Living for likes and subscribers can be a poisoned chalice or a dream come true, according to Get Rich or Lie Trying by journalist Symeon Brown
THE influencer economy, fuelled by the ability of social media to instantly reach millions of people, has changed the way we work, rest and play. For some, the rise of this new way to make a living has been a boon – demolishing gatekeepers, minting a new era of celebrities and making millionaires of people who might otherwise be trapped in a dead-end job.
But this has been far from a uniformly good thing for society. As Channel 4 News journalist Symeon Brown uncovers in Get Rich or Lie Trying, the seedy side of social media can be as harmful as it is helpful.
Brown’s reporting sees him go back to the streets of London where he grew up to hear from school friends who have fallen prey to pyramid schemes dressed up as online cryptocurrency investments. He also heads to Los Angeles, where he meets nipped and tucked influencers seeking the perfect body, often ruining their health in the process.
Get Rich or Lie Trying is a chastening read, clearly showing that the lowlights of online fame are as depressing as its highlights are inspiring. Brown races through the influencer economy and the different industries it touches, from the sweatshops churning out poor-quality clothing to ensure that scrolling teenagers can keep up with the latest red carpet looks on a budget, to the surgeons that perform Brazilian butt lifts, a risky procedure where fat is taken from other parts of the body and injected into the buttocks.
At times, Brown hurtles through first-person stories so fast that there is hardly a chance to blink. Those he highlights as exploiting social media – or being exploited by it – sometimes pass by too quickly for us to remember who they are or why we should care. It feels a bit like the relentless hamster wheel of the algorithms that drive social media platforms, and the whole experience can become a bit discombobulating.
At times, you struggle to see who to feel sorrier for: the young woman cajoled into performing a sex act on camera, or the man who is paid to receive insults online. Sometimes, they blur into a catalogue of horrors that becomes difficult to unpick and reflect on.
The book’s stronger sections are those that bring the action closer to home and address some deeper, more systemic issues. A chapter on how social media’s unique voice is often driven by authentic Black voices that are then co-opted and copied by richer, white entrepreneurs without qualms is particularly powerful, and begins to tackle wider problems entrenched in social media.
Elsewhere in the book, the bigger picture is lacking, however. We know, for example, that the drive to achieve physical “perfection” is an issue, and research has made clear both the role that social media platforms play in perpetuating this and the effects of such ideals on mental and physical health. Yet Brown spends surprisingly little time questioning what can be done about the broken bodies and livelihoods left behind in the race to get famous on social media, or even who is to blame.
The book does a much better job of highlighting just how perilous living a life designed to go viral can be – and how quickly the thing that made you famous can become passé. It raises important questions about the value we place on superficial appearances, and how social media all too often encourages us to sacrifice thinking deeply in favour of a neat sound bite.
Overall, Get Rich or Lie Trying is well worth reading – but, like social media, at times it would do well to go deeper and dwell a little longer.
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