Social networks, despite having encouraged our worst instincts from the onset; towards vanity, towards insecurity, towards praying for meaningless tokens of popularity, were at least once supposed to be levellers. Spaces where anyone could log in and capture the platform’s audience with wit, insight, style. But as continues to become clearer, the inscrutable algorithms that dictate who sees which post, the advantages the already amply socially networked command, and, as recently harped on in a big New York Times feature, the ability of the well-heeled to purchase followers and faves outright, mean the digital spaces we share are anything but equitable.
Thus, Instafamous, a short film produced by students in LA’s fascinating SCI-Arc program, is more timely than ever, and we’re pleased to debut it here today. I first saw the piece as one of a panel of judges for that year’s crop of films, and Instafamous was a standout. It’s a speculative short that deftly humanizes one of the of the most overlooked iterations of the digital divide—between those people who can afford to pay to bolster their social media accounts, and the people on the other side of the screen, across the world, paid minuscule wages to do the bolstering.
Sometimes it hits you in the face all over again, how far gone it is, that notion of an egalitarian digital space where people, ideas, works of art et al are given equal footing, are shared or elevated based on merit. Lol RIP Old Web, ye never even existed. Of course the web has been relentlessly commoditized, has all but replicated the hierarchies of power it was supposed to abolish, or at least allow users to circumvent. Still, blunt reminders can be painful, healthy.
SCI-Arc’s Master of Arts in Fiction and Entertainment program combines boots on the ground research with film-making. “Our students immerse themselves within the production processes of popular culture to imagine and visualise alternative worlds and prototype the possibilities and implications of new technologies,” says Liam Young, the speculative architect and nomadic design guru who leads the program.
“Instafamous is a fictional exploration of a very real phenomena that shapes so much of our understanding of the world,” Young adds. “As social media has become the dominant vehicle through which we consume information the fabrication of these feeds becomes the fabrication of reality. In a time of fake news, network bubbles, hacked timelines and paid followers the film reveals some of the people and systems behind this media trickery and forces us to confront a difficult truth- likes construct our world.”
After you’ve watched the film, see below for a brief interview with the filmmakers and Young for some insight and background on how and why it was made. Those filmmakers are: Dylan Perkinson, Vermouth Yunxin Hu, Mun Yi Cheng, Ruizi Qin, and Feifei Zhang.
Motherboard: What was the inspiration for the film?
Dylan Perkinson: Instafamous began as research into the impacts of digital outsourcing on society, and how it actively molds our lives. The outsourcing of digital tasks is an industry that exploded in the 21st century, and now has an expanded definition that includes the realm of social media.
Mun Yi Cheng: Over the last year we have learned how the manipulation of news on social media can greatly affect the way people think, with massive political and sociological consequences. It was clear to us that it is necessary to undertake an investigation into how the manipulation of popularity on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook changes how we perceive our identities, what is deemed desirable or cool, and consequently our responses to it.
Vermouth Yunxin Hu: Many studies up till now have made the effects of social media out to be negative. However we wanted to approach the topic of outsourcing popularity without judgment, following the narrative thread down its rabbit hole, without necessarily turning it into a utopic or dystopic story. Naturally we were inspired by shows that deal with emergent technologies and their consequences, such as Black Mirror and Silicon Valley.
Your film puts a human face on the growing and mostly invisible micro-economies that make the effortless-seeming lives of social media stars possible—what are you hoping to convey by putting a worker at a so-called follower factory in the spotlight?
Mun Yi Cheng: Making Yash the star was an intuitive move to try to reverse the lens that has, until now, been focused on the celebrities of social media. We now gaze directly into the eye of Yash, and we try to understand his motivations and desires as someone who both understands the toxicity of social media popularity, but whom succumbs to his awe of Vincent anyway. There have been several exposés made of ‘click-farms’ in the Philippines, India and China, but the click farmers themselves are usually cast as the victims of exploitation. While not denying this reality, we also want to get to know Yash as a creative individual with agency.
Vermouth Yunxin Hu: As architects and world-builders, we were also interested in how a narrative about a fictional click farmer could open up visual opportunities in depicting Yash’s inner world. We want to put in filmic reality, what many of us imagine everyday as we casually browse social media.
What does the film bring to bear about this corner of the digital world?
Dylan Perkinson: The human obsession over image and popularity has always existed, but it really is exploding right now because of all the platforms available that make it possible. We now habitually look through Pinterest/Instagram/Snapchat to find out what’s new; companies need credible social media profiles to attract customers; Yelp makes or breaks businesses; political parties hire teenagers to manufacture fake forum comments online. Instafamous tries to highlight another aspect to the industries that are the invisible and insidious cornerstones to popular thought. Beyond raising awareness, we also wish to speculate and imagine, in a way that connects with people.
Vermouth Yunxin Hu: When we first began researching in January 2016, it was really difficult to find concrete information about click-farming. All that was available were documentaries with grainy footage that had been secretly shot. Now it’s a topic that gains plenty of attention, especially in today’s political climate. There are plenty of tutorials online for how one can boost one’s online presence. It is a growing phenomenon that will only grow further, as people find newer ways to game the system, and as the system in turn panders to us to mine more information.
The follower factory worker begins to try to emulate the Insta star, but to no avail, because, it seems a) his city and person are outside what the culture economy deems 'cool' (ie lacks adequate signifiers of gross opulence) and b) he can't afford to buy likes as his hero can. The fact that he's idolizing the person and place he's making a 'star' with his likes and comments is interesting—why do have the character fall for this, as opposed to being repulsed or apathetic towards it, given that he knows that to some extent it's a facade? How pervasive do you think a phenomenon like this is in reality?
Dylan Perkinson: You would think that Yash, of all people, would never fall for the lure of Instagram celebrity-hood. However, funnily enough, while playing Vincent and trying to fill up Vincent’s fictional Instagram account, I found myself in Yash’s position. I obsessed over camera angles, strategies for effective hashtagging, and found multiple ways to buy likes and followers. I was completely aware of how ridiculous it all was – and yet I found that my own confidence was boosted by Vincent’s fictional life.
Mun Yi Cheng: Dylan is a real-life case for how being aware doesn’t necessarily mean we are immune to the pervasive effects of social media popularity. The evidence of this is abundant and persuasive when we turn to our own social media feeds. Many of us can readily expound on the negative effects of social media obsession, and yet we continue to participate. It is only human nature to want to emulate our heroes, while one-upping our peers in a tunnel-vision fueled obsession. ‘Digital detoxes’ are becoming increasingly popular – is completely unplugging the only way to not fall into this pit?
Vermouth Yunxin Hu: From a narrative standpoint, by having Yash embrace Vincent as his hero, we were able to explore the world of social media idolhood without pre-emptive judgment.
Mun Yi Cheng: It's also notable that while filming in India, we found that Yash's reality was in fact much more interesting and colorful, compared to Vincent's world in Los Angeles. As such in the film, Yash's imaginations of LA/Mumbai are in some ways much cleverer and much more intriguing than Vincent's photos.
What's the key takeaway here, if you had to state one?
Dylan Perkinson: Social media can be a place where we allow our identity to be defined by images and by what other people like. It can be a station for broadcasting our interests and discover other like-minded folks. However we often bathe in others’ achievements uncritically, instead of seeking our own. In some ways we have to learn to trust our own dopeness and aspire to find fulfillment in our own actions without social approval.
Feifei Zhang: In Instafamous, the film ends when Yash is yanked out of the dream reality that he has been participating. This could be disillusionment, or it could be the beginning of questioning. We realize how easy it is to create a constructed reality.
Mun Yi Cheng: At the same time, it takes some real creativity to create that world. Yash demonstrates some real creative genius within limited resources, while copying Vincent – a creativity that we all possess. In what other productive ways can we harness this? And in the process of emulating our stars, how many of us have learned new skills and discovered new hobbies?
Vermouth Yunxin Hu: The key is not to be quick to reject, but to be curious and courageous in exploring different perspectives that we may not have countenanced in our own lives. It may reveal more moving stories, sounds, images and characters than we'd previously thought.