Well, I’m not doing too badly with my humungous NetGalley TBR, having read two and a half of the books in this image at the time of writing up this review. This one about the new economy of influencers caught my eye back in December and was an interesting read, if at times shocking almost to the point of distress. I do wish I’d read it before I had a job transcribing an interview with the author but we can’t all be perfectly prepared at all times, can we?!

Symeon Brown – “Get Rich or Lie Trying”

(9 December 2021, NetGalley)

I met streamers, marketers, tech entrepreneurs, sex workers, dropshippers and fraudsters. I saw how easily ambition transforms itself into deceit online and how social media has emerged as the most exploitative frontier of late-stage capitalism. I heard extraordinary tales of exploitation, delusion, dishonesty and chutzpah. And the more people I encountered, the more I started to see how much this brave new world had in common with the one we all know so well.

Rather than being yet another skate over why we have no attention any more, Internet addiction, the cult of celebrity, etc., this book takes a deep dive into the new culture of the “influencer” (loosely described as someone who uses their online presence and makes income by getting other people to engage with or buy something), allying it with a critique of (modern) capitalism, with the work of a huge mass of labour enriching the owners of the systems within which they exist, whether that be investment organisations with no real staff, the big social media platforms, so-called empowering hubs which host people effectively selling their bodies (well, everyone in this book is doing that) or retail empires preying on the desperate in both manufacture and sales.

There was so much I didn’t know about here, having assumed it would be mainly about people selling products and their own bodies, especially the people who livestream their lives and those of others, often with horrible results. First we meet young women who are basically encouraged to buy cheap, mass-produced clothes (made by exploited female workers, often undocumented, in illegal sweatshops; it struck me though it wasn’t made explicit that daughters could be selling clothes their mothers made), make “haul” videos to promote them, thus giving the clothing retailer free publicity, in the aim of getting more cheap clothes at no cost which will help them give the illusion of wealth and luxury which millennials and Generation Y people have been told they should have.

But it gets worse. Conforming to a new standard of beauty which involves an appearance of having a multiple heritage (which might in fact be performative Blackness, performed by a White woman) and a body shape never found in nature which replies on breast and buttock implants, desperate women resort to dodgy plastic surgery, often by undocumented surgeons, with no redress if (when) it goes wrong, and, if they’re “lucky” various bits paid for by the surgery companies … which then market to other women via them. It shocked me here that the companies don’t go after very popular women, but women with a small following of women like them who they will be able to sell to.

The financial scammers were hard to understand logically because I’m not highly numerate, but involve pyramid schemes, as do most things. The livestreamers were harder to understand morally, as they seem to involve bros doing pranks and saying revolting racist and sexist things to get tips online and make money, often from humiliating people. This lead into a heartbreaking portrait of a man who basically has a better life allowing people to insult him with racial slurs than before, when he was homeless, as he can make his rent now. In another section, we are asking whether it’s safer for women to perform sex work online (can’t be physically attacked, etc., but are never off-duty and pay a high price in terms of emotional labour …). What world IS this???

Brown does a really good job at explaining all the pyramid schemes and the likes, relating it to capitalism, the neoliberalism around markets, the cult of celebrity and luxury and a sort of identity politics which has people faking their race to “pass” the other way from how we’d normally imagine it. I can’t really work out which parts are more shocking: there’s a whole scenario where people claim to be activists or to be empowering people but are really selling – no, hawking – half-baked theories and crap books. Where there’s a way of making money or a movement, there’s a scam, I suppose, but it was pretty grim reading, and there’s only worse to come, apparently. He brings it right up to date with the boom in opportunities to “work from home” spread on Facebook etc., which are still nothing but pyramid schemes, breeding out of control during lockdown.

It did make me think about my own Internet personas, which I think are fairly realistic (I remember being infuriated on something like Second Life when I couldn’t make an avatar to represent my true self). I profit from my online presence only to the extent that I get quite a lot of free books in return for honest reviews, and recently received a small hamper of cheese. I believe I still have my feet on the ground, but for digital natives younger than me, this is a scary world with seemingly no end.

Thank you to Atlantic Books for choosing me to read this book in return for an honest review. “Get Rich or Lie Trying” was published on 3 March 2022.