By: Tejah Wilson
Has the American Dream changed from freedom, family, and happiness to the need for followers, likes, and building an image? Or has social media simply changed the path to that dream? The Netflix social media documentary The American Meme, now on Netflix, explores the blurred lines between social media personas and real life in pursuit of the rebranded American dream.
The documentary, directed by Bert Marcus (Champs, Teenage Paparazzo), premiered at Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. It follows four social media influencers through their journeys to build an online empire. The influencers talk about how they deal with fame and how they keep up with their influencer lifestyles. One common theme is the notion of what is real versus what is fake. The film makes it clear that what you see online is not always reality.
The first influencer we are introduced to is a woman the film credits to have started it all, Paris Hilton. Paris Hilton, the granddaughter of the owner of Hilton hotels, started out as a Hollywood socialite. Social media was not around when Paris Hilton gained her fame. As a socialite, she got paid to look pretty, attend industry events and parties. Her life was constantly in the media, and there was not a day where she wasn’t followed by paparazzi. In Paris Hilton’s case, what you see online is pretty reminiscent of her reality. However, in the documentary, she suggests that her real life isn’t really “real life.” Traveling, partying, and living the socialite life was (and still is) lonely, she said.
The film goes into intricate detail on how the heiress emerged as a top socialite and household name. As someone who knew her name but never understood how it all happened, I was intrigued. It’s safe to say that Paris Hilton largely influenced the idea of becoming your own brand and being famous for being famous. At least, this is what the film suggests.
We also meet Brittany Furlan, the next influencer introduced in the film. Furlan made her name on the now-defunct video platform Vine. She started out as an aspiring actress from a small town north of Philadelphia called Perkasie. She moved to California in hopes of finding her place and following her dreams. One day she came across Vine, started creating videos and has since become known for her random personas such as “the Ghetto Dora the Explorer.” Although she is very prominent on social media, she doesn’t seem too fond of it. Why continue to use social media if you don’t like it? Is fame more important than happiness? The documentary doesn’t answer these questions.
Furlan is very conscious of the amount of likes and followers she receives. She describes how a post not doing well makes her feel and admitted to seeking validation from her viewers. The idea of seeking validation from social media isn’t unique to Furlan. It’s common that other influencers and even us regular folks are obsessed with the amount of likes and followers we receive. Her openness and honesty about this was refreshing. Many may assume that influencers are the most confident people in the world but this isn’t always the case. The American Meme highlights the idea that social media can be very detrimental to a person’s self-esteem. The constant judging by millions of strangers must take its toll.
The influencers included in this film are all very different. The next influencer we meet in the film is Josh Ostrovsky (@TheFatJewish), who got his fame from the popular photo-sharing platform, Instagram. Josh’s story delves into plagiarism and “fake news” on social media and the internet. It’s common for people to share others tweets, posts, photos, and more. Ostrovsky’s Instagram page, however, is filled with curated memes and other forms of media that are not his own. He calls what he does “cultural commentary.” His work is reminiscent of the satirical site, The Onion. He is also known for creating fake news and feeding it to the media.
Out of all of the influencers, Ostrovsky seems to be the most welcoming of his role as an influencer. Ostrovsky seems to understand very much how the media works. The media is a big game to him. Even something as simple as the rewording of a headline can change the perspective of a whole story. He suggests that being an influencer is about being strategic with your platform.
Club photographer, Kirill Bichutsky (@slutwhisperer), is the fourth influencer the documentary focuses on. His Instagram handle alone should be enough to explain what his brand is about. Clubs hire him to take wild photos and be the life of the party. His photographs typically feature highly sexualized images of half-naked women. He also posts various images on his Instagram account that some many find offensive. In his captions, he frequently uses degrading and derogatory terms. Regardless of his brand, Kirill’s following is high, and he theorizes that people follow him because he posts and says the things that everyone else is afraid to. This gets to the heart of why people choose to follow the influencers that they do. Social media is a form of escapism. It allows people to peek into others lives while ignoring their own.
When initially introduced to Kirill, it’s easy to want to hate him because of the image his social media portrays. However, in the documentary Kirill doesn’t seem like a horrible guy at all. It’s interesting that we all make assumptions about these influencers yet we really know nothing about them. Kirill, like other social media influencers, is able to portray himself however he wants. Although partying is pretty much what he does 24/7, he says that his “real life” is not that interesting, so he “[has] to put an exaggerated truth.”
The American Meme isn’t necessarily groundbreaking. We all know the role that social media plays in all of our lives. If you aren’t aware of the impact social media has on our society, then you might not be paying attention. Instead, the documentary chooses to focus on the individual stories of four influencers chasing the attention of thousands of strangers. It shares the behind-the-scenes impact social media has on these people’s relationships, self-esteem, and careers.
None of the influencers seemed unaware that all this attention will eventually come to an end. “I’m not going to last another year,” said Kirill about his declining followership. “Everyone gets old and ugly one day.” Nothing is forever. As Josh Ostrovsky predicts, “the age of the digital influencer, it’s gonna f*cking crash.” And that is where this documentary holds value. It’s a spectacle of the ultimate modern-day spectator sport.