The Unbearable Torture of Celebs’ Luxury Instagramming During Coronavirus
While so many are dead and suffering, cloistered celebrities have spent the pandemic posting away on Instagram, exposing its classist rot.
In the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, there has been much discussion of the role of celebrity, from the obtuseness of the rich and famous to the pointed (and fairly narrow) ways in which they can be useful, tuning into our suffering from their stocked-up mansions and penthouses. But the backbone of their influence has generally gone unexamined.
Instagram, the foremost mechanism for celebrities to cultivate and control their public images, has transformed into a kind of Wild West over the last month—particularly in the U.S., where many celebrities are huddled on the coasts, from the Hamptons to Hollywood. (No word yet from Kanye, who would surely do individually well to be relaxing out at his Wyoming estate.)
Recently, music industry mogul David Geffen posted several grams of his $590 million superyacht, one with the caption: “Sunset last night... isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus. I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.” After an online uproar, Geffen deactivated his Instagram. Still, there are other, less astronomically rich yet still financially blessed celebs to carry the torch of luxury at the time of mass death: Drake, the self-titled Champagne Papi, posted an image of his personal jet with the caption “‘SOCIAL DISTANCING’ ℅ ABLOH ENGINEERING,” apparently referencing a collaboration with the fashion designer Virgil Abloh.
And even earlier during this dark timeline of ours, in late February, Gwyneth Paltrow posted a gram from first class while donning a $65 high-tech Swedish anti-pollution mask. The caption read, “En route to Paris. Paranoid? Prudent? Panicked? Placid? Pandemic? Propaganda? Paltrow’s just going to go ahead and sleep with this thing on the plane. I’ve already been in this movie. Stay safe. Don’t shake hands. Wash hands frequently.” (Paltrow played patient zero in Contagion.)
Yachts, jets, and face masks cost money, yet Instagram is, generally speaking, free to use (at least as long as you have access to a device and internet connection, which many people living in poverty and/or rural areas don’t). So, naturally, when celebrities and influencers market themselves to us on the platform, the “us” is typically broke. In mildly, subjectively “better times,” this made Instagram a vicarious platform, where the many could bask in the beauty, wealth, and health of the few from afar. Today, Instagram provides regular people with both an agonizing proximity and terrifying distance to that trifecta of good fortune.
On Twitter, epidemiologists, nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, and other “essential employees” are voicing their concerns, wisdom, fear, anger, and policy proposals while activists, organizers, and people lucky enough to still be earning a full paycheck while working from home frantically collect and give money and services to those suffering and fighting on the front lines of the crisis. Instagram, then, provides a kind of refuge for the uber-rich-and-famous, who are now bombarded by the essentialness, usefulness, and courage of literally everybody else.
Of course, there are some exceptions. On Instagram Live, Tamia and Deborah Cox recognized that their talents can provide a form of comfort, and sang a beautiful rendition of Whitney Houston’s and CeCe Winans’ “Count On Me”. Some health and wellness practitioner-influencers have held free sessions for those seeking methods to manage their anxiety, while distributing information about COVID-19 to those who have justifiably been confused by government messaging in the U.S. and U.K. about the disease.
But Instagram famously went from a platform that prioritized close-knit communities sharing experiences from afar with chronological posts to a freewheeling global social media frenzy that rewards the most popular posters by showing the “content” to followers over and over, chronology be damned. The chronicles on the platform are not instant, but rather, incessant. No longer do the posts feel like an expedited message-in-a-bottle, but an endlessly flashing notification saying, “Look at me!” In fact, the rich and famous should be wary of making such demands at this time, unless they are beckoning the masses toward immediate resources and cash payments.
In the meantime, the masses are coming together in recognition of the difference between them and the celebrity/influencer “Other,” so to speak. In the 2018 paper “From Mediatized Emotion to Digital Affect Cultures: New Technologies and Global Flows of Emotion,” authors Katrin Döveling, Anu A. Harju, and Denis Sommer theorize a “digital affect culture” wherein digital media has created the conditions for emotion as a cultural—and not merely individual or local—practice. Döveling et al. write that “When people emotionally, ideologically, culturally, or socially align with similar others, they inevitably also disalign with the contextually unrecognizable other.”
Typically, this kind of digitized communal bonding has happened around terrorist attacks or celebrity fandom, and not alienation under capitalism and state-structured social death (in other words, the death that comes before physical death; the kind that makes it impossible to receive adequate healthcare or social services, for example). “Like social life,” Döveling et al explain, “communication is embedded in cultural conditions.” The authors see “affect as a cultural practice being transferred and shaped by communication while at the same time influencing our communicative action.” This is to say that the way we affectively respond to celebrities in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic on Instagram and Twitter is shaped by those very social media platforms, and in turn, that affective response (disbelief, exasperation, fury, disillusionment) shapes the way we use Instagram and Twitter.
Just like capitalism, the root cause of today’s horrific suffering, Instagram is now seeing its underlying rot ruthlessly exposed. And of course, the current iteration of the platform, what with its churning algorithms, is only made possible by our late, hyper-technologized iteration of capitalism. In fact, the workings of nearly all of the major social media platforms, from Instagram to Twitter to Facebook to WhatsApp (Facebook acquired Instagram and WhatsApp, and so lords over both), are made relatively opaque to the commons. Instead, we feed them with our data as we beg them to feed us with their vicarious pleasures, which actually are not any kind of sustenance at all, as it turns out. Now, greater numbers of regular users are forming a kind of digital kinship around the inequities these platforms simultaneously mystify and amplify.
Celebrities, the upper echelon of the social media hierarchy—some of whom have invested in social media companies—often earn serious money per Instagram post (Kylie Jenner, Beyoncé, Ronaldo, Kim Kardashian, and Selena Gomez earn some of the biggest bucks on the platform). Influencers, the effective middle class of Instagram and the like, rake in the remaining crumbs via free products and wage-based brand ambassadorships. Both groups are now witnessing much more than the usual distaste or criticism from the underclasses, who are often asked to relinquish what little money they have to attain the images of their role models.
While I personally encourage any and all harsh criticism of the rich, complacent, and exploitative, we would do well to develop some of our awareness offline, not forgetting that the technocrats, like Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, are raking in billions off of our sustained attention toward flashy celebrities. What would it take to get to him?