“Echoing the Influence Economy”
Elizabeth Affuso (Pitzer College)
In January 2019, 21 months after the Bahamas-based Fyre Festival, Netflix and Hulu both released documentaries – Fyre and Fyre Fraud, respectively – that chronicle the event and its demise. Given their simultaneous release and overlapping content, the two films work best when taken together as a document of what happens when social media influence goes awry and when a con man seeking to gain money and status does so through the exploitation of social media lifestyle culture.
Fyre and Fyre Fraud both rely on footage created by festival organizers, digital marketing agencies, and Fyre attendees to create their stories. These are not documentaries where a crew was on the ground shooting footage for the purpose of making a festival documentary—as seen in classic examples such as Woodstock (1970), Monterey Pop (1968), or Gimme Shelter (1970)—but rather films that utilize footage made by social media users as part of the day-to-day practice of self-documentation in the digital age. Fyre and Fyre Fraud rely on a world where people have access to mobile phone cameras and where social media sites like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook encourage the continuous posting of content by regular people, influencers, and celebrities alike. Within this economy, quotidian content is not culturally valuable; users must find events to orient their social media images toward the desired lifestyle of the social media economy, a lifestyle that is defined by the hyper-aestheticization of everyday life. As New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino notes in Fyre Fraud, “there are a lot of people in the millennial generation that are interested in experiences that are effectively like pretexts for really good Instagrams.” There are a multitude of examples of experiences that attempt to harness this need for really good Instagram content, such as the Museum of Ice Cream, the Global Angel Wings Project, numerous Yayoi Kusama exhibitions, and Fyre Fest. Fyre Festival artist Major Lazer, describes the goal of the event as “Instagram come to life” (Fyre, 2019) and both films document how Fyre head Billy McFarland, the Jerry Media marketing team, and an assortment of accomplices harnessed this desire by creating fabulous Instagram images to sell the event on the pretext that attendees would get to fill their own feeds with similar social media content. In effect, Fyre Festival was less about music than about the privilege of making potentially postable content available to a select group of people who could afford to spend hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars to access it and then share it on social media to build the Fyre brand to the masses.
Instagram-oriented events like Coachella, The Bell, and Fyre operate from a structure that feeds on the hierarchical economy that influence culture creates. These events are perfectly structured to take advantage of this new economy, and Fyre attendance was designed to include conventional celebrities such as Tyga (17.2m followers) and Bella Hadid (25.2m followers), and influencers such as Austin Mills (59.6k followers) and CC Clarke (2m followers), alongside regular attendees. Within this context a convergence occurs, wherein social media users at all ends of the spectrum make similar content, and capital is gained for those lower down the follower spectrum by their association – through Fyre – with those higher up. Instagram-oriented events like Fyre compensate celebrities and influencers with money or perks in exchange for social media posts that increase the desirability of the event for paying customers. These relationships are often not transparent, creating a social media economy where content is seldom distinguishable from ads. As Tolentino states, “What an influencer is, is someone who’s effectively monetized their identity. That is their work. The performance of an attractive life. That is their job” (Fyre Fraud, 2019). Fyre and Fyre Fraud document how, within the structures of neoliberal late capitalism, monetizing identity into a personal brand is seen as a valuable skill.
Much of the interest in the failure of Fyre Festival, as evidenced in both Fyre and Fyre Fraud, is centered on watching Instagram content get exposed as the construction it is, on the disconnect between digital self-documentation and reality. Ultimately, both Fyre and Fyre Fraud are interested in the veracity of the image, a concern long held by documentary and photography scholars, which takes on new urgency in an era when cameras are everywhere and neoliberalism has turned everyone into a brand. Both films feature what is perhaps the most iconic image from Fyre Festival: that of a wilted cheese sandwich in a Styrofoam container tweeted by user Trever DeHaas (937 followers), which garnered 4000 likes and is used in both films as a symbol of promised luxury gone very, very awry. The appeal of the photo is in its manifestation of reality, while the social media commentary it elicited is a classic example of schadenfreude directed at the wealthy.
But the documentaries themselves are also complicit in this social media system. Influencers—with their larger followings—produce the most visible content, and both Fyre and Fyre Fraud privilege these users, their content, and their opinions within the films. The experts interviewed in Fyre and Fyre Fraud are different, but the featured festival guests overlap, reflecting how social media comes to privilege posts and users via virality or follower counts. Both films feature identical content from several of these influencers as evidence, including an IG Stories video from lifestyle influencer Alyssa Lynch describing the conditions on the Fyre charter jet and a mannequin challenge video featuring models Hailey Bieber and Bella Hadid taken during the initial island photo shoot that made the Fyre Festival brand what it was. Thus, the documentaries—like Instagram itself—privilege the self-documentation of influencers who were paid to be at the event because this content is most visible in a culture centered on the affective engagement of likes, follows, and comments. Within the streaming documentary economy, filmmakers often work quickly and rely on footage easily available in digital contexts to meet the continuous need for new content. This creates a circumstance where viral content becomes the lynchpin for the stories that documentaries like Fyre and Fyre Fraud are telling. Arguably, the most compelling footage in both documentaries is the brief interviews with Bahamian workers who built the festival site, provided transportation, and did catering services. The vast majority of local workers were never compensated for their labor. Yet, the story of how Fyre Festival exploited a poor community is not a centerpiece of the story because social media mimics larger power structures in terms of whose voices get heard and who has access to technology. Social media cultures foreground those who elect – and are able – to visibly participate in participatory culture, which skews representation in ways that documentarians need to be conscious of. Otherwise, the images presented are those that our culture already privileges.
“An Orange Tile”
Neta Alexander (New York University)
The fact that two recent documentaries, Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud (both released in 2019), were dedicated to one of the most talked-about scams in recent years should not come as a surprise. After all, Fyre Festival, an ill-fated music festival that (barely) took place in the Bahamas in May 2017, is documentary gold: a too-good-to-be-true island getaway filled with influencers, supermodels, turquoise water, chef cuisines, luxury yachts, and wild pigs. Starting from a few thousand dollars, packages included a beachfront villa for a weekend of music, alcohol, and endless Instagram selfies. As the title Fyre Fraud hints, however, the dream quickly turned into a fiasco wherein the sushi was replaced with embarrassingly non-photogenic cheese sandwiches and the villas turned out to be water-soaked FEMA rescue tents. With sympathy for the thousands of well-off ticket buyers who got stuck on the island for a day or two, both documentaries offer an hour and a half of entertaining anecdotes and confessions of both greed and disillusionment. Merging talking heads with backstage footage, these films invite us to indulge in the gap between the glamorous public relations campaign and the exploitative culture of false promises that came to define Fyre Festival. The result is a cautionary tale for current and wannabe “influencers” — those who are able to turn their symbolic capital (e.g., followers on social media) into monetary capital by branding themselves as promoters of lifestyles, products, and cultural events.
After both documentaries were dropped by competing streaming platforms on the same week last January, they were criticized for being as ethically dubious as their entrepreneur-turned-felon protagonist, Billy McFarland. Fyre Fraud, directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, paid McFarland for an exclusive interview that failed to shed new light on the twenty-something CEO of Fyre Media. Chris Smith’s Fyre is a co-production of Vice Studios and, more disturbingly, Jerry Media, the marketing firm initially hired by McFarland to promote the festival.
I will not dwell here on the ethical issues the films raise (as these have been richly discussed by others). Instead, I would like to closely read the most memorable image produced by the Fyre Festival PR campaign: an orange tile astounding for its lack, rather than excess, of information. Simultaneously posted to Instagram on December 12, 2016 at 5:00 p.m. by hundreds of celebrities and influencers (among them the supermodels Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, and Emily Ratajkowski), the tile served to advertise the festival but contained no logo, dates, brand name, or any other information. Instead, the Instagram posts included a caption with a link to buy tickets for the festival. According to Smith’s Fyre, Kendall Jenner was paid $250,000 to post a single picture of the tile.
The viral promotional video produced by Jerry Media, which sold the idea that this festival was, to use McFarland’s words, “both a dream and a concept,” featured glamorous supermodels frolicking in the water, hanging out on a yacht, and befriending wild pigs on an island that supposedly once belonged to Pablo Escobar (one of the first, and in no way the last, false claims made by McFarland). Yet, the sleek images of bikini-clad models are less interesting than the mysterious, abstract tile. It is here, in its visual language of saturated orangeness, that the power of Fyre lies. Much like the participants in Fritz Heider’ and Marianne Simmel’s An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior (1943), who instantly attributed their own life experiences, traumas, and desires, to a short film depicting nothing but a circle and two triangles, the millions of Instagram followers attributed whatever fantasy they had to the orange tile. It is therefore ironic that McFarland and, under his guidance, Jerry Media were eventually accused of selling something that never existed. The orange tile made no claim to indexicality. Unlike the video, which was supposedly shot on the festival site yet was revealed to take place on a different island, the tile was an empty signifier. Whatever it stood for — the perfect honeymoon, a once-in-a-lifetime spring break, a weekend-long bachelor party — was in the eyes (and minds) of the beholder.
Despite being the perfect marketing scheme, the tile also invokes a long tradition of experimental and avant-garde documentaries. Films such as Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993) have studied the emotional intensity of saturated colors, while black frames and white frames have been used by numerous filmmakers (such as, recently, Kirsten Johnson in Cameraperson) to invoke a sense of loss, trauma, or discontinuity. What these works have in common is the belief that not much is needed for the spectator to attribute a feeling or an idea to an image. They demonstrate why Hider’ and Simmel’s “attribution theory” is a useful tool for a deeper understanding of social media. Influenced by Gestalt theory, which studies how the human brain assembles meaning from distinct pieces of information, the idea behind the attribution theory studies of the 1940s was that humans need very little information and stimuli in order to construct a coherent story. It is enough to show spectators a small triangle being “chased” by a circle to invoke strong feelings of anger, fear, or regret.
By embracing an abstract image, the Fyre Festival’s campaign was able to sell two dreams simultaneously: that of an Instagramable utopia and that of a uniquely catered experience that can fulfill whatever fantasy one might have. Still, the fact that the orange tile was mostly posted by beautiful, young women reminds us that “attribution theory” has its limit: even if the content was a tabula rasa, a playground for one’s ego, the framing narrows the fantasy to McFarland’s definition of the good life: “Living like movie stars and fucking like porn stars”.
After the festival officially turned into a debacle, McFarland himself attributed the blame to “circumstances not under our control.” Blaming a seasonal rainstorm for the dire state of the campsite, he tried to argue that it was the higher force of nature that led to the lack of shelter, of food, and, most heartbreakingly, of Blink-182. This final, desperate attempt to save his reputation ironically connects the flooded festival tents to FEMA and its discourse of recovery after environmental disasters. In retrospect, the bright color of the orange tile can remind us of the life-vests wore by refugees on their way to Europe, meant to help them be seen from afar by rescuers.
Fyre and Fyre Fraud are at their best when unpacking the meaning of the orange tile: which promises were made by McFarland and which were wishful thinking based on an obsession with the perfect selfie. By mapping every misstep that led to the fiasco, they provide us with timely portraits of an influencer culture defined by its endless pursuit of “the perfect image.” An orange tile could be everything we wished for. Alas, it could also be a marketing scheme carefully designed to send our hands to our pockets.