To Survive Today, You Have To Think Like A Celebrity
Baby boomers love to cry that kids these days have it too easy as they remember how hard they worked ruining the economy for us. They also love to mock how we're all living in their basements and wasting our time aspiring to Instagram stardom. We, on the other hand, are being forced into the gig economy, aka experiencing all of the pressure and insecurity of being an entrepreneur, but without the power or wealth.
What the old people don't get is that the dreams of becoming an Instagram star or -- ugh -- social media influencer don't come from runaway narcissism. It's what the gig economy requires. It's also an exhausting, anxiety-inducing treadmill that most of us aren't prepared to handle.
We're Told To Hate "Attention Whores," But The Economy Requires You To Be One
Hey, remember this?
If you missed it, that's a 2016 meme about a 13-year-old guest on Dr. Phil who, in response to audience taunting, said that nearly incomprehensible phrase. Everyone was obsessed with this for, oh, about three days.
The girl is named Danielle Bregoli. Presented with this fleeting opportunity, Danielle grabbed and clung to fame with both hands, both feet, and her teeth. Reborn as rapper "Bhad Bhabie," she's amassed nearly 15 million followers on Instagram and scored a record deal. The video for this single has ... let me just check here ... 72 million views:
Judging from the response, many see her as the literal harbinger of civilization's decline. Uproxx described her new career is "A Cynical Cash Grab Rooted In Cultural Appropriation." And alright, do I think she's highly overrated and ridiculous? Yes. Do I begrudge her this moment in the sun? Not at all.
Instead of going into detail about the state of Bregoli's life at 13, I'll just say the Dr. Phil segment was called "I Want To Give Up My Car-Stealing, Knife-Wielding, Twerking 13-Year-Old Daughter Who Tried To Frame Me For A Crime." Bregoli supposedly stole a crew member's car while filming. If you say that exploiting the attention for a quick shot at fame and money is crass, I say that she's doing exactly what the rest of us are doing. She's just better at it.
However obnoxious you find her personality or singing, the backlash is even more obnoxious. Yes, she's playing up the craziest parts of her personality and calculating her every move to build up a following. It's weird how even a teenager knows how to do that, right? It's almost as if she was born into an economic system that told her it was the only plausible way out, and the backlash is from some of the very people who built that system.
But let's forget about Bhad Bhabie for a minute, because this applies to all of us.
Talent Is Not Enough -- You're Now Required To Build A Personal "Brand"
On Etsy's website, they offer this insight to their sellers:
If you're a stay-at-home mom who quit your day job to run your business, you might pitch that angle to mommy bloggers or a women's interest magazine. Since those readers have a strong interest in that niche, they'll want to support you if your story resonates with them.
This is the part of the "side hustle" "gig" economy that nobody talks about. Making extra cash by printing life-affirming quotes on mugs and selling them online won't happen unless you know how to market yourself -- and you'll notice I didn't say your product, I said yourself. People can get mugs anywhere. If you want the free publicity that every sound business model requires, it's all about you, your story, your struggle. It's about opening up about your life to strangers, and not so you can be rich and famous, but so you can make an extra $53.27 to supplement the hours you're not getting down at the mill.
What, you thought it'd be enough to just love printing things on mugs and sharing your talent with the world? Too bad, you're now a character in someone else's story, and they need a compelling arc. Go back in your history. Maybe it was that rough breakup that started this, yes? Or maybe you had a religious experience once on a trip to India? No? Are you sure?
Think of it like America's Got Talent. You watch a 10-year-old kid warming up with some incredible gymnastics routine backstage, the music thumps, he high-fives everyone. Then the music suddenly slows and becomes soft and twinkly as we cut to the young boy sitting on a bench in a park. "My dad died in Afghanistan," he begins, and you know he's through to the next round. Emotional manipulation? Sure. This is what works, people. Here's some more helpful advice from Etsy, on what visuals to include with your publicity push:
A headshot: This is a high-quality, professional portrait of you looking your best, where you're the center of the photo.
Your studio or workspace: Keep your space well-lit and tidy. Or if a workspace crammed with stuff is your vibe, make sure that it's artfully portrayed.
I'm not picking on Etsy here. They're saying this because it's true. It's 2018, and if you want to function in this economy, you need a personal brand. Recruiters actually pass people over if they don't have an online presence. We've been painted into a millennial pink corner where talent is simply not enough. And if baby boomers are offended by the color "millennial pink," I'd like to remind them that it was their generation that stuck linoleum over hardwood floors.
Need To Crowdsource Your Healthcare Due To Lack Of Insurance? Think Like A Celebrity.
Coming from a country which offers universal healthcare, the American system is still hard for me to fathom, and it's never less fathomable than when I see some viral Twitter campaign for a person trying to pay for some surgery or treatment on GoFundMe. I shouldn't have to say it, but this is a terrible way to pay for healthcare. A recent study found that more than 90 percent of such campaigns failed to reach their goals. For every feel-good story about somebody raising six figures for a new liver, scores of campaigns quietly go nowhere.
If you want to be one of the winners, you need to know how to play the game.
Crowdfunding, like the gig economy, is about marketing and branding. According to the Social Science & Medicine report, the most successful fundraisers are those that created narratives "about illness, need, deservingness, hope, and suffering." Look, I get it, you've got a tumor in your liver. But do you have a narrative?
To ensure success in their quest to avoid death/bankruptcy, people are advised to approach crowdfunding as they would their Instagram accounts: post clear (presumably moist-eyed) photos, find a niche/group of people who will listen to your story (fell off your bicycle? Post your campaign on bicycles fan pages), and evoke emotion by making your story relatable. And most importantly, spam that shit everywhere.
You've got the energy for that, right? Even though a major organ is failing and the medication makes it impossible for you to stay awake or think straight? Have you taken your headshot yet? Are you ready for your noon conference call to discuss your media rollout strategy? Have you done the research about how to position yourself in this crowded marketplace? Remember, this is 2018, you've got to outshine all of those other sick, broke people competing for the spotlight. This is all normal. Completely normal.
Becoming An Entertainer Is Now A Plausible, If Low-Paying, Job Option
According to a new report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there's not a single state, county, or metropolitan area in the entire United States where a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 can afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. You need a side gig, but let's say you don't have a reliable car you can turn into an Uber or Amazon delivery vehicle, and don't have the skills to make quality crafts/pornography. What you can do is start up a stream or podcast and monetize that shit.
When you hear that a study finds that 1 in 3 kids want to be a full-time YouTuber, it's easy to laugh, as if that's the same as saying they want to grow up to be pony wizards. But Twitch alone has 150,000 streamers making an income on their platform. YouTube actually has far more, but doesn't publicize the number. Patreon was paying about 80,000 creators last year, and then there are who knows how many creators funding their podcasts and the like via Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding platform.
So that's great, right? Find your people, make content they love, make some cash. It's definitely better than turning to a life of crime. Hell, the podcast Chapo Trap House currently rakes in $100,000 on their Patreon ... each month. I'd be happy with, say, half that. I can live simply.
But if you think the service economy is harsh, just wait. Of Patreon users, only about 2 percent earned more than the federal minimum wage. On YouTube, only the top 3 percent of creators get substantial traffic, and their average ad revenue is about equivalent to a full-time minimum-wage job (the ones who get rich have mastered the art of making sponsorship deals, which requires a whole other set of connections and business savvy).
If you're streaming on Twitch, it's all about volume. Relentless, soul-crushing volume. Full-time streamer Ben Bowman talks about how he put in 80-110 hours a week when growing his channel. And why not? As Twitch personality BurkeBlack said, "I don't have much to complain about. I play video games for 10 hours and talk to people about it ... It's a lot of work, but in my mind, I'm thinking, 'It's either this or stacking boxes at WalMart.'"
So sure, that's a good deal ... if those are your only options.
The Sheer Energy And Emotional Labor Is Mind-Boggling, And Most Aren't Prepared For It
On social media they may be called "followers," but the public is never loyal. Let your image or your posting schedule slip just a little, and they'll go elsewhere. It's the fickle world of low-level fame, of living every day afraid of taking your foot off the pedal even for a second.
For every Instagram picture I post, I create an outfit and hairstyle, find a location, take out my professional camera, drag my boyfriend along to take the shot, edit it in Lightroom, think up a caption, and finally post it. Why? Because I need to be visible and presentable should a potential employer look me up. I dare not total up the hours I spend doing this a week, but unfortunately, I feel like I have to if I want to line up work. And compared to my peers, this is a cursory effort.
A blogger and influencer I know took me under her wing after we met during New York Fashion Week a couple of years ago. She had 50,000 followers on Instagram and ran her blog from a shared office space. She had previously worked at a now-defunct newspaper, but since they closed, she was flung into full-time freelance work. By now, you know what that means:
On Instagram, her life looks like the picture of influencer fun, sipping cocktails on rooftops and attending special events. In reality, the woman never stopped working. We arrived at a fashion party and she immediately started taking photos and posting them, then she checked back periodically to see how they were doing traffic-wise. Between runway shows, we rushed to the cafe area so she could upload photos, blog about the show, and then post to all of her social media channels before we ran to the next runway. I was stressed just watching her.
In the daytime, she spent hours pitching brands, writing blog posts, and scouting trends. I visited her at her workspace once to find her replying to every comment on her Instagram, over 1,000 of them. Does she want to spend her time this way? No, she wants the brands to come to her, but unless she hustles and engages every day, they'll go elsewhere. Every single aspect of her life is documented -- her vacations, her wedding, her charity work. Nothing is left out, because consistency is key. Her public demands it. Fame isn't even the goal; it's what makes the rest of her career possible.
Of course, older people will sneer and say that what she and other millennials want is adoration from strangers and easy money. Well I'm a millennial, and what we'd like is adequate compensation for our work, and I dunno, if you could maybe pay us for the internships you hired us for, that'd be great. No? Didn't think so. Back to Instagram we go, then, looking for that miracle.
Which brings us back to Danielle, the meme/rapper from earlier. Like you, I have no idea what "cash me outside" actually means, but if it involves going out into the street to receive a fistful of dollars just for being yourself, then hey, I'm all for it. Wait, in her case, that's exactly what it meant! We could all learn a thing from the enterprising Danielle, howbow dah?
Ruthie Darling is a writer and photographer based in NYC. You can find her on Instagram @ruthiedarling, or on her website. She is originally from the UK, which means she apologizes constantly, including once to a chair she tripped over.
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