Book review: ‘Get Rich or Lie Trying’ by Symeon Brown
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A compelling, human-focused exploration of exploitation across the influencer economy.
It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly youthful aspiration has become concentrated on online fame. A 2019 survey of 11–16-year-olds found 17 per cent wanted to be influencers and 14 per cent YouTubers. For comparison, the only traditional career choice that came ahead was doctor at 18 per cent.
In ‘Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy’ (Atlantic Books, £16.99, ISBN 9781838950279), Channel 4 reporter Symeon Brown takes the reader on a whistlestop tour of the world of online fame and the aspiration, envy, deception, and division it breeds among those who see it as their best chance at social mobility. It is a compelling take on the evergreen ‘exposing the ugly underbelly of a glamorous industry’ genre.
Brown starts by recounting how, as a school student in Tottenham, North London, it was the hip-hop ‘hustler’ figures who became the relatable role models for boys like himself as traditional paths to social mobility dried up. Now, everyone is hustling, and they are doing it online.
The book is a series of case studies: from fraudsters preying on the impressionable to hopeful models going to extreme lengths to please the Instagram algorithm. Brown has secured excellent access, filling ‘Get Rich or Lie Trying’ with remarkably candid interviews with the individuals at the heart of these trends. They come with jaw-dropping anecdotes and on-the-record confessions, including bribing Facebook staff to protect their business. Some are reflective, others utterly lacking in self-awareness. Some are admirable, some pitiable, some detestable. Even the most unscrupulous influencers, however, tend to see themselves as simply doing what they have to do (in other words, hustling) for their share of fame and wealth: “It is difficult to hate the player when the game is fixed”.
‘Get Rich or Lie Trying’ navigates some thorny issues, such as the power dynamics of online sex work and modern minstrel shows; one particularly memorable case study follows a Cameroonian migrant who was paid to be racially abused in livestreams. This could have gone badly wrong, especially as Brown has gone for breadth over depth. However, through empathetic observation and the inclusion of some important context, Brown exposes the forces that exploit ordinary people – particularly young black men and women – placing them at the behest of ever changing algorithms and new middlemen, while posturing as empowerment.
We have to conclude that influencers are rarely the winners and, even when they practise deception, rarely the source of danger. Instead, Brown points to the internet giants that are far larger and more powerful than these individuals, but every bit as dishonest: “If the big companies at the top of the pyramid can deceive for profit without consequences, then it is not surprising that this attitude has trickled down in an economy where deception and spin are central to modern capitalism.”
‘Get Rich or Lie Trying‘ is not an in-depth dissection of an internet-age scandal along the lines of ‘Bad Blood’. It moves too quickly between subjects to linger and build historical background or analyse the actual economics of these influencer economies. However, as an eye-opening, human-focused cruise through the influencer economy, it is a triumph. Consume in one sitting.
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