand. Another had a tremendous amount of anxiety.”
When asked about whether pandemic impacted the influencer business:
“You had people who were still posting bikini photos from Tulum during lockdown. Then they quickly had to stop because they looked like total fools. But they’re back on vacation again. They don’t care. They’re back taking advantage of these companies and hotels. They’re also posting as if nothing is going on. I think that people are realizing more and more what is authentic and what is not.”
He also explained what he hopes will happen to Instagram’s influencer culture after watching his film:
“One day, after work, I was bummed out. My wife asked me what was wrong. I said to her, “I feel like we just don’t do anything and we should rent a van.” She replied, “Do you realize you’re feeling this way because you’re following all these influencers and they’re making you feel awful about your life?”
It was a holy-sh*t moment. I’m a reporter. I’ve written about tech for years. I’m doing this documentary, and it’s even working on me. I quickly unfollowed them after that. My hope is that the same thing happens for other people—that they have this realization that following these influencers does not make them feel better. It does not make their life better.”