You should definitely watch the Netflix original, “The American Meme,” but only if you want to witness one of the most depressing portrayals of social media culture you’ve ever seen.
The documentary follows the social media empires of Paris Hilton, Instagram stars Kirill Bichutsky and Josh Ostrovsky (aka TheFatJewish, or The Fat Jew), and Brittany Furlan, who rose to prominence on the now-archived Twitter offshoot, Vine.
Ostrovsky has 10.5 million followers on Instagram. Bichutsky, verified on IG as “slutwhisperer,” has 1.2 million; Hilton 10 million, and Furlan 2.4 million, with another nearly 330,000 on YouTube. Model Emily Ratajkowski and DJ Khaled were also interviewed; Ratajkowski has 21 million IG followers, Khaled 13.2 million.
The stories of these internet royals are marked by loneliness and a struggle against the image they’ve created for themselves. Hilton was the first of the “famous for being famous” species of modern celebrity.
“Kim Kardashian was Paris Hilton’s intern,” Ostrovsky explained. Paris set the standard for how to be famous in modern media, although not all of it was her choice. Although she was posing partially nude for photographers when she was barely legal, the release of her infamous sex tape was an accident.
“I was so embarrassed. I felt like everyone on the street was laughing at me,” she said, confessing she didn’t leave her house for months after its release. “I felt like I had lost part of my soul…I literally wanted to die at some point.”
The Phantom Clicks Eat Her Soul
Although her entire life is lived in the spotlight, Paris says she loves her fans. The first thing she does in the morning is check in on half a dozen different social media platforms. She says for her fans, “Watching me go through so much really made them be even stronger.”
“They genuinely love me,” she said.
Still, the fame gets to her. She says she hears camera clicks and flashes even when they’re not there. While she says she still has a “fear of missing out” on events, she’s grown tired of partying every night and prefers to stay home. Like Kirill, she wants a family and regrets not being able to have one by now. “I see my friends who are not in the industry and they now have two, three kids and they’re so happy,” she said.
She has 19 product lines and immense pop culture influence, yet she can’t escape her young, sexy socialite image. “I’m a 21 year old for the past two decades,” she admitted. “It’s all part of an image and a brand…it’s [the movie] ‘Groundhog Day.’”
Furlan, 32, stumbled onto Vine, the platform for six-second viral videos, after struggling to find success as an actor. Her plethora of goofy characters and cartoonish antics quickly made her the number one Viner. After leaving Vine, Furlan returned to acting but again met resistance, this time because her Vine career had labeled her a joke.
Having struggled with depression and loneliness as a teen and then as an internet star, she said she “just wants someone who will be there forever.” She once posted a screenshot of Siri responding to her statement, “I am depressed.” “Siri is such a good friend,” she wrote. In February 2018, at 31, Furlan became engaged to musician Tommy Lee, who is 23 years her senior.
I Can Only Talk When I’m Drunk
Kirill’s story is perhaps the saddest of them all. “Theslutwhisperer,” 34, is caught up in never-ending debauchery. Pouring champagne on topless women and writing on their bare butts is his routine. The photographer-turned-internet-star openly admits he wishes the nightclub hadn’t become his scene.
Night after night, he rolls from city to city to appease rowdy nightclub crowds. He can’t fall asleep sober unless he’s exhausted. He says he hates people and can only talk to them while both parties are drunk. Feeling suffocated by his party-animal image, he desperately wants to have a family. “I don’t want to be that guy that’s, like, that people feel like, sad for,” he said.
Thirty-six-year-old Ostrovsky, on the other hand, sees his stardom as a business and doesn’t seem to take much criticism to heart, even when he was widely accused of plagiarizing memes (he now says he gives credit to originators). Posting humorously gross and lewd photos is a big part of his social media schtick. He is the most successful brand-builder profiled in the film behind Hilton.
Although Ostrovsky has been a frequent purveyor of “fake news,” even doing a fake brand launch with Paris Hilton aimed at “baby DJs,” he did launch a successful wine brand called Babe. In building a brand beyond his own personality, he seems to have outsmarted the confining image problem of the other internet stars—even Hilton’s products are closely tied to her sexy-socialite image.
In his mind, expanding beyond social media was a necessary step. “I had to create something that I’d be able to walk away with, because my level of self-awareness was high enough to know that in three years this wouldn’t matter.”
“The age of the digital influencer, I’m telling you, it’s going to f-ck-ng crash.”
Influencer, At What Cost?
Yes, there are millions to be made from being a top influencer. Yes, accolades often come effortlessly. If you’ve ever been effusively praised for a bit of content that took you five seconds to produce, you know the high. But after watching “The American Meme,” the last thing you’ll want in life is to be famous on social media. If you’re sane.
Thousands of accounts are hammering these people with every horrible label imaginable: racist, whore, ugly, stupid, untalented, “no one I hate more than you,” and any number of bigoted slurs. There’s an account dedicated to hating on Furlan’s thumbs.
Taken all together, the cumulative effect is a real hazard to the target’s mental health. If you’ve ever had the social media mob come after you for something you said or did, you know what I’m talking about. A hundred bits of thoughtless praise somehow can’t make up for the zingers of a couple of pissed-off trolls. Social media influencers are treading water while piranhas nip at their heels.
We’ve long had a culture in which celebrities are primarily valued for their entertainment, but social media has skewed us radically toward that end. Even if you leave aside the trolls and die-hard fans, what about all these insta-worshippers in the middle? What’s their role, beyond racking up clicks for ad revenue?
Don’t Kill Yourself, I Want Your Image
Kirill says after sharing how unhappy he is, followers tell him things like, “Don’t kill yourself, I still have yet to party with you.” They admit to him directly they don’t care about him, and naturally his attitude toward them is contempt. “You feel like a zoo animal…They don’t really care about you.”
How could they be expected to care? In a mediascape of seconds-long videos and dozens of photos floating past you each minute, people are just as disposable and unworthy of genuine concern as the content they’re producing. It’s just them against the teeming mass of heterogeneous, global viewers (and sometimes censorship from the platforms), hashing it out minute by minute, slowly being ground down into meme mulch. Soon they will just be fertilizer for the next round of upstart influencers.
Out of all the social media influencers interviewed in “The American Meme,” Kirill Bichutsky’s cynicism captures the heart of the problem with social media. It isn’t that we’re constantly entertained and distracted in itself, it’s that this mode of existence, whether you’re primarily a producer or a consumer, inhibits authentic human connections and depletes our thought life of the richness that comes from substantive, face-to-face conversations—or even just the contemplation of a long, carefully produced documentary like this one.
Leave the horrible treatment of influencers aside: is this kind of pixel-deep relationship to entertainment something consumers should be concerned about? The best spin one can put on it is that it can make us appreciate our “meat space” connections much more.
On the other hand, it seems an increasing percentage of our thoughts are as fleeting and superficial as most of the memes we scroll through. We’re just emoting, responding impulsively to the images and words flying up our screens, most with little meaning. Even though Ostrovsky looks at himself as a cultural commentator, he says, “If it makes sense, I don’t want to be there.”
When we are presented with something we actually need to consider, our first response is to do what we always do. Just pick an emoji: angry, wow, sad, happy. Sure, you can blame poor public education for not teaching kids how to think, you can blame soap operas and recycled tropes of trashy sitcoms and dramas, which set the groundwork for insta-tainment, but it’s hard not to see how social media is not a huge part, if not the main cause, of our collectively atrophied public consciousness.
They Wish They Were You Instead of Themselves
Most of the stars interviewed in “American Meme” crave close relationships. Even as they watch hundreds of thousands of views tick up in real time, they earnestly want what many of us have “irl”: family, close friends, work that’s not consumed and discarded in a split second. People who love them as human beings, and not as content.
“I look at [the fans’] life and I’m like, that’s kind of cool, too,” Kirill said, “that you, like, built something. I haven’t built, like, sh-t.”
If a massive daily dose of what everyone on social media craves—the likes, the views, the praise—is not enough to satisfy someone, that should tell the rest of us that this is not where we should be investing our life energy.
If you get anything out of “The American Meme,” it’s that you should cling to your social circle in real life as tightly as possible. That means loosening your grip on the smartphone, and in turn, its grip on you.