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Doing it for the ‘Gram – ‘Fake Famous’

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I’ll be the first to admit that I have a tenuous grasp on the concept of what it means to be an influencer. While I recognize that it involves building a large following on assorted social media platforms, then using those platforms to promote both one’s personal brand and the brands of those companies willing and able to cough up free stuff and/or cash, what I don’t get is … why?

Fame used to be the byproduct of individual talent, whether that talent involved music or movies or athletics or politics. You were famous because you DID something. But here in the 21st century – and especially in the last decade or so – that formula has been inverted by many. That is, you do things because you’re famous.

Again – what does that mean?

That’s the central question that the new HBO documentary “Fake Famous” is attempting to answer. The film – which marks the filmmaking debut of journalist Nick Bilton, who wrote and directed – bills itself as a social experiment of sorts, an attempt to delve into what exactly it means to be an influencer and exploring whether they are born or made.

It all boils down to numbers.

How many followers do you have on Instagram? And how many of those followers actively engage with your account, be it through likes or comments or both? That is the currency of this particular land. Those numbers are the difference between a nice social media following and the world of influencers, a place where people are plied with gifts and more in an effort by brands to cash in on someone else’s reach.

The experiment is simple. Bilton puts out a casting call, a very straightforward request for people who want to be influencers. As you might imagine, he and his crew had plenty of wannabes – primarily models and actors – turn out for their shot at fame. Ultimately, three are selected: aspiring actress Dominique Druckman, real estate assistant Wylie Heiner and songwriter/designer Christopher Bailey.

From there, the plan is this: turn these relatively unassuming people into social media influencers, building their small collection of followers into the kind of six-or-seven-digit cohort that gets you noticed. This is done through a variety of avenues, many of which are … let’s just say questionable as far as ethics.

Bilton purchases followers for each account via some unsavory websites, allowing for the numbers to be bulked up right away. He can also purchase a set number of likes and comments, all intended to grow the illusion of engagement. From there, we get some photo shoots intended to continue constructing the influencer façade – this is actually a great look at some of the tricks influencers use to give the impression of leading a more glamorous and exciting life than they actually do (no spoilers, but there’s a particularly great one involving a toilet seat – yes, really).

However, as the experiment continues, each of the participants winds up at a personal crossroads. There’s a significant amount of work that goes into building an influencer profile, as well as a good deal of stress. The goal might be to appear footloose and fancy free, but we quickly learn that the path of an influencer is one marked with obstacles. It’s a hustle, just like anything else; keep moving or fall by the wayside.

I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that the experiment plays out in very different ways for Dominique, Wylie and Christopher – and none of it goes the way that Bilton anticipates, right up to the very end, when the real-life scourge of COVID-19 forces its way into the proceedings.

“Fake Famous” is an interesting document, a look at how our notions of fame and the benefits therein have been irrevocably altered by the explosion of social media. The idea of being able to buy your way to fame isn’t a new one, but it is one that has been taken into the stratosphere in recent years. Most of what we get is surface level, but for those with relatively little knowledge of this vast and varied online world, it serves as a solid primer.

It’s a peek behind the curtain, offering a view that the cynical among us probably already suspected was there. For so many of these influencers, there is no Great and Powerful Oz; there’s just a person pulling levers behind the scenes, presenting an image to the world that is ultimately illusory, all in pursuit of the perceived power that comes with fame.

Along the way, Bilton presents interviews with a number of people who understand fame in different ways. There are some academics, some social media mavens and the like, though the best interview of the bunch is probably actress Justine Bateman, whose had her own experiences with fame and even wrote a book on the subject. These interviews provide welcome context set against the ongoing experiment that is central to the film.

One could argue that “Fake Famous” promotes these notions of fame as much as it disabuses them; even wearing its cynicism on its sleeve, the film can’t help but make some of this stuff look pretty great even as it digs away at the more questionable aspects of its foundation. Still, it’s tough to watch this and think that being an influencer is the gig for you.

Then again, there are thousands upon thousands of people out there – young people in particular – who genuinely believe that this kind of life is the one they want to lead. And I get it; it all looks very exciting and lucrative and rewarding when you see it on the screen. Fame is part of today’s cultural fabric in a way that it simply never was for previous generations. No longer is fame the byproduct of other accomplishment – it IS the accomplishment.

As a social experiment, “Fake Famous” is a mixed bag. As a documentary, it’s a success. Anyone interested in this world and the way it works will find this film plenty engaging. Bilton and company are doing it for the ‘Gram.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 February 2021 20:19

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