About a fortnight ago, TBS invited me (on behalf of Paste) to spend a weekend at the pristine Nizuc Resort and Spa in Cancún. The network had decided to throw a junket for its upcoming disaster comedy Wrecked, which premiered last week. They gave me and about ten other writers access to the cast and producers for interviews, screened the first two episodes for us under the Caribbean stars, and kept us happy with copious supplies of beach activities, water sports and free booze. The highlight: a hollowed-out pineapple that served as both beverage and beverage container. I don’t know how they performed that miracle. Other than the tropical weather, this was the exact opposite of Wrecked’s setting, a terrifyingly remote, uninhabited Pacific island that becomes home to a bunch of plane crash survivors.
I have mostly good things to say about Wrecked, which plays on the tropes established by Lost but quickly finds both a distinctive identity and a heart. And I promise you that’s not the pineapple cocktails and jet ski rides and fruit slingshots and weirdly subservient hotel employees talking. (Seriously, they all unfailingly placed their hands over their hearts any time I passed by, which made me wonder where the Nizuc keeps its brainwashing facility/robot factory.)
Right now, though, you’re going to hear all about the single most fascinating phenomenon of the junket: the couple dozen “influencers” in attendance.
Like anyone with any morsel of internet savvy living in 2016, I was aware that certain people have turned social media into a full-time career. They sport followings on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat and Vine and YouTube the size of which Paste can only dream. They seem to shit out “content” effortlessly, thrusting themselves in front of the world via screens and gaining the trust of legions of fans without the support of any big media companies or Hollywood studios. The very concept of an influencer is a democratic revolution in the entertainment industry, a job that literally did not exist five years ago but now commands the attention of both the public and the corporate world. It’s mind-boggling, and a lot of old-school members of the media probably look at these rising stars with a mixture of disdain and fear—fear for their way of life, fear for the death of journalism as we know it.
But you already knew that. What you might not know is how these people act in real life, outside of the context of their YouTube videos and Snapchats and other “content.” Over the course of two days of drunken conversation and faithful journalistic observation, I learned about the blurry line between public and private life, the weird, parasitic nature of technology, and the world’s newest class of small businesspeople. And it thrilled and scared the shit out of me.
One thing you need to understand about the Wrecked junket is that it was, at its core, a business trip. The cast and producers were there to represent their show. I, along with the other writers, was there to observe and report. And the influencers were there to share their experience with their followers, always mentioning that Wrecked was the occasion for this vacation. Together, this group of people succeeded in documenting the entire junket—the extravagant dance party featuring a DJ spinning from a fucking plane cockpit, the morning on the beach with giant beer pong and animal-shaped floaties and a goddamn slip n’ side, and, yes, some actual Wrecked-related informational things like the screening and a sort of speed-dating interview setup. The relative paucity of this latter category elucidated the event’s real purpose, as did the fact that influencers outnumbered journalists at least threefold. If we’re lucky, maybe a million people will read this piece or our preview of the show. Meanwhile, tens of millions of tech-dependent folks had their timelines and social media feeds filled with the hashtag #GetWrecked on Thursday and Friday. Kudos to TBS for recognizing the way promotion works nowadays: give influencers something to talk about, and they’ll spread your gospel far and wide.
And spread the gospel they did, through the constant usage of their phones at a beautiful tropical resort.
Like any adequate journalist (if I may call myself adequate), when I’m on the job, I need to have one foot in the moment and the other in posterity. Here in the media world, we’re in the business of telling stories full of rich detail that are supposed to make you, the consumer, feel something. That means we have to think about the meaning of the present as it happens, keeping a sort of running commentary slow-burning in the back corner of our minds, or, as it were, on our phones. You might remember the scene in Almost Famous where Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane watches William Miller taking notes at a Stillwater concert and takes away his paper. Undeniably, though, his brain kept churning out narratives. We writers aren’t totally incapable of enjoying life as it happens, but neither are we totally capable. It’s a small sacrifice to make to bring you factually accurate, hard-hitting stories. With the advent of Twitter and the expectation it brings that we’ll make public our running commentary, that sacrifice has grown somewhat larger.
But writers’ sacrifice is nothing compared to influencers’. Like journalists, they make their living on storytelling; unlike journalists, their storytelling requires a constant stream of technology. They can’t just take a few notes, remember the rest and churn out a few thousand words on the Wrecked junket—they constantly have their mind on public perception, and on how to craft engaging content out of the occasion of life.
Case in point: in the few hours we all spent on the beach on Friday morning, I witnessed everyone having a fucking blast. I also witnessed almost everyone spending at least half of that time with a phone or a camera in hand. Josh Peck (yep, that Josh Peck) didn’t just fire a coconut out of a massive slingshot; he had his friend Cameron record it. Multiple times, just to make sure the video and audio were great. Then he wandered around on the sand to find a spot where the Nizuc’s wifi signal was strong enough to post to Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook. Meanwhile, YouTube musician Ali Spagnola (who ended up becoming my drinking buddy both nights) took periodic breaks from the activities to meticulously edit photos for publication. When a majestic white unicorn floatie managed to escape everyone, riding the wind to some landing far down the Yucatán coast, the greatest tragedy was that Baddiewinkle, the 87-year-old Instagrandma (great-grandma, actually) with two million followers, wouldn’t get a picture on its back. And when the rain came, everyone freaked the fuck out and scurried to protect their precious electronics. Later in the evening, after the weather had cleared up, I witnessed a very happy George Janko, Facebook comedian, filming an impromptu sketch in the massive fake fuselage wreckage that TBS constructed for the dance party. (Have I mentioned how over-the-top this whole shindig was? It was REALLY FUCKING OVER-THE-TOP.)
Now, from talking to them and watching them do their thing, I have no doubt that all the influencers enjoyed sharing their experience with their fan armies. After all, they couldn’t have succeeded in a space that depends totally upon the appearance of authenticity without any semblance of actual authenticity. If faking the passion found in the best YouTube shticks and Snap stories were easy, everyone would be doing it and getting free trips to Cancún for their trouble. The influencers have a gift: they’re able to enjoy the moment enough to have that spontaneity come through via technology. They can mediate their lives and hide any trace of that mediation, because real joy and sincerity shines unmistakably. And when you have conversations with these people outside of the scope of a smartphone, you can tell that their public lives are just an exaggeration of their private lives, and that they’re real people with depth of personality and aspects of themselves that never make it on camera.
I have tremendous respect for the influencer class, even though they’re doing their darnedest to make my preferred media obsolete. (Even Mashable, a publication we here at Paste enjoy, wasn’t at the junket primarily to write; they were there to conduct Snapchat interviews and do a Facebook Live segment.) They’re essentially the logical extension of reality television—an inescapable megalith in our pop culture landscape that people can pretend to hate all they want, but the best of which will always be captivating because it mixes just enough sincerity into the expertly crafted drama. I have tremendous respect for the influencer class because they’re just businesspeople like anyone else who takes part in private enterprise, businesspeople whose product happens to be their own lives. They came to Cancún not just to promote TBS, but also to network, and even several drinks in, personalities like the best-selling Betches had their elevator pitches down pat and their eyes on whatever prize for which they strive.
The influencers are operating at the forefront of our tech-dependent culture, and I don’t blame them for working within the system. But that doesn’t make our tech-dependent culture any less terrifying.
I’ll admit to the bias of having spent eleven summers at an overnight camp where technology (minus iPods) was disallowed, but I think it’s objectively nuts that the people I met in Cancún carried around external batteries like ammo clips. I think it’s totally crazy that a memorable skinny dip in the Caribbean Sea at three in the morning was followed immediately, and almost instinctively, by several Snapchats telling the story. Social media has done wonders for the world, giving the public at large a powerful voice and allowing for true grassroots change to foment, but I worry that we’ve reached a point where our phones control us, and not the other way around. This isn’t a fresh revelation—last year, a frightening study reported that the average American child receives their first cell phone at age six—but witnessing that the content producers are just as addicted as the content consumers made me shudder anew at our society’s profound lack of ability to appreciate the world solely through the medium of our own senses.
The human species has come to dominate the planet because we’re intelligent, resourceful tool makers; we’ve always been dependent upon technology to survive and thrive. Now that we’re able to carry the entire world of information and content in our pocket, though, it’s all too easy for us to compromise the immediate reality of our planet for the benefit of the cybersphere and our presence therein.
Maybe the domination of digital “content” is a net positive; it certainly seems like an inevitability, at the very least. But the word “content” alone makes me cringe. It sterilizes and baldly commodifies the creative process. It removes us from a more thoughtful existence, one in the physical world, and hems us into a halfway-to-Fahrenheit 451 scenario where we live for our computerized, audiovisual entertainment. (Incidentally, Ray Bradbury predicted the future incredibly accurately in his masterwork—it includes everything from earbuds and massive, flat-screen TVs to essentially anticipating Twitter.)
A handful of writers I follow on Twitter use the word “content” ironically in their tweets, aware of its place within the lexicon of 2016 media but casually disdainful of its prominence. They’re mocking the influencers, from whom I heard the word “content” repeatedly and earnestly in Cancún. Snapchats and Instagram photos are something to fill consumers’ need for daily, superficial fulfillment; YouTube videos and Vines exist to take root within people’s skulls and grow into a craving tree. But the scariest thing about “content” is that it consists of the influencers’ lives, which have become their product.
I know nothing is going to stop, or even slow down, the rise of the influencers, the populist titans of the online Hollywood. And a significant part of me feels like an old codger for saying these things. But I’ll never be able to shake that apocalyptic image of them crawling up and down the beach, like so many ants, with their phones serving as permanent extensions of their arms. They gained content, yes, and their millions of followers could go on to consume that content on the train or in their beds or at work. What terrifies me is all the aspects of the real world that were left out on both ends.
You should follow Zach Blumenfeld on Twitter, because his self-worth is unabashedly determined by his follower numbers.