By a reinforcing, if somewhat startling, coincidence (startling due to the content of both), I was halfway through reading Joshua Rothman’s insightful article, “Afterimage” in The New Yorker, when it was time to view director-writer, Bert Marcus’ latest film, The American Meme.
Rothman’s article has much to say about digital manipulation of images to the point where—according to Matt Turek (Program Manager, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), “I’ve heard people talk about how we might land at a ‘zero trust’ model, where by default you believe nothing.” And who can possibly confirm the veracity, as just one example, of the “five hundred and seventy-six thousand hours of video [that] are uploaded to YouTube [daily].”
Marcus set himself the task of profiling some of the world’s most “followed” social media superstars, letting their work and their own voices make his points about the business of making a living doing outrageous things and sharing those with their seemingly insatiable admirers and online “family”.
I betray my age and only slight interest in liking or following anyone I have never met—from a group of nine—by only recognizing the name of Paris Hilton, who becomes the production’s style-setting, product-pushing glue. But with 50 million followers, the savvy, saucy hotel heiress readily catches the attention of corporate America and those whose idea of going to heaven is any sort of collaboration with her. Tellingly, Hilton admits early on that “I’m closer to my fans than people.”
Josh Ostrovsky revels in his persona as The Fat Jew. Sporting a “hair-ection”, visiting a puppy mansion or tarting up for an appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner. The perpetual showman is probably the most cognizant of his colleagues that his brand has a limited shelf life. No worries, he strikes more gold with the launch of White Girl Rosé, naturally tossing his barely covered, considerable hulk into a full glass of the pink bubbly—both the commercial spot and the beverage have gone viral. That video wizardry is somewhat akin to the entirely fake “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid”—currently at almost 46,000,000 views. Who wouldn’t want an advertisement on that site?
Saddest “performer” of the group is easily Kirill Bichutsky whose early career showed much promise as a photographer until realizing that binge drinking in clubs with sexy babes and posting all of that raunchiness—champagne covered bare breasts being a favourite—to Instagram was the key to a mountain of cash and near-perpetual hangover. But his X-rated videos were not welcome on the platform, forcing the travelling party animal to keep changing his handle before finally settling in as SlutWhisperer. One “memorable” scene shows a very new couple (merely days after the first kiss) meet their idle and have his moniker tattooed on both of their asses, setting up a great, cheeky shot at the ensuing celebration of booze and babes.
In Bichutsky’s coda, he complains of numerous black outs, spitting up blood and—following one of several chats with his supportive, somewhat disappointed mother (“He never finished school”)—the sultan of slut wonders how long he can keep going (soon turning thirty-three), knowing that “this is all I can do.”
Also on the family front, Brittany Furlan’s in-your-face videos (beginning on Vine, where she rightly opines that, being an online actress after all, “there’s no audition”), can be a career-making reaction to a home life where her mother fought/argued with her dad (at one point wielding a knife, terrifying the six-year-old). Even the inevitable divorce did not bring any sort of closure to the vulnerable woman’s fears of being deserted.
For Hilton, she is permanently scarred by the infamous sex tape that shamed herself and, notably, her mother and readily admits to sinking into deep depression despite the apparent love of millions upon millions of Little Hiltons. Her mental, physical and emotional saviour comes in the tattooed shape of Tommy Lee Jones. At 23 years her senior, here’s hoping the many hurts and voids in her life/psyche will be tempered and healed with unflinching love. But that was not to be. Jones recently married Furlan and Paris plans to tie the knot and “become the best mom ever” with actor Chris Zylka.
Ostrovsky baldly admits that “I’ve been creating fake news for years” (the dehydrated kale shoe being one prank for the gullible). DJ Khaled “managed” to have his infant son, Asahd, executive produce his latest album—and has the pictures and video clips to prove it. Social media superstars will do anything to raise the follow/like bar with any means available. That is nothing less than their ardent fans deserve whether they are real or part of some sort of bot scheme. Say it isn’t so!
There are several other Internet celebrities in Marcus’ tautly crafted, superbly edited (kudos to Tchavdar Georgiev and Monique Zavistovski) production; Tyler Strickland’s original score discreetly handles the transitions from the many, varied songs that accompany the vast array of videos. Appropriately, Hilton ‘s super hero image in a “top secret” virtual room brings down the curtain on this tale of how much of the world gets its kicks one meme at a time.
But let’s give the last word to Hany Farid (professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, aka “father” of digital image forensics—systematically separating the video wheat from the chaff):
“A huge part of the solution [to fake videos] is dealing with perverse incentives on social media. The entire business model of these trillion-dollar companies is attention engineering. It’s poison.”
Here’s hoping Farid and his colleagues can find the means to allow the millions of social media devotees depicted in Marcus’ incredible journey into “what cost fame?” the opportunity of knowing whether or not a picture is truly worth a thousand words or a thousand edits. JWR