Every so often we come across pieces that illustrate several of the cultural trends that interest us most—things like the changing nature of work, the effects of technology on neighborly relations and social isolation, and, relatedly, our increasing propensity to live on screens. These cultural currents converge in the emergence of a distinctly 21st-century phenomenon: the lifestyle blog. This week we bring you two pieces on “Becoming Instafamous,” by which we mean the opportunities created by “the collapsing distance between brand and life.”
Writing for the New Yorker, Rachel Monroe profiles two entrepreneurial nomads, Emily King and Corey Smith, who are at the forefront of a “bohemian social-media movement” called “#vanlife.” After leaving behind fairly conventional jobs on the East Coast in 2013 (hers in marketing; his in retail), King and Smith now make their living by, in Monroe’s words, “documenting an enviable life.”
And what is that life? Judging by the 1,400 images that populate their Instagram feed, it’s largely a process of directing their van (named Boscha) to remote locations where it can be photographed against a dramatic backdrop. Once parked and settled, King and Smith enjoy yoga, mountain biking, surfing, and the like, all while composing and editing content for their blog, Where's My Office Now?
While each of the many active vanlife blogs has its own flavor, Monroe identifies “an undeniable aesthetic and demographic conformity” in the vanlife community: “nearly all the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples.” “At times,” she continues, “the vanlife community seems full of millennials living out a leftover baby-boomer fantasy: the Volkswagens, the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics.” The recipe changes, but the ingredients stay the same: old VW van, beautiful vista, one or two attractive people (usually the young woman) in some degree of undress, a platitudinous caption about #vanlife, and an oddly placed endorsement of a product essential to the life of nomadic simplicity.
What makes it economically possible to make a living just by living is the rapid growth of direct-to-consumer advertising on user-driven social media platforms like Instagram. “Influencer marketing”, as it’s called, “expands the category of ‘celebrity’ to include all kinds of other ‘instafamous’ people.” “Advertisers,” Monroe writes, “work with people like Smith and King precisely because they’re not famous in the traditional sense. They’re appealing to brands because they have such a strong emotional connection with their followers.”
This means the “simple life” King and Smith sought within the 80 square feet of their van and the open road is now filled with all the gadgets and marketing materials required to produce “sponsored content” from ever-more-exotic locations. Daily activities as banal as brushing one’s teeth become “rituals essential for longevity on the road”—rituals best performed, mind you, with a tube of “intentionally curated” clay-based toothpaste, on sale for the low, low price of $18.
Being instafamous is big business. One study Monroe cites estimates that the social-media-influencer market will grow from $500 million in 2015 to at least $5 billion in 2020. Nowhere is this clearer than in the latest generation of “mommy blogs,” which are the subject of Bianka Bosker’s recent piece for the Atlantic, “Instamom.” Described as a “relatable influencer,” Bosker profiles the parents behind Barefoot Blond, a blog that blurs the line between parenting and fashion—and boasts 250,000 monthly readers and 1.3 million Instagram followers. (For comparison’s sake, that’s roughly the populations of Charlotte and Nashville combined.)
The driving creative force behind this new media company (what else should we call it?) is Amber Fillerup Clark, a mother of two young children. The highly stylized and professionally shot pictures she posts are seemingly both flawless and attainable. As Bosker reports it:
Since launching Barefoot Blonde in 2010, Fillerup Clark has adhered to a deceptively simple formula: beautiful pictures of herself—she has the golden locks, lithe frame, and wholesome femininity associated with prom queens who date quarterbacks—paired with breezy diary entries that read like texts from a best friend. “Me and my friends were talking about how long the perfect massage would be and I think we settled on 5 hours lol,” she wrote in a blog post featuring 19 photos of her family’s lazy day at home.
This formula has proven wildly lucrative. Relatable influencers like Fillerup Clark can command significant amounts of money for recommending all kinds of products and services (not to mention the ad revenue their blogs can generate). Though the Clarks declined to answer questions about their income, a co-founder of the agency that represents them reported that “bloggers at her level can earn between $1 million and $6 million a year.”
It’s tempting to overlook trends like vanlife, or to downplay the significance of new media celebrities. But this would be a mistake. In the first place, as we’ve written about often, the viability of social media-based advertising depends upon the fact that an increasing number of us are living on screens. Living as we do in a near-constant state of partial distraction, advertising techniques have evolved with our habits. For many, images like the ones fed to us by vanlife gurus and mommy blogs provide a kind of cognitive break from less interesting on-screen activities (spreadsheets, emails, and the like) where we can, for the briefest of moments, escape the confines of our own mundane responsibilities. These platforms, in other words, both express and exploit some basic human drives—for wonder, beauty, adventure, and, at times, rest.
But most fundamentally, instafamous influencers like Clark, King, and Smith are filling a gap created by another important cultural trend—the waning influence of virtue-forming institutions like close-knit families and religious communities. Even in our age of abstraction, the need for moral exemplars remains. And yet, as fewer and fewer Americans claim membership in virtue-forming institutions, and as those institutions themselves struggle to know how to form people within this rapidly changing world, more and more of us are looking to “relatable influencers” for advice and inspiration on how to structure our lives. Lifestyle blogs, as the name implies, are selling more than a set of products or services. These new “companies of one,” as Carrie Lane has described the new American worker, offer us an alternative vision of ourselves. Our newsfeeds offer a fleeting escape into an imagined life, free from the very boredom and restlessness that drive us to them—for a moment, our struggle to confront these feelings within our real, unmediated existence is forgotten.