Although the concept of “influencer marketing”, where individual or group approval helps sell a product or idea, possibly ancientsome of us are old enough to remember when modern influence was still in its infancy. With the rapid growth of YouTube and Instagram in the early 2010s, vloggers such as Pewdiepie, Zoella, Tanya Burr, Alfie Deyes, and others emerged. british team‘ by raking it with sponsored content.
The degree of influence then came down to sponsored clothing shipments, product placement and Paid meet and greet service conventions. Today, influencer marketing has evolved so much that it is almost unrecognizable. It has become more pervasive and pernicious, as evidenced by the endless stream of fast fashion products and dangerous operations like BBL promoted on influencer platforms. In addition, there are the insecurities of the digital sex business, non-stop live streaming for money, the rise of MLM, dropshipping, forex trading, NFTs, and the pitfalls of influencer activity. The list goes on and seems to only grow as the economic instability that fueled the myth of meritocracy at the heart of influencer culture.
With all this in mind, the current model of influence is starting to look more like a scam or a pyramid scheme than a system that rewards aspiration and “hard work‘. In my new book Get Rich or Cheat: Ambition and Deception in the New Economics of Influence (Atlantic books)Journalist and writer Simeon Brown gets to the bottom of this murky world by analyzing the billion-dollar online economy to expose the fraud, worker exploitation, lies and corruption going on behind the screen.
In the face of very few winners in the powerhouse game, Simeon’s investigation primarily explores the untold stories of the “losers”. From Ebenezer Lembe, a 37-year-old Twitch live host from Los Angeles, who says he feels “blessed” making money from online abuse, to 21-year-old Elijah Oyefeso, a self-proclaimed “trader” who was found guilty of driving his car into a friend to whom he owed moneythe author meets all sorts of people trapped in the influence economy.
tag Get rich or lie tryingX issue, I sat down with Simon to discuss the pitfalls of social media activity, why online scams have become so common, and where the influence comes from.
What story do you remember the most?
When I flew to Los Angeles, there were so many stories that I didn’t know I would hear. I remember the story of Ebenezer (Ebz), a poor working-class black migrant who lived on Skid Row. He has gone from Uber driver to streamer at the bottom of the powerful economy. And when I sat down with him, that’s when he started to reveal to what extent his story was about digital labor and labor exploitation.
It was a story about modern work, about who has power and who doesn’t. He actually made a living from being racially abused and took it easy… I never read about it.
What shocked me the most about this story was that Ebz thought he was “freer as a person” to be racially abused during a live broadcast than the usual 9 to 5, all because live broadcast allowed him to be his own boss. .
It was one of the outstanding ideologies that I sought to embrace and explore. There is a huge sense among the generations after Thatcher and those who grew up in the Blair era that entrepreneurs are hailed as rock stars. Think Elon Musk or Richard Branson. Although some of their actions are dubious, these people are elevated to the point where it is even seen or proclaimed as something that is “superior” to work and collectivism. It is the idea that personality and self-employment are everything and the ultimate goal. But of course we know that being homemade is a myth.
Internet fraud increased by 65% in 2021, with 56% of them committed between the ages of 20 and 39. Why do you think there has been such an increase in fraud?
There is tremendous pressure on people to become rich by any means, especially young people from minorities. If you don’t do much and feel like the system is rigged, the internet is the perfect way to do it; it’s a perfect invention, especially social media. It allows you to create mirages, to create fiction, and there are incentives for that. And sometimes, I think, the motives for misleading can escalate into full-blown deception – as you see in the case of Anna Delvey.
In other cases, fraud is like an industry; so if you look at some of the scammers in nigeria they come into the office to commit electronic fraud like it’s a normal job… they are in a part of the world where there is extreme inequality and you can only do it with certain connections and corruption thrive, so that’s exactly what you’re doing.
And then you think about how the rules [on social media] work like a pyramid. Even influencer rules, how you increase your social media following by connecting with people with more followers, your views and how it should create a trickle down effect from your followers’ point of view.
This logic, so standard on the internet, is one of the things that I think has contributed to the boom and normalization of scams. Even in my book, when I interviewed one of the dropshippers, he was very clear that a big part of dropshipping is not so much about building business operations that work and deliver to your consumers, but about driving sales, regardless of the product received. c, aware of the pitfalls, and less interested in solving them.
How do you think social media activism and what you call “influence rage” have shaped and perhaps changed people’s approaches to activism in real life?
I don’t think it would be controversial to say that for many, activism is a link exchange and that’s it. It’s about them as a voice. What they actually do is create content and reduce politics to content, and in many cases this can be quite depoliticized.
So I think a lot of the activity is about things like building a coalition, trying to reach a consensus; this includes feeling the nuances, knowing where your opponents are coming from, trying to find a balance, or trying to find other people who think the same way. It’s hard work, lobbying, finding people to make it possible. It’s about all these things. Yet many influential activists are not involved in any of this. It’s useless to them because the algorithm doesn’t reward it.
Some people would say they are “restoring” social media without appealing to influencer standards. We’ve also witnessed the decline of the “Instagram aesthetic” where people post photos and blurry images like they’re not even trying too hard. Do you think it is possible to subvert these platforms?
These platforms have special requirements and are driven by motives and incentives for profit – that’s what they are designed for. So these things should influence our behavior. I think for people for whom being online is their job, for people who are at a more advanced stage in their life as an influencer, they have become like companies. And I guess we’re living in an era now where brands are trying to act like people and people are trying to act like brands. So I don’t see how something like this can be an escape, to be honest with you, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.
you stated in another interview that the influencer bubble isn’t even close to bursting. If this is just the beginning, what else do you think we can expect in the future?
Many young people already say they “want to socialize” when they get older. [I’m interested in] what they expect it to mean and the norms of it, because we already see private companies trying to get a stake in people’s social media accounts. For example, we could see more companies like YouTube invest in people and take charge of people’s digital lives. I read about a YouTuber who said to a girl, “Do you want to be my girlfriend because I’m famous and that’s why you’ll get more followers on social media?” and I think that such business relationships will grow more often.
I see a world where we expect to monetize more and more of the things we do and more and more parts of our lives. I see these market ideas taking root more and more in our lives, even when we think we are radical. When everything we do needs to be monetized, everything we do requires payment, everything must be a form of money or enrichment; it’s like – where is the place for arbitrary joy?
For me, it’s about how these ideas will continue to evolve and how new applications will take advantage of that. I can imagine that one day there will be an app that will keep track of which of your friends asks for help the most. Then it’s aggregated like, “Okay, these are the friends who ask for your help the most, and that’s why this relationship is unbalanced, and that’s why you need to look at how you allocate your time.” Sounds like something from Black mirrorbut much of what was in Black mirror already present today.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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