How to Become an Influencer in 2019? Attack Other Influencers

Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza in 'Ingrid Goes West.' (Hulu)

A few weeks ago, a young woman named Natalie Beach wrote an exposé for The Cut about her friendship and working life with controversial influencer, Caroline Calloway. It caused a stir on social media, some extremely erratic behavior from Calloway on her Instagram, and a story in The Atlantic that sought to undo any damage.

In the Cut story, Beach gripes about trying to keep up with her richer, better dressed friend Calloway, as the two travel Europe producing Instagram content for which Beach is compensated and Calloway takes all the credit. The "big" reveals of the piece are that: Calloway didn't write a book that Beach would have financially benefitted from (it's worth noting that no contracts between the two were ever signed), and that Calloway left Beach locked out of a hotel room in Amsterdam one night because Beach didn't wind up hooking up with a bartender after all. Sure, Calloway sounds annoying. But, frankly, so does Beach.

Throughout the article, Beach tries to depict herself as a hapless victim who was too enthralled by a charismatic woman, too convinced of the validity of social media content creation. She talks repeatedly of being "broke," even as she describes traveling extensively, eating out frequently, and living in New York City. At one point, she talks about being paid $200 a week to prep Calloway's Airbnb for new guests, as if it's slave labor.

In critiquing the life of the famous influencer she used to work with though, Natalie Beach overnight became a writer-to-watch. Over the weekend, during an appearance on the Red Scare podcast, Calloway claimed Beach now has a $1 million movie deal with Ryan Murphy to tell the story of their friendship.

It isn't working with a social media influencer that has put Beach on the map, then—it's complaining about it after the fact. And it is becoming increasingly clear that what just happened for Beach isn't a fluke, it's a full-blown trend. What's more, some of the people critiquing online influencers are now also directly benefiting from the same system that supports them.

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Take, for example, Australian YouTuber Currently Hannah, who recently donned an American accent, threw on several swimsuits, then put together a 3-minute clip highlighting the artifice and contrived nature of many travel vlogs. If you don't know who Currently Hannah is, it all seems fairly hilarious.

The problem is, the videos Hannah regularly produces for her 149,000 subscribers are almost identical to the parody she made. (Which is probably why she felt the need to follow it with a 3-minute explanation about how much she's not making fun of other travel vloggers.)

Below is one of Hannah's regular clips. You'll notice it features a multitude of things she made fun of in the parody, including: "uplifting cinematic music"; "the right dramatic pauses"; "places like untouched waterfalls, pristine rice fields, mountains I didn’t climb, and blue-ass water"; "swimming in the clearest water you’ve ever seen"; "a surprising amount of sexually seductive movement"; "not [showing] you the stress of making our flights on time"; "white sand" and "slow motion palm trees."

When Hannah says in the parody that she's "here to show you how amazing my life is, but not how you can do it yourself," she is obliviously describing her own work. In a rational world, a critique of misleading narratives sold by social media influencers should probably not be made by one of those influencers. It doesn't matter—the parody clip is Hannah's most-watched video in about a year.

Hannah is not the only YouTuber actively trying to portray themselves as less pretentious than their peers. Take, for example, AwakenWithJP. JP Sears' online persona is a parody of holistically-inclined social media influencers, but the lines between his real-life personality and online persona are so blurred in so many videos (like the one below where he makes fun of 'How To' videos about getting perfect abs, while also sporting perfect abs), Sears is forced to admit in the "About" section of his channel: "Satirical and serious are two parts that make the whole of me and what I do."

Regardless of that strange juxtaposition, making fun of other influencers who hold similar values has earned Sears enough followers to be classed as one.

Though less popular (27,000 subscribers vs. Sears' 808,000), Alysse Paris has also garnered millions of views on YouTube by making fun of exercise videos, beauty vloggers, Instagrammers and health bloggers. The fact that Paris is as conventionally physically attractive as the influencers she's making fun of can't help but factor into her appeal, but she presents her often flawless appearance as something that is merely part of the joke.

All of this, of course, is beyond meta. It's the proverbial snake eating its own tail. Even more remarkably, it was all predicted by Ingrid Goes West; arguably the most astute movie about social media culture of our times. In the film, Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), a lonely, disaffected woman, figures out how to befriend Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), a popular social media influencer, in an attempt to transform her own life into something like the one she sees on Taylor’s Instagram.

At the climax of the movie, what the viewer thinks will be the end of Ingrid—her exposure as a liar, her excommunication from Taylor's friend group, her attempt to commit suicide on camera—ends up being the thing that propels her to her own stardom. It is when she comes clean, and talks about social media being an elaborate fabrication, that she finally acquires her own influencer status. That very thing is now being mirrored in reality.

The plot of the 2017 movie is now so of the moment that Natalie Beach even referenced it in her Cut article, claiming that people ask her if Caroline Calloway is "both characters from Ingrid Goes West." A closer analogy (at least if you take the movie's kidnapping and violence out of the mix) would very much leave Beach in the Ingrid role. It's unlikely she realizes that.

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While the heady mix of trying to be simultaneously perfect and relatable is one that has always made influencers and vloggers ripe for mockery, increasingly, the people pointing the finger look more and more like the people they're making fun of. In the vast sea of social media influencers and YouTube personalities, it makes sense that individuals will do just about anything to stand out—including ignoring their own hypocrisy.

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