“Fake Famous” Review: Can You Become Online Famous By Gaming The System?

fake famous documentary review HBO
Fake Famous (Image: PR)

From writer, director, and producer Nick Bilton, Fake Famous features a social experiment to see if three participants can obtain online fame by gaming the system.

I was provided with a free screener of Fake Famous for review. The opinions I have shared are my own.

I think it’s safe to assume that many of us realize a majority of what’s posted online is highly curated and fake. Still, the allure of being an online influencer with millions of followers remains strong. What is it about living an online influencer lifestyle that drives numerous hopefuls to make themselves into a brand? There are millions of influencers out there with millions of followers. Does that mean they all are famous? Also, what even is an influencer?

Fake Famous tries to answer these questions and more as we follow three ‘normal’ people from Los Angeles on their journey to get more followers, more online engagement, and more brand deals.

To select the trio, the creative team put out a casting call asking a simple question, “Do you want to be famous?” Of course, thousands applied.

I liked the selection process. Bilton and his crew weren’t looking for super-talented individuals. As Bilton put it, very talented people (whether it’s singing, crafts, etc.) have a higher chance of organically acquiring online fame. For the purpose of his social experiment in Fake Famous, the three candidates were selected on the basis of being close to ‘normal’ as possible (according to the creative team).

The selections are aspiring actress Dominique Druckman (@dominiquedruckman), real estate assistant Wylie Heiner (@wylezzz), and singer/designer Chris Bailey (@chrisvsmyself). They are the usual type of influencers you see online. They all have a small following and during the course of Fake Famous, we get to see their following increase and how more exposure impacts them.    

The first step is to give Dominique, Wylie, and Chris a makeover. It always starts with a makeover. Ha! I’m here for it!

The next steps involve buying new followers and planning photoshoots. I liked the explanation behind each step. Selling fake social media followers is a booming industry. Don’t be surprised if influencers you know have 100,000s of bots inflating their numbers. There’s a catch, though. If you buy fake followers, you will also need to buy fake comments and likes to appear ‘real’. It’s a mess and yet a majority of influencers continue to feed said cycle to appear… you guessed it… fake famous!

Now, if everyone knows about such bot-selling businesses, why don’t Twitter, Instagram, etc. do anything about them? According to Bilton and his team, social media companies don’t care. Bots still play a role in increasing the total number of accounts on a social media platform. Higher numbers make investors happy and attract more promotional businesses from brands.

As for the photoshoots, being an influencer is basically living by the mantra, “Fake it till you make it.” If you show yourself living a lavish life online, you will increase your chances of getting free stuff and ad campaigns from actual lavish brands.

After three months, we get to see some impressive results during Dominique’s run. She starts getting brand offers and a lot of free stuff. Not only that, as an aspiring actress, she notices an increase in auditions and callbacks because of her reach on Instagram.

If casting agents are all about giving a chance to aspiring actors with large social media followings, is it really wrong of Dominique to open such doors for herself by buying fake engagement? Should other aspiring actors do the same thing because that’s just how Hollywood works now? That’s a conversation to be had here.

While Dominique’s life is changing, things are different for Chris and Wylie. Even though he agreed to be part of such a social experiment, Chris isn’t interested in the fake engagement he’s getting. Which, come on!

I understood where Chris was coming from. But I think if you’re conducting a social experiment about being fake famous, participants need to be fully on board with the program and accept the fake engagement that’s part of the study. In my opinion, having another PoC would have helped offer an interesting look at how PoC influencers are treated in the social media space. Is the rate of brand deals and opportunities PoC get similar to white influencers?

Wylie’s not feeling it either. The thought of his real followers exposing his use of bots makes him anxious. But again, I think if another queer wanna-be influencer was cast in Wylie’s place, Fake Famous could have offered us a look at the queer spaces existing in the world of influencers and what kind of opportunities queer influencers get.

I understand that Bilton’s not forcing anything on the trio. But still, I think more willing participants would have made for a more engaging documentary about social influencers.

What Fake Famous does tell us that even if you think you want to be an influencer, that particular world (and everything you’re required to do to succeed) isn’t for everyone. Wylie and Chris were allowed to reach their own conclusions. So, kudos to the creative team for supporting the young men and not trying to force them on a single track.

fake famous review HBO
Bilton filling up a kiddie pool to prepare for a ‘fake’ luxurious photoshoot (Image: Screengrab)

The current documentary does touch on real-life issues. We get to know about Russian bots impacting the US election. We get to know about cyberbullying and the increasing rates of depression and suicide. However, Fake Famous doesn’t spend too much time diving deeper into such charged topics. The sole focus of this documentary is seeing whether or not you too can become online famous if you know how to manipulate the social media algorithm.

And that’s all well and good. A single piece of media can’t possibly cover everything. But having said that, I think Fake Famous could have spent a bit more time telling us about the online backlash and harassment the three candidates likely experienced. With over 330k Instagram, Dominique must have received hateful comments and creepy DMs, right?

Also, we know that online influencers can make thousands of dollars from a single post. What are those contracts like? How do influencers negotiate their price? What about all the petty drama that exists between certain influencers and how they encourage their followers to attack each other? There’s so much to explore! 

We do get a bit of insight when it comes to how some influencers might think, though. With things going great for Dominique, the situation changes due to the current pandemic. She cancels her all-expensive paid trip and gets ready to remain at home. However, she continues to get free products from companies desperate to make a sale. And, of course, there are some influencers that continue to post on their Instagram feeds as if nothing has changed. They’re going on trips and having fun. Fake Famous even mentions how certain influencers used the Black Lives Matter protests for photo ops.

I don’t want to say it, but I’m still going to. In my opinion, there’s something inherently wrong with a number of online influencers out there. The level of narcissism and selfishness is just outstanding. According to some of the experts interviewed in Fake Famous, being an influencer is like getting a pass to act like a toddler again. You can do whatever you want and get instant validation from your followers. The sense of right and wrong gets muddled in the pursuit of more engagement and continuous support. 

To be fair, Fake Famous does highlight the good that’s come from social media platforms. Queer and PoC communities have been given a voice. Certain political movements began on social media. People have created content that’s brought joy to others as well as planned successful fundraisers.

In the end, that’s what I enjoyed the most about Fake Famous. It’s not set out to decide whether or not you should become an influencer. In the approximate 1 hour 25 minutes running time, Fake Famous offers you a glimpse of what could be happening behind-the-scenes when an influencer posts something online and how being famous ushers in a life that isn’t for everyone.

Fake Famous will debut this Tuesday, February 2, 2021 (9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT), on HBO as well as be available to stream on HBO Max.

The experts include New York Times technology reporter Taylor Lorenz, Liz Eswein of the hugely popular @newyorkcity, Bloomberg technology reporter Sarah Frier, author Justine Bateman (Fame: The Hijacking of Reality), and others.

As someone who was intrigued and watched the doc in a single sitting, I recommend watching Fake Famous.

Author: Farid-ul-Haq

Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.

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