“I was, to be completely honest, starting to feel as if I had absolutely no sense of reality.” Among all the sharp commentary made by journalist Gabrielle Bluestone in her 2021 offering, Hype that was a line that stood out. While the book is primarily about the spectacular fraud called the Fyre Festival, it was Bluestone’s deep research into the influencer culture that helps foster such scams that toyed with her sanity. There will always be punks like Billy McFarland who orchestrated a wild pyramid scheme that funded a lavish lifestyle and this clusterfuck non-event (and landed him in prison), but perhaps doing as much damage are the celebrities and so-called lifestyle gurus who leverage social media to prey upon the gullible. We learn about neophilia (the love of the new) and affective misforecasting (the gap between the anticipated experience and the actual one), but fancy social science terminology aside the lesson is that Instagram is riddled with snake oil sales weasels and feckless suckers.
Readers will wonder if Mrs. McFarland ever encouraged young Billy to put his mind to something useful. If you’ve seen either documentary on the Fyre Festival (Bluestone executive produced the Netflix version), you already know that the kid is truly awful, like Bernie Madoff in bro gear. What’s confounding is he has an in-demand skill set, playing marketing chess while the rest of us master tiddlywinks. Surely there’s a legitimate career path for someone who hustled his way into the world of high-end financiers and supermodels. It’s not everyone who can convince a Hadid or Kardashian to post a vague orange tile to promote their wares, but McFarland did. Those models told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on, to the point where B-listers who feared appearing as such fell in line, making it a wild – and wildly successful – stunt that created tens of millions of impressions for the brand. Reports Bluestone, “McFarland had been able to wash the stench of fraud from his scheme, resulting in a pure hype cycle that bypassed any need for proof of concept.” Alas, with a few months to go there was no infrastructure for the Bahamian event: no venue, housing, internet, acts, toilets – nothing but native islanders who ended up getting screwed.
Why did investors and attendees get so caught up? Because people can be silly, pathetic sheep. Take a fear-of-missing-out culture racing toward the next selfie, stir in a sociopath’s penchant to humor himself by “throwing ideas out into the void to see what people might be interested in paying for,” and you have a recipe for catastrophe. In pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, McFarland blew through most of the capital he’d raised, flying private every weekend to the Bahamas with his crew, leaving all with the impression he was funding the trips personally. For this, he deserves the biggest slice of blame pie. But here’s to Bluestone exposing everyone else responsible. The book is at least one chapter too long and didn’t need a Covid tie-in, but those are nitpicks. The author has done her audience a wonderful service, shining klieg lights on the madness that is herd mentality. When you write huge checks to fund some 25-year-old’s magical thinking, or debit thousands of dollars for an event short on verifiable details, you might well know the cliff’s edge is just ahead.
If you have anything to say about this – or book recommendations – kindly post below (rather than emailing me) to spark conversation. Thank you!