A Documentary For Our Time: ‘The American Meme’ Asks the Cost of Instagram Fame

A new brand of celebrity begs the question, is it worth it?

Movies of this sort have become en vogue over the past year with titles like Eighth Grade and Viral Beauty. These films tackle the same phenomenon from different angles, all ultimately questioning the impact of this grand social experiment of new media and suggesting — or reflecting — what has come as result. Enter The American Meme, the new Netflix documentary by director Bert Marcus, that takes the more direct angle of an interview-based observational presentation of social media culture. It works by featuring four social media stars of past and present (with a spattering of side guests in between, social media stars like DJ Khaled that the film would be remiss not to include, if available) and follow their rises and falls. They serve as character studies in what one of the film’s guests calls a grand experiment, that calls into question the type of people attracted to social media stardom, what’s needed to sustain it, and, ultimately, what might be the personal and societal side effects of this new brand of celebrity.

The main four characters are public figures of internet fame ranging from the A-list to D-levels. You might separate them and their spatter of other interviewees into 3 categories: those who understand the game of public manipulation and do it willingly; those who understand the game of public manipulation and do it with a sense of shame or maintenance, a machine they were caught in until it became too lucrative to leave; and those who play the game well but who you get the sense don’t much understand their negative impact.

In terms of negative impact, The American Meme offers its slant in the opening to the film and its trailer, while the rest of the film offers a neutral presentation of these public figures in their own words. There is no narration or subtitle, no narrative voice except for the interviewees. The result is that the audience is trusted (or stuck with) the mental labor of deciding which of these stars are full of shit, which are deserving of pity, which are truly vapid. And, the simplest question one will ask: is what they do “okay” or “bad”?

The “okay” view is pretty straightforward — that these people are smart to capitalize on a system that can make them rich. They should get in, make as much money as they can for as long as they can, and then get out, or somebody else just will. The “bad” or unaccounted cost of their celebrity can be weighed in true economic terms: the negative impact on the individual may cost more than its instant benefits. As one becomes a willing product to the sacrifice of privacy and becomes mandated to run the wheel of unrelenting commoditization, you not only risk ruining your own happiness, but also contribute to the unhappiness of a larger society who needs increasingly extreme and instant forms of content. Under the surface of the “okay” versus “bad” debate is the simple reality of social media as a lucrative business for influencers. The second leg of the documentary dives into just how lucrative that business is, with some influencers earning tens of thousands of dollars, up to a million dollars, for a single post on Instagram. It might be understandable, then, that interviewees like Emily Ratajkowski represent the voice of modern teens in an open embrace of the only world they’ve known and full concession of privacy. Privacy doesn’t exist, so why bother trying? Play the game or else someone else will.

The queen of the brave new world is given as Paris Hilton. With millions of followers and lifelong fame she’s billed as the original famous-for-being-famous celebrity, the type to which your mother might ask, “but what does she do?” Many of today’s newer celebrities of the same type point back to Paris is a pioneer, like Instagram personas such as Josh Ostrovsky, better known as The Fat Jewish, who is another of the four main features of the film. The answer to your mother’s question is, of course, that social media celebrities do everything. When it comes to marketing, they become a walking billboard, a living commercial for the highest bidders. And those bids run high.

The two other character profiles are of Brittany Furlan, formerly of Vine fame, and Kirill Bichutsky, best known for giving “champagne facials” to women at nightclubs as social media content for partiers. On the character-study level, the financial success of an influencer is clear, leaving the deeper question of whether that financial success is worth it. It cuts both ways: they’re rich but they’re vapid, or they’re vapid but they’re rich. Your taste (or distaste) of the social media stars and the culture they promote may likely boil down to your values on that one. In some cases though, like with Furlan and Bichutsky, the spiral and subsequent crash feels so severe that the ride is hardly worth it.

Not all must face the crash though, as one guest serves as the counter-balance and the rational viewer’s voice of reason against social media fame. Known as the hot guy Brittany Spears made out with in the “Toxic” music video, Matt Felker could have reasonably had a degree of success in the social media celebrity game, but instead went in the total opposite direction of no social media, the modern teen’s equivalent growing a beard and living in the wilderness. His warning is that of a prudent adult on the risks of investing your self-worth in clicks and likes. Social media influencing might be a bubble waiting to burst as consumers become savvier against “organic” marketing or stricter regulations are enforced to make advertisements more obvious, and what then? Your product — you — is a high-stakes gamble. Or maybe the booming business of social media marketing is here to stay a lot longer as a paradigm shift from TV commercials to a more engaged audience through a more interactive medium. Even then, the question of one’s life as a product is the ultimate question, one that only each of us can answer for ourselves.

In the end, the four endings play out as you might expect for each of them based on what you know from a figure like DJ Khaled outside of this documentary, but also what you learned within the first few minutes of their interviews. The 3 categories of guests come with 3 categories of results: they either continue their delusion unknowingly, continue knowingly towards their own embarrassed destruction, or continue playing knowingly and raking in the dough. In any path, there’s a degree of mixed schadenfreude and sadness that comes when the other shoe drops and the third act of the documentary shows the dark side of the glamour it established in its first. Whether the crash is worth the ride, though — The American Meme trusts you to find the same answer in all four of its stories.

The American Meme premieres on Netflix December 7th.

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  • Jordan Calhoun is a writer in New York City. His forthcoming debut book "Piccolo Is Black" is a celebration of the common adaptations we made while non-diverse pop culture helped us form identities. He holds a B.A. in Sociology and Criminal Justice, B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Japanese, and an M.P.A. in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy. He might solve a mystery, or rewrite history. Find him on Instagram and Twitter @JordanMCalhoun

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