This week, what Kim Kardashian, smartphones and hashtags tell us about how the world has changed in the past decade.
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It’s been ten years since Keeping Up With the Kardashians first aired, which means we’ve been obsessed with Kim Kardashian for a decade now. And we’re not about to stop anytime soon.
Consider the amount of money she made last year: $45 million according to Forbes. What for? For her personal brand which she’s managed to commodify into ‘Kimojis’ (like emojis but with Kim), a makeup line called KKW, her initials, which sells contouring products (a makeup technique made mainstream by the Kardashian sisters), Kim Kardashian: Hollywood (a game that involves the player climbing the celebrity ladder from nobody to A-lister by going to events, styling herself, dating the right men and so on) and a host of other endorsements and appearances in addition to the reality show that started it all.
As she told Janet Mock in an interview for Interview magazine, “Not bad for a girl with no talent”. Kim has said this before as well, as a hashtag on social media posts. The Kardashians as a whole are well aware that they are looked down upon for being talentless – none of them sing, dance, act or perform in other ways that usually validate this scale of celebrity. But as Mock puts it, Kim has created a new kind of fame, which is based on “access rather than aspiration”.
But I think Kim has capitalised on a moment where access is the aspiration for many. Social media apps like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook allow us to feel like celebrities ourselves to a large extent. The mundanities of life – going to the grocery store, getting lunch with our friends – were only considered news when celebrities did them. Celebrity news sites still thrive on pictures of actors and models coming in and out of airports, cafes and gyms. But these apps now allow stars to share their own pictures for the same moments. And they allow us, mere mortals, to indulge in the same activity on the same platform and so feel famous in our own way.
Kim is aspirational to many because she seems to have perfected the art of sharing things that make it seem like she’s giving her followers access without really having to divulge personal details about her life. I don’t watch the show but I do follow several of the Kardashians on Snapchat and Instagram. You never see Kim at a desk or a laptop staring at tedious Excel sheets, you only ever see outfits, her getting her makeup done, her cuddling in bed with her kids. You can also often see her snap pictures of her workout gear and equipment but never a sweaty, crumpled, exhausted Kim at the end of her workouts. This division of content seems intuitive to us but I wonder if it’s been defined as ‘normal’ by Kim herself to a large extent.
So many bloggers and Instagram models take their cues from celebrities’ accounts – how they pose, what they wear and so on. Famous people setting trends is nothing new but it’s a lot more observable when everything’s in one place – like Instagram. Kim is aspirational because she has what most new bloggers are dreaming of – access to exclusive designers, events, celebrities – and she got there by simply sharing her and her family’s antics on a reality TV show, which now serves as a way for the family to clarify their version of events that hit the news cycle rather than a platform to share the occurrence of those events.
The Paris robbery is a good example of this. When Kim was robbed of several million dollars worth of jewellery at gunpoint during Paris Fashion Week, she went offline for months, only to emerge later in the year when the newest season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians was going to premier – with an episode about the events in Paris. Kim and the other Kardashians spoke at length about how they felt, the trauma and also hit out at detractors who claimed she faked the incident. Months after news channels had exhausted everything they knew about the events, she returned to claim the narrative for herself.
In that episode, Kim acknowledges that her career is built on being vulnerable. And the thing is, she has to perform this vulnerability all the time. Kimoji has expanded into actual products and most of them feature selfies she’s posted in the past or screenshots from the show (like Kim’s crying face). If she ever decides to stop living her life on camera, or doing the balancing act of pretending to live on camera, then the rest of her products will lose relevance. She seems forever bound to live in the public eye, forever bound to find ways to keep abreast of cultural changes.
We’re deeply entrenched in a moment that desires authenticity – but a performed one – at all times. Nobody seems to understand this better than Kim. I wonder how or if her persona will change if we ever veer away from social media. Or if the conversation shifts to analysing the ways in which these self-curated narratives of our lives deprive followers of any actual insight into the lives of the people they follow.
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Like, refresh, repeat
It’s unlikely to change anytime soon though. It’s not just the Kardashians that have completed ten years of public relevance, but also the iPhone, which brought on the age of smartphones. Nowhere is the impact of smartphones as evident as in the behavioural patterns of post-millennials.
Millennials can still remember a time without screens when they spent face time with people their age, away from their parents and other controlling structures like school. Now though, research shows that American teens increasingly spend time on their phones chatting with each other in virtual spaces but rarely leave their rooms.
Jean M. Twenge argues,
the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives – and making them seriously unhappy.
He refers to findings from the Monitoring the Future survey, which has polled 12th graders since 1975, and 8th and 10th graders since 1991 to assert the fact that our dependence on technology is certainly impacting our mental health – teens report being lonelier despite spending more time than ever ‘connected’ to their friends and they feel left out more often than their predecessors did.
Here’s what Twenge says,
There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.
To add to this, actually hanging out with friends is something that is meant to be obsessively documented for the consumption of others who were necessarily not present with you. And everyone who was there will comment and post pictures of their own too. If you go out to dinner with friends, you perform it again and again every time you post a picture of it, see that someone liked it, tell them where you ate it etc. But you say very little about how you were feeling then, what was on your mind, and even if you do, you rarely take the risk of saying anything negative ever.
By now this is a well-documented phenomenon – a silent agreement that we only show the highlights of our lives on social media. And most of us know that we’re all performing a certain kind of aspirational contentment, but we can’t always manage the dissonance of our seemingly plain lives against the adventurous, expensive fun everyone else seems to be having. This is essentially what bloggers sell, and Kim is the queen of the game. Though it has to be said that Kim’s real genius lies in addressing certain thorny topics – like Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, her Paris-related trauma, difficult pregnancies. But the fact that the family stays silent on other issues – Rob Kardashian’s revenge porn tactics come to mind – reminds us that the Kardashians are all collectively maintaining a brand and performing, not actually sharing.
But there’s another important invention that’s turned ten recently – the hashtag. And annoying as it often is, it allows for the aggregation of conversations and builds context on topics of common interest. Twitter claims that currently 125 million hashtags are shared on the platform every day. When it started, Chris Messina, the guy who came up with it was looking for a way to streamline conversations and sharing on Twitter. As he put it, the hashtag enabled people “to participate in a powerful way on social media”.
I’ve never used a hashtag unironically, but there’s no escaping its existence or its usefulness on platforms that flood us with information and create an incoherent feed that leaves us exhausted and distracted. In an article looking at the hashtag’s origins, the New York Times also acknowledged the hashtag’s ability to add and distract by describing the tool’s invention as something that would “infiltrate our vernacular, aggregate conversations and, yes, fill screens with unnecessary, meaningless garble.”
There are several successful examples of hashtags anchoring important conversations and social movements (#Yesallwomen) but politicians and companies also manage to buy influence and brain space by getting multiple people to tweet the same message over and over and manipulate public conversations. It’s yet another way of influencing the private sphere using public discourse that ideally ought to be independent. But there’s another interesting trend that Messina has noticed about hashtags, no matter how much corporations promote their own hashtags, the NYT article notes, “People are unlikely to use hashtags created by brands,” meaning there’s a line between authentic and inauthentic, genuine and performative that can somehow be signalled through your usage of a hashtag.
Social media has spawned a whole array of career options since it first started coming up; not just for the people who create such platforms and work on improving them, but also those who are simply adept at using social media and also manipulating it for companies, politicians, celebrities and the like. Millennials and members of the i-Gen as Twenge calls them are deeply entrenched in a way of living that is increasingly disparate from other generations, and also it turns out, not all that great physiologically. But will that really change the trajectory of these industries and their enduring efforts to keep us hooked to our phones with newer forms of entertainment and engagement? When cultural changes like this start happening and research starts to conflict with their advancement, who eventually wins and how does the argument or advocacy go down?
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