The 2017 story of the spectacular failure that was the Fyre Festival is an intriguing one. Led by self-styled entrepreneur Billy McFarland, Fyre was to be a bespoke music festival on a private Bahamian island, where punters could mingle with supermodels, eat gourmet food and create lasting Instagram moments, but turned out to be an unmitigated and very public disaster, with no performers, no supermodels, soggy tents and pathetic cheese sandwiches.
How were thousands of switched-on millennials duped into buying tickets for something which was clearly too good to be true, and how were inexperienced, clueless people like McFarland able to give the impression that they could pull something of this magnitude off, and attract millions of dollars of investment, with no successful track record in the field?
McFarland had, in actual fact, spent those millions on parties for himself, on one advert featuring five top supermodels who never planned attending and on social media personalities who swayed their followers to buy tickets to an event that never was, eventually pleaded guilty to defrauding his investors and going to jail.
The whole Fyre saga is a fascinating insight into online influencing culture, who it targets and who it benefits and in Hype, Gabrielle Bluestone – a Vice journalist and executive producer of the Netflix Fyre documentary – aims to explore how social media has been harnessed to sell above all else, and how users are happy to turn a blind eye to something that is obviously too good to be true if it offers the possibility of a sharable social media moment. It’s all about the likes at the end of the day…
It became clear to me that there was something bigger at play: the natural end point of a society primed to trust their own emotions over objective, verifiable facts, in a world that tends to value the signifiers of success over actual achievements.
How much you enjoy Hype will probably depend on how much you know about Billy McFarland and his infamous Fyre Festival. Having seen both the documentaries, a lot of the book was covering old ground for me. Using Fyre as her framework, Bluestone explores other influencers and entrepreneurs such as Caroline Calloway and WeWork’s Adam Neumann to explore how in the modern consumer model, the products and experiences that we buy are framed as expressions of our personality and identity, an identity that we then ‘sell’ back to our own followers – inadvertently marketing on behalf of the companies we have bought from.
Filled with people pretending to be brands and brands pretending to be people, social media, now easily accessible by smartphone, had become by the mid-2010s a showcase in performative signalling.
There are some really interesting concepts at play here, but Bluestone’s book is baggy and in need of a good edit. The book is really about Fyre Festival and Fyre Festival alone and nods to other scandals and online hype events only happen in passing.
I really wanted to know more about Anna Sorokin who passed herself off as a billionaire philanthropist, taking in the cream of New York society, or the Juiceroo, a must-have juicer that cost a fortune, but turned out to be less effective than using your own hands. Bluestone focuses more on the actual stories, rather on the behaviours that those stories illuminate and relies far too often on long rambling quotes from other people, many of which involve them praising her for her insight (‘It makes me laugh, because the way that you—I’ve never heard anyone explain it as well as you did.’) which really don’t add anything to her argument.
She touches lightly on many really interesting topics, but never delves any deeper. It is fascinating to me that there exists an environment where start-up online organisations, often nothing more than an idea, can have millions of pounds of funding poured into them without producing any results. Why did people keep giving Billy McFarland money when he clearly had nothing to show for it? What kind of culture has evolved where a fear of missing the next possible Facebook or Uber has led to such flagrant financial proclivity? This question is touched on here, particularly in conjunction with Elon Musk, but is never explored in any depth.
Bluestone finishes her book by bringing in Donald Trump, but as false narratives go, it is an analogy that feels more like a personal grudge than a fitting conclusion to her argument. She ignores the fact that, whether we like it or not, a lot of people agreed with Trump’s policies.
Having said that, Bluestone’s book is relatively entertaining and a lot of that enjoyment comes from a guilt-free ability to observe people who seemingly walk clear-eyed into their own duping. However, there are more serious questions to be asked about the direction in which society is headed, when appearance trumps reality and the clear distinction between marketer and consumer is so blurred. Hype is not the book to explore those deeper issues.
Hype was book 2 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!