The With Honors Scandal Is Making It Hard For People To Take The Influencer Industry Seriously
In this week's newsletter: The latest plagiarism accusation revealed the very low and high standards the industry is subjected to, and how I wanted more from the HBO documentary Fake Famous.
This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
The complicated bind (women) influencers are stuck in
On Wednesday, I published a story about a glitzy social media academy, With Honors, being accused of plagiarizing materials in one of its online courses. I spoke to a few customers who raised alarm bells before having their suspicions validated by an Instagrammer named Elise Darma, who publicly and directly accused the academy of stealing her work.
People who bought the course told me it looked nice: The formatting and fonts were pleasing to the eye and thoughtful. Some of the materials were informative, but one person thought it was also fairly “basic.” I looked at a bunch of slides from its e-courses and — suspending the very serious accusations and controversies about how they were sourced — they were pretty rudimentary. They offered tips like “interact with your audience” and suggestions like posting “your Sunday routine” as content.
Darma, who’s an influencer and social media educator, has provided several examples to support her claims that her course was copied by With Honors. Other people who took it also pointed out strange inconsistencies in language and similarities to other things they found online.
Darma told me she’s not looking to engage with With Honors about the alleged plagiarism. She wants them to account for it publicly, and with their members, some of whom said they’ve paid hundreds of dollars for the materials.
When I reached one of WH’s founders, Heather Catania, she first dismissed the accusations as “cancel culture.” She later said the company is doing a “sitewide audit.”
I felt especially frustrated working on this story, not just because it is difficult to report on the stickiness of plagiarism. My annoyance stemmed from anticipating the inevitable comments like, “This is why the influencer industry is [reductive adjective, usually ‘vapid’ or ‘fake’ or ‘stupid’].”
The public’s relationship to influencers is already fraught. The industry is widely accused of repackaging extremely basic and shallow ideas, and trying to present them as new. And TBH, some of these criticisms are totally valid. Social media is a game about branding, and that includes the ability to make a thing or idea look polished and new when it’s the same messaging over and over.
But herein lies a really difficult standard for professionals (who are mostly women) in the industry as well. Because their reputation is fraught (and sometimes dare I say even bad), there is even more pressure on them to prove that they belong to a workforce that has merit. And the With Honors scandal, if the academy did take and/or carefully rearrange someone else’s original work, can feel even more damaging for the industry.
The opposing truth is that there is a lot of real work and fulfillment that influencers have. And many new kinds of influencers are introducing really exciting and interesting and new thoughts to the platform (You read the love letter/newsletter I wrote about Amanda Gorman, right? Lol). So I think we can remember there is a lot of potential the industry has to really grow, and a lot of good it can offer.
But, my god, if you’re not going to join in on making this space better or holding yourself to a higher stand, please don’t give yourself a name like “With Honors.”
I wish the HBO Fake Famous documentary came from a place of curiosity rather than judgment
If you haven’t yet, please read Stephanie’s review of Fake Famous, the HBO documentary that sells itself as exploring “the meaning of fame and influence in the digital age through an innovative social experiment.”
I actually intentionally didn’t read her opinions on it until I got to watch the documentary for myself. But now that I have, I really relate to her visceral reaction to it.
Without oversummarizing her review, I was also immediately turned off by the tone of the film from the beginning. It was directed and narrated by tech journalist Nick Bilton, who introduced his experiment by gawking and looking down at flocks of people taking photos in front of Los Angeles’s (in)famous pink wall. It’s the backdrop he wants to frame the documentary around: that we are robots without autonomy trying to chase fame for empty reasons. He’s so sold on his thesis that he wants to prove anyone can manipulate fame.
And, look, I actually think what he’s trying to do is interesting, and the topics he explores, like how easy it is to buy followers and the pressure that comes from faking followers and social engagements, are really important to talk about. There is even a very valid point he’s making about the veneer of the influencer (see: the first portion of this newsletter) economy and what values it’s teaching us.
But these talking points, and the way he presents them, feel so stale and dated. I want to believe we can progress past the stage where we looked at influencers like zoo animals, or as doing something so unproven that we dismiss it, and don’t want to understand better. I will admit that I’ve come from a judgmental place about influencers, and it’s taken some time to talk to them, to get to know them, and to understand what’s really valuable about what they do.
Nick qualifies influencers as people who are “famous just for a number” and constantly questions how “real” someone is based on their profile and audience. I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve thought these thoughts. But what I would have loved to see him do more of is question what’s “real” for the influencer? What’s at stake that makes it so important for them to pursue this line of work? How do we humanize influencers instead of deflating them to two-dimensional characters?
And for followers: What’s meaningful about genuinely following a person they don’t know? What’s transformative about parasocial relationships? What are the potential dangers, and how can we start to accept these relationships as something “real” if they feel real to the follower and influencer?
If we’re going to call out influencers for faking scenes and photos, which some of them do, we can also stay mindful that a documentary is also a very mediated experience of “reality.” Documentary scenes are also set up, and edited carefully, and have a narrative in mind. When Nick is in bed telling his wife he’s not sleeping because he’s buying more followers for his experiment subjects, that’s quippy, but did that happen perfectly organically? He had to set up his camera, get in the scene, and then get up to turn off his camera to capture that scene.
This is all to say that watching Fake Famous was irritating. I wanted him and the documentary to approach these really interesting but tricky topics with an open mind and curiosity. Instead I felt like he had a good experiment he wanted to conduct, but the framework for it felt judgmental and dismissive.
Influencers are sticking around for a while, and we may never like them, but I think it’s time we better understand them.
Until next time,