From Fake Famous (2021), dir. Nick Bilton (image courtesy HBO)

Nick Bilton was one of the prominent journalists regularly singing the praises of social media in publications like Wired for over a decade. But like many others, his tech utopianism has since fallen to Earth, as the downsides of online platforms have revealed themselves. Now Bilton has written, directed, and produced Fake Famous, a documentary in which he and his crew audition three potential Instagram influencers to propel to fame. They lure them with a simple question: “Do you want to be famous?” They received roughly 4,000 submissions. 

The chosen influencers all end up on different trajectories, with two rejecting the astroturfing of their fame (through Bilton’s easy purchases of likes, followers, and comments) in favor of more organic growth. But the last one hits it big. Even though the first 100,000 or so followers were bought and paid for, the illusion of success eventually perpetuates real fame — reinforcing the old adage “Fake it until you make it.”

The film suffers from a lack of style, but the story is important. Most people have no idea how the influencer market — cha-ching — works, though I’m not sure that it’s too different from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, or even the art world. All similarly revolve around buying press and the semblance of success for mediocre talents that have deep holes to fill inside. This is the essence of luxury commercialism. 

I have known and know my share of influencers, and while many are cognizant of what they’re doing, others start to believe their own PR and get lost along the way. What makes things different this time is the scale. Bilton points out that there are over 40 million Instagram accounts with at least a million followers, and more than 100 million with at least 100,000 followers. “How can over 140 million people — the equivalent of over half the population of the United States — all be considered famous?” Good question, though the film doesn’t answer it.

YouTube video

Fake Famous is available to stream on HBO Max.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.