Doortje Smithuijsen – Golden Mountains
[Pages 7 – 12]
For the casual passer-by – the man out walking his dog on this chilly October evening in Leersum, or the woman in her active wear out for a late-night jog – it must have been a curious sight: around two hundred of us, all dressed to the nines and flooding out of Parc Broekhuizen, a stately mansion surrounded by trees and fronted by a large, round lake. We’ve just been told that here, at the water’s edge, we will soon bear witness to an unforgettable spectacle, the evening’s official opening and the highlight of tonight’s event. ‘Get your phones ready,’ says one of the organizers by the door on the way out, ‘This is gonna be amazing.’
So here we are in the cold. We’ve all been waiting for at least ten minutes now, shuffling awkwardly on the gravel driveway and waiting for something to happen. To my left and right, men drape their jackets across the shoulders of trembling women, shivering in their sleeveless dresses. One girl treads on the hem of my dress as she takes a selfie with her boyfriend – I remain motionless and wait until she’s finished, observing how their grinning faces are illuminated by the flash on her phone screen.
‘Come on. How much longer do we have to wait for this so-called highlight?’ a young man in a tuxedo beside me asks his two friends. ‘Jesus,’ one replies, ‘Can’t we just snap this story and get back inside? I’m freezing my tits off.’
Then it begins. After some suspenseful music, a hologram materialises on the surface of the lake. ‘Share the magic of champagne,’ it says in large, white lettering, as a bottle flits from left to right – Moët & Chandon, the sponsor of the evening’s event. A ballerina dances across the water as two floating, disembodied hands make a toast with long, thin glasses. The slogan now says ‘Welcome to Maison Moët,’ inscribed beneath a projected image of Parc Broekhuizen.
Almost everyone has obediently taken out their phones, and is busy filming a holographic replica of the very country estate looming up behind us. Even the guys who not moments before were so desperate to go back inside are still standing there, left hands in their pockets and right arms crooked before them, angling their phone cameras just so to capture the events on the lake.
Even upon our arrival, the cloakroom staff were already advising the guests to film and photograph as much as possible, and to share on social media using a prescribed hashtag. The evening that followed can perhaps best be described as a living advertisement – tonight, every nook and cranny of Parc Broekhuizen has been rendered extremely photogenic. Pyramids of gold and silver champagne glasses tower meters high in the ballroom, and every surface is adorned with lavish flower arrangements. Girls in French-maid outfits poise on staircases and brandish feather dusters, and every ten metres a tuxedoed waiter is eager to top up my glass, from a luminescent champagne bottle.
The guests roaming through the premises are also more than willing to pose for photographs. The men are in dinner jackets with slicked-back hair; the women are stilettoed and their faces contoured, painted like miniature masterpieces in variegated shades of beige. Their sequined dresses sparkle in the flashes of their iPhones.
Those who have arrived unprepared for the camera need not be concerned. There are make-up artists at the ready to put anybody’s face on, hairstylists to give a quick blow-wave, and professional photographers trained to take shots that are so good, your own mother wouldn’t recognise you. One stylist is armed with an explosion of over-the-top dresses, just in case anyone has failed to observe the evening’s dress code: surreal gold.
One week earlier, some of those posing on the steps and taking selfies by the champagne-glass pyramids were in Paris, attending another party thrown by a different beverage brand. I know, because I follow them on Instagram, where they constantly shared photos of themselves laughing and toasting with others just as glamorous as themselves, and with as many (or more) online followers. These people are known as influencers, and this entire extravaganza has been organized just for them. Or rather: for their followers. It is through the influencers’ phone cameras that hundreds of thousands of people are now watching the girls dressed as Marie Antoinette dancing on tabletops, and the models-at-work who are stuffed into pink dresses, doling out pink cones of champagne ice cream from behind pink serving carts. The influencers do what is expected of them: they dance, chat, joke and laugh at one another. They film, photograph and pose, exchanging phones to ensure everybody gets equal digital exposure. This is their life: in exchange for drinks and an evening’s entertainment (and sometimes for money), they disseminate the photographic evidence of this gala event. When they wake up here at the estate tomorrow morning, they’ll be treated to breakfast and then it’s off to another photo opportunity – the next party, the next social gathering, the next launch. When you have enough followers, there’s always plenty to do.
So here we all are. Two hundred of us, aged roughly between 20 and 35, all with outstretched arms and phones. ‘Shit,’ says one member of the trio beside me, ‘what was that hashtag again? Moëtform?’
‘Moëtmoment’, the other two respond in unison, their eyes and phones still locked on the hologram. Everybody seems hypnotized by the projection, almost like their phones are drawn to it by some unseen magnetic force. It’s as though they have no choice but to keep their cameras fixed on the white house (which is now emitting champagne bubbles), unable to tear their gaze from its likeness on their phone screens. But nobody stops filming, nobody says: ‘Strange, when you think about it, that we’re all standing here in the cold, taking videos of a hologram of the very building that’s behind us right now.’
The wind picks up, and ripples appear on the water’s surface. Hologram or no, it’s far too cold to be standing outside. But as I turn around to make my way back to the mansion, it seems I’m the only one with that idea: I’m confronted by dozens upon dozens of camera lenses, each with a glowing light hovering above.
As I forge a path through the sea of phones, I feel like I’m in an episode of Black Mirror. This scene would fit perfectly into an episode of the series, which focuses on different facets of a dystopian world where humans live at the mercy of technology. Unbidden, I’m reminded of my undergraduate thesis on Martin Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, which describes how humans fancy themselves the masters of the world around them, while in reality we are slaves to the siren’s call of technological advancement – a call that compels us to pursue the development of technology at all costs, and to close our ears to the question of why we should even be doing it in the first place. We humans are chained to the very technology we create, without even realising it.
Chained, just like everybody here is now. Rooted to the spot, in the cold, intent only on filming the hologram before us, telephones glued to our palms.
My path to this event was paved by several years of journalistic research on influencer marketing. I had written articles on the major players in this new arena, and reported on the way Instagram users – young women in particular – strive to project a perfect(ed) image of themselves. Mothers who turn their children into the unique selling point of their own digital brand, and artists and designers who live from their online followings. I had witnessed the number of Instagram users grow from ten million at launch in 2010 to one billion in 2019. Influencer numbers rose at a similar rate: in 2016 around ten million sponsored photos had been shared on Instagram, a figure that grew to 22 million by 2018. I had seen how influencers slowly began to infiltrate the realms of global power: in 2015 Kim Kardashian appeared on Time magazine’s list of most influential people, and her blurb on the list hails her as a ‘media phenomenon with 29 million followers on Instagram. Why, why, why, we might ask ourselves.’
I had witnessed Kim Kardashian’s evolution, how she made seventh place on the Forbes list of best-paid celebrities in 2012 (beating even Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg), and how her follower numbers eventually exploded to 160 million. Why, why, why… I likewise wondered, as I scrolled through Kim’s Instagram profile full of overproduced and photoshopped self-portraits.
As I climb the steps leading to the mansion’s enormous front door, it dawns on me that I actually know very little about those standing around me. About influencers, and about the trend in general. What people or powers decided who was granted the privilege to be here tonight? Why had these people been chosen specially to film and photograph the extravaganza? And more importantly, why did they even want to?
But more than the question of how influencer marketing worked, I was interested in why the phenomenon even existed at all. When and why did we all collectively accept social media as a new form of currency? When did we decide that instead of money, we could invest ourselves on Instagram as an economic middle-man? What kind of society drives people to transform their personas into online advertisements?
The journalistic landscape and my own social circles seemed virtually devoid of any serious consideration for these girls and their obsession with their own image on Instagram. Consequently, little was known of their motives. People seemed to gloss over the fact that subgroups in society don’t just pop into existence by chance. You can think what you like about influencers, but the one thing they do have is influence. The name says it all: toy vloggers (like Onnedi, with her 850,000 YouTube subscribers) determine exactly what kids want for their birthdays or Christmas. Fashion influencer Anna Nooshin is seen daily by 900,000 Instagram followers, and can make or break a clothing brand with a single shot. Or take someone like Negin Mirsalehi, the Dutch influencer who became a successful businesswoman, launching her own hair-care brand thanks to her millions of followers and making the Forbes ’30 under 30’ list in 2018. Forbes estimated that Mirsalehi earned around $20,000 for each sponsored photograph, and in 2017 she sold around 3 million dollars’ worth of hair-care products.
Stroll around any random schoolyard, ask the kids what they want to be when they grow up and there’s a good chance that many of them will say ‘vlogger’, ‘YouTuber’ or ‘influencer’. Their viewing time is limited almost entirely to YouTube and Instagram – a whole generation is growing up with social media magnates as heroes. The posters of musicians and movie stars that once adorned children’s bedrooms have now been replaced with the likes of DanDTM.
The Millennials – Generation Y, iGen, or as American professor of psychology Jean Twenge prefers to call them, Generation Me – grew up in a world that seemed to revolve entirely around them. I should know, I’m one myself. Any drawing I brought home from school was immediately hung on the wall and showered with adoration, no matter what it looked like. As I child I could dictate several evening meals a week, and I even had a say in where we went on family holidays. For as long as I can remember, my voice at home weighed equally with that of my mother and father. At least, that’s what I believed.
Twenge conducts research on intergenerational differences, and says in his book Generation Me that the digital generation was born in a time when personal development became more important than simply doing a job, and when technology was developing at unprecedented speed. The digital generation grew up in a society where religion had little to no importance; when church divides had crumbled to ruins, and taken on the form of abbreviated slogans that went largely unnoticed. A time when the importance of society increasingly made way for individual development in the form of ‘fulfilling’ work, spirituality, and the perfection of one’s physical self.
During my childhood, my parents were mostly busy creating a life that would allow me to develop as a person. If I wanted to dye my hair, I could; if I wanted to wear bright purple leggings and a blue cap, that was fine too. If I listed ‘becoming prime minister’ among my childhood ambitions, nobody thought it odd. The parents of the millennials encouraged their children to be as ambitious as possible when mapping out their life goals. You can achieve anything if only you work hard enough – that was their creed.
In the meantime, a world rose up around the generation of millennials that began to look more and more like a technological playground. We were given Nintendos and GameBoy Colours to amuse us on the back seat, Furbies and Tamagotchis to haul around with us all day (otherwise they died). We dreamed of participating in children’s talent shows or musical charity galas, so we could all see ourselves on TV. We also outclassed our parents in the operation of the television remote control, which they interpreted as yet another sign of our impossibly rapid development.
My favourite term for the millennials – the generation that includes Romy, Eva, Shady and myself – is the ‘digital generation.’ The generation that developed alongside technology at a rate faster than their parents; the generation that, at age ten, could already operate a computer mouse and keyboard while their teacher was still fumbling with the instructions. The generation that spent entire weekends watching Nickelodeon, while our parents echoed somewhere in the background that too much TV would give us square eyes. They generally didn’t stop us though: limiting children in their autonomy was something no parent wanted on their conscience.
Our personalities are formed to a large extent by the prevailing concepts and ideologies of the era in which we grow up. As professor of clinical psychology Paul Verhaeghe says in his book, Identity: Identity is a collection of ideas inscribed onto you by the outside world. It is a process that begins at birth, and the result of constant interaction between our brains and our environment. Identities are formed (and probably more than we would care to admit, in these times of individualism and authenticity) by everything our parents say to us and all that we are bombarded with by the world we inhabit.
As we entered the new millennium, Paul Verhaeghe writes, the focus came to lie so exclusively on the individual and so little on society that any sense of community was replaced by a sense of mutual competitiveness between individuals. ‘The act of discovering one’s identity shifted from making oneself to making “it”.’ In recent decades, the focus on personal development and individual freedoms has continued to evolve into a meritocratic society: one where – as described by David Brooks in The Second Mountain – the ‘community’ is viewed as a collection of individuals with potential, who must all compete against one another. A society in which your ‘value’ is measured by what you’ve achieved in life.
Dorit remembers how some of her university classmates in Utrecht didn’t dare return home if they’d failed an exam. Her own parents weren’t pushing her to perform so much, but when she launched her own business, her father – a self-made man and co-owner of a large furniture manufacturing business – gave her one tip: always ask three times as much as you think you should. You’re worth more than you think.
The rise of the meritocratic society was accompanied by the birth of another idea, that of human capital. French philosopher Michel Focault used this term to describe how the neo-liberal Zeitgeist served to close the intrapersonal gulf between abstract and concrete work. The notion of human capital helped people internalise the concept of labour: instead of working simply to earn a living, people instead became their own projects – entrepreneurs who ‘invested in themselves’ in myriad different ways. Human capital embraces the idea that people are responsible for their own development, that they must constantly boost their intrinsic ‘value’, and owe it to themselves to do and be their very best. And we have become collectively and increasingly creative in measuring exactly what ‘one’s best’ means. Since the last quarter of the previous century, a panoply of methods have been introduced to find out how children measure up against their peers: grades, levels, standardised literacy and numeracy tests, academic recommendations, exams, resits… the list goes on.
Whenever Robin’s father calls, she often already knows what he’s going to ask. ‘And, how’s your degree going? Finished your thesis yet?’
On the surface, neoliberalism and the idea of a meritocratic society doesn’t seem so bad: individuals are free to develop themselves as they like, and the hardest workers will achieve the greatest success. But underneath, says Verhaeghe, this freedom goes hand-in-hand with a new form of social Darwinism that allows only the most successful individuals to triumph, at the expense of the others.
And the competition starts early. In primary school, the digital generation was already confronted with the notion of winning and losing based on measurable outcomes. There were kids at school who were keeping up (that is, learning fast, or at least at the prescribed tempo), and kids who were underperforming. There were children who had already read every book in the library twice, and those who barely made it through four books a year. Some kids were so far ahead, they took extra English or French lessons alongside their schoolwork, and there were those who played the piano or the violin.
To parents of the digital generation, their children had always been winners. But now that they had landed in an real-life competition – the scramble to amass human capital – they now suddenly thought it was important for them to actually win.
Translated by Brent Annable