‘Fake Famous’ Is HBO’s Lame Attempt at Mocking Influencer Culture
The new HBO doc “Fake Famous” seeks to expose the vapidity and fame-hunger of influencers. But it misses the broader point of why people are doing this, and consuming it.
Social media clout, like A-Rod’s stats or celebrity lip girth, can be artificially inflated. This is well-known and widespread. The metrics are wrong. Comments can be automated. Followers might be bots, scraped from hacked accounts and public domain pictures. There’s a kind of perverse democracy to it. In theory, anyone can engineer their own news story, catfish as a bodybuilder, or bot themselves into minor stardom. That last one, at least, is the bet tech journalist Nick Bilton makes in the new documentary Fake Famous (which airs Feb. 2 on HBO). Bilton, whose past credits include the book Hatching Twitter and, to some degree, the legalization of cellphone use on airplanes, undertook an experiment to manufacture fame, specifically the social media kind.
The parameters of his study were pretty simple. Bilton put out a call for young people with just two qualifications: a normal person-sized internet following and a desire to be famous. After screening some 4,000 candidates, he chose three: Dominique, an aspiring actress who works in retail; Chris, a self-assured fashion designer; and Wylie, the timid assistant to a demanding real estate agent. Over a period of several months, Bilton bought the trio tens of thousands of fake followers, sold at a relatively affordable rate ($119.60 for 7,500 accounts) to flood their photos with comments and likes. (A New York Times report found that one such vendor, Devumi, had generated a fleet of 3.5 million fake Twitter accounts, and supplied customers with over 200 million followers). Bilton’s platform of choice was Instagram, in part because the investigation focused on an occupation the app arguably invented: influencing.
A once amorphous term, the influencer has evolved into a fairly specific occupation—one that, to Bilton’s obvious alarm, now ranks among the most desired jobs in the minds of American schoolchildren. Instead of doctors or firefighters, Bilton explains in the opening monologue, kids aspire to be self-employed spokespeople who maintain online followings and leverage them for brand deals.
It’s the money Bilton’s after—or rather, the idea that a ginned-up microcelebrity with an algorithmically altered fanbase can convince corporations to start shelling out. Unsurprisingly perhaps, to anyone online in the 2010s, it works—for two of the test subjects. After three months of posting to an audience of robots, Dominique hears from a sunglasses company, offering pink-tinted aviators in exchange for some photos. Chris, following a photoshoot in a fake private gym, gets a DM from a real private gym, inviting him to a personal session. As Dominique’s faux fans soar toward 250,000 (she now has 341,000), the free stuff starts coming fast: APL sneakers, cryogenic beauty regimens, and eventually, an all-expense-paid VIP influencer roadtrip valued at $5,000. As Bilton puts it, she could “simply tag a brand in a photo,” and they would reach out with free samples. The con is so convincing, it tricks the bot-detection software companies use to assess prospective ad partners (that, Bilton points out, or the software is also a scam).
For Wylie though, the experiment sours. When a friend from home notices his Instagram changes, Wylie panics. He sets his account to private and stops posting. After two months and a few more photos, he asks to leave the experiment. Later, Chris follows suit. To some extent, the viewer gathers, the subjects are supposed to want out. The movie isn’t bashful about its disapproval of the (largely female) influencer economy, with its vacuum of authenticity. This is evident in its treatment of Dom, the only candidate to see the experiment through. When Chris quits, for example, he tells Bilton he wants to be famous “for being me,” an aspiration he defines solely in contrast to Dom. “When Dom came in, she’s like a piece of play-doh,” he says. “She’s soft and you guys can mold her. You gave her the highlights and the haircut—she is a brand new bitch. She was a brand new person! I came in—and I was like a sculpture of stone.”
The film’s disdain for its subject matter is palpable—often for good reason, but at times, to an extent that obscures Bilton’s point. At its crux, Fake Famous is about the incentive structure of social media—a system set up by titanic corporations that encourages people to lie, dissuades others from pointing it out, and ensures the rest keep scrolling. And yet the narrative’s focus on people who take advantage of it, who get trapped in it—the protagonists, but also the (mostly) girls that make up its selfie montages or TikTok clips—often lays blame at the feet of users. The camera seems to finger-wag at whatever moral failure has consumed today’s youth, while invoking a vague nostalgia for earlier times.
“It wasn’t that long ago that, in order to get away from the hustle and bustle and that never-ending grind of everyday life, you’d get on a plane, fly somewhere warm—like Los Angeles—and spend a week bopping from one tourist attraction to another,” Bilton mulls in his opening voiceover. “Now, people get on a plane and fly to L.A. to go to a pink wall to take selfies.” (Is the Santa Monica Pier more existentially fulfilling than the Paul Smith on Melrose? Maybe! But Runyon Canyon has no shortage of visitors.)
The film’s conviction in the baseness of influencing stunts its ability to ask basic questions about its appeal. That question—why do people want this?—only comes up once. And it is immediately answered. “Why? That’s easy,” Bilton says. “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.”
There’s a kind of self-evident truth there; so much of American aspiration is motivated by fame or power. And seeking fame, actress and author Justine Bateman posits in one scene, is something like asking for admiration, to be liked. But the inquiry ends there, even as alternative theories emerge from the subjects’ own mouths. For Kenzie Harr, a small-time influencer who joins Dominique for a photoshoot, the reason is bluntly economic: “I would much rather be an influencer than working at a restaurant,” she said, “or all these other odd jobs that we have to work.” Dom has a similar rationale. “I’ll play the game so that I can do what I want,” she says at her retail job, folding shirts into shipping envelopes, “but in the meantime, I’ll fill online orders.”
Though much of the internet is fake, a good deal of it is real—as Dominique discovers when, gradually, she begins to attract thousands of real followers. What drives those people? What do they want from influencers? If users know they’re being lied to, being spied on, being sold to, why do they click? The documentary doesn’t ask. Maybe the same explanations hold—likes, followers, fame. But it’s equally plausible that their motivations resemble Dom’s—that distant, pretty, para-social spokespeople amount to a minor escape from shitty minimum-wage jobs with no benefits and no future. Maybe the corporate monopolies that created social media addiction emerged from the same trickle-up economy that made people want to use it. “The entire concept of influencing is to make you feel worse,” Bilton concludes in the final moments of the film. That’s probably true, but a lot of people already did.