I’ve developed a bad habit: watching a so-called social-media star melt down into mascara-riddled tears on YouTube.
This began last summer, when I found myself watching a three-part documentary on the collapse of something called TanaCon. It was an event in Anaheim, Calif., launched by an unhappy YouTube star, Tana Mongeau, who felt that she had received less-than-VIP treatment at YouTube’s official fan event, VidCon.
Ms. Mongeau decided to hold a separate conference, named after herself. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of teenagers bought tickets then ended up stuck in a hot parking lot for hours. Some fainted. When the event finally opened, it was frighteningly over-capacity and devoid of most of the promised fun.
And that’s just the beginning! The admonishments, demands for refunds and laying of blame lasted an hour. And I watched, because it was grotesquely fascinating, although I had no idea who this person was.
Shows what I know: Ms. Mongeau has 3.7 million YouTube subscribers. Her latest video is a tour of her house, which is a mansion. Any financial setbacks from TanaCon aren’t immediately obvious, even if her bio currently reads “struggling demonetized influencer.”
Influencers – believe it or not, they’re a thing.
The term bubbled up early in the decade, as non-celebrity social-media feeds drew hundreds of thousands of followers. Companies noticed, and marketing teams began to reach out to people such as amateur makeup artists, many of them truly talented.
Beauty brands sent over samples and sales spiked after positive reviews. A few popular artists scored real jobs, even their own makeup lines. It all seemed so innocent and exciting.
Their influence was genuine, then: They were real people, not professionals, showing off their enviable knacks for interior design, outfit assembly or packing their children healthy, pretty lunches.
Copying their ideas slid easily into buying the same stuff they had, into finding it acceptable that sometimes that stuff had been given to them. The tactic was successful and profits exploded: In 2017, a British marketing company put global spending on influencers at US$1-billion.
With that much money at stake, it was inevitable that things would get wild.
Big accounts were hacked, and held for ransom; wannabe influencers designed their feeds to look as though they’ve been sponsored and people shamelessly tried to make Instagram stars out of their kids. Rumours abounded that some influencers accepted money give their sponsor’s competitors negative reviews, and a whole new set of YouTube channels popped up devoted to disagreements and drama.
Alongside real-people, influencers are young celebrities casually sprinkling free goods through their designed-to-seem-intimate feeds. Some are said to be paid tens of thousands of dollars for even one Instagram post, which brings us to the meltdown of the moment, Fyre Festival.
The failed music festival actually happened in 2017, but two documentaries on the saga were released last week. Canadians can’t see the doc put out by Hulu, but the one on Netflix is grotesque enough.
In short, a seemingly sociopathic scammer named Billy McFarland put together a team of investors, event organizers and music techs, all entranced by his promise of a luxury weekend music festival in the Bahamas. Even as his lies became increasingly evident, most of them stuck around.
Wealthy party-goers paid thousands for tickets and accommodation, then ended up stranded on the Bahamian coast in a rainstorm without food. Eventually, Mr. McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud. Most of that is fun to watch, but the fact that hundreds of local workers were ripped off while a local hotelier lost her life savings is infuriating.
Influencers didn’t make the mess, but they certainly helped create the beast. Models and celebrities including Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin and Kendall Jenner (whose fee was rumoured to be US$250,000) were photographed or recorded for marketing materials sent out by Fyre itself, but also gushed about the event on their personal social-media feeds.
All used the hashtag #fyrefestival, as instructed by their employers, but not #ad or #sponsored, as required by the United States Federal Trade Commission. They are, in other words, partly responsible – or at least that’s what’s being argued in a case headed to Los Angeles Superior Court.
And so, another group of people learns that 21st-century lesson: What happens on the internet does matter in real life. For some strange reason, watching them get schooled is inexplicably appealing – The Truth about TanaCon, the documentary, has been viewed 18 million times.