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HomeEntertainmentHBO’s ‘Fake Famous’ Removes the Rose-Colored Glasses of Social Media Fame

HBO’s ‘Fake Famous’ Removes the Rose-Colored Glasses of Social Media Fame

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In an age of social media supremacy, the concept of being a “social media influencer” is all too familiar –– particularly among social media users ages 18 to 24. As the lives and luxuries of famous influencers are continuously flaunted and glorified on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Tiktok, ordinary social media users are increasingly interested in being online famous. In an attempt to deconstruct the influencer lifestyle, “Fake Famous” follows the lives of three wannabe social media stars on the path to internet fame. 

The documentary opens in an operatic, slow-mo montage of posed, articulated photoshoots in front of the Paul Smith Los Angeles store. Better known as LA’s infamous “Pink Wall,” the landmark attracts more than 55,000 visitors a year – and is captured in more than 100,000 Instagram posts annually. However, the pink wall seems tangential to the issue largely focused on by “Fake Famous,” existing merely as a pretty-pink introduction to a deeper discussion of social media.

Said discussion is centered around a social experiment that operates under the guise of an innocent, seemingly straightforward question: “Do you want to be famous?” According to debut director, producer and seasoned journalist Nick Bilton, a fair number of people do.

 “Today, kids in America say they want to be [a famous influencer] more than any other occupation on Earth,” Bilton said. 

But there’s a dark, unforeseen cost to the glitz and glam of social media fame –– and “Fake Famous” is interested in exploring that often overlooked reality.

Immediately, Bilton’s tone in the documentary berates and condescends, as if motivated by a desire to humiliate those who choose to abide by an Instagram-worthy lifestyle. 

“They’re looking for [likes], which translates to more followers, which is the current currency of the most important thing on Earth today, what everyone seems to be obsessed with. They want to be famous,” said Bilton. 

However, considering the immediacy of social media, its relative ease of access and the constant growth of overwhelmingly popular social media sites, blaming those who engage in the system seems entirely inappropriate. 

We’re captivated to likes, followers and pings by design –– all of which temporarily boost happiness, yet ultimately leave us isolated and depressed.

But Bilton is particularly curious about a different aspect of social media influence: “Is that all real?” To answer his question, his crew assembled a casting call in Los Angeles, amassing over 4,000 submissions from micro-influencers and celebrities alike. A series of applicants filter in and out of the audition, led by a panel of social media experts, casting agents, stylists and Bilton himself. For the most part, applicants were actors and models looking to up their social media engagement and make it big.

After whittling down their top contenders, we are left with “three less obvious choices”: aspiring actress Dominique Druckman, real-estate agent personal assistant Wylie Heiner and fashion enthusiast and head of 1-OFF Recycled Garment Project Chris Bailey.

Druckman’s story begins in a cozy, Los Angeles apartment where she leads a simple life, working as a Lululemon employee and pursuing a burgeoning acting career in her downtime. Bailey’s world seems show-offish at first, but he’s ultimately driven by a desire to be perceived as entirely himself. He stands his ground, adamantly removing any sign of inauthentic engagement on his Instagram page –– all of which accumulates into his early leaving of the social experiment. From the get-go, Heiner seems similarly unsure about his newly-acquired fame. His story arc, too, is often characterized by anxiety and a lack of satisfaction with his life. 

“The combination of the social media, the combination of being around so many beautiful people, it’s very competitive,” said Heiner.

As a first big step in the experiment, the trio receives a makeover and the first of many social media boosts. Because the documentary often harps on the superficiality of internet fame, however, the makeovers seem contradictory –– and at the very least, unnecessary to the purpose of the experiment.

Bilton buys each of the three a like, comment and follower bundle of nearly $120 each through Famoid, one of many sites allowing the purchase of “fake” social media currency that arrives to their Instagram profiles in as little as a day. Rather than let our amateur influencers accrue followers and likes in secrecy, Bilton lays bare the entire process for viewers with resounding clarity –– first explaining what exactly a “bot” is, then referring to their notorious interference with the 2016 presidential election

But just one “bot bundle” isn’t enough; in order to account for the upswell of followers, Bilton has to buy even more likes –– an inevitably vicious cycle that everyday Instagram users aren’t exactly familiar with. For social media influencers, constant audience engagement –– even with fake followers –– is crucial to growing their platforms. 

The documentary is quick to deconstruct the over-edited, picture-perfect lifestyles of thousands of social media influencers. As a means of jumpstarting Druckman’s, Bailey’s and Heiner’s online presence, Bilton’s team assembles elaborate, manicured photoshoots that appear as if effortlessly capturing spur-of-the-moment … well, moments. Like an influencer’s career, it’s a carefully orchestrated ordeal that requires the combined efforts of picturesque lighting, deliberately-framed objects and carefully-cropped images eventually curated for the Instagram feed. Druckman and Heiner pose as if enjoying a lavish afternoon at the poolside of a Four Seasons hotel, champagne and chocolate in hand, while Bailey seemingly spends a day working out at a private gym in Beverly Hills, or on an expensive flight to nowhere in particular.

Because large amounts of the documentary’s material was pulled directly from Snapchat stories, Instagram videos and raw paparazzi footage, it’s easy for viewers to follow Bilton’s concern with being in the limelight. Even so, mere snippets of influencer content aren’t factually supportive of Bilton’s social experiment. Instead, real-world insight offered by social media and tech professionals couple Bilton’s narration of the documentary in bits and pieces, so as not to detract from the entertainment-first approach taken in the film. 

As the experiment unfolds, it becomes clear who wears fame the best. At the start of the experiment, Druckman had approximately 1,100 followers on Instagram. As of now, she’s at nearly 350,000 followers and poised to continue growing. 

With an active user platform of more than 1.15 billion people, Instagram is a cash cow for users looking to lead the glossy, famous influencer lifestyle. But as “Fake Famous” proves, the hidden underbelly of social media portends vast, unintended consequences –– many of which stem from largely artificial, coordinated, and money-minded approaches to social media.

Mia Hammett is an Entertainment Intern for the winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at hammettm@uci.edu.