Remember the 20th century? Phones had dials; the closest thing anyone had to Internet erotica was waiting up until midnight for the Soloflex infomercial, and — most outdated of all — people who had money tried to be discreet about it.
None of those things would make sense to a child born after the year 2000. Today, every teenager is their own media brand, with all the technology they need to broadcast their lives on their smartphone, usually via the social media platform TikTok.
The cultural pressures of wealth and celebrity are explored in my new book, “Gatecrasher,” but the past weeks have also brought fresh evidence that public opinion may finally be turning against young “influencers.”
The trend for boasting about money began with hashtags like #daddysmoney and #richboycheck, in which teens of means competed to flaunt their material possessions.
“The hot new thing on TikTok is bragging about money,” Lucas Cruikshank, a 26-year-old influencer whose YouTube channel has over 3 million subscribers, explained in a video posted on his channel in December. “Which I love — if somebody’s entire social media personality is, ‘I’m rich, I have so much money,’ I’ll follow them. Because it’s just entertaining, and I like seeing the life they live.”
Since then, the hashtags have evolved into #privateschool, which might feature a student parking lot with expensive sports cars, well-coiffed teens in blazers and ties showing off their Rolexes, or even boasts about the “gourmet” lunch options.
And for tips on “parking the Lambo” (Lamborghini) or traveling with an unwieldy amount of Louis Vuitton luggage, be sure to check out the hashtag #richproblems — which usually features the song “Rich Problems” by the Atlanta rapper Skooly.
Among young TikTokers, these posts are considered harmless, even if intentionally envy-inducing, fun. Their families, however, may be more alert to the dangers — which can include the subjects being targeted by criminals and mental-health issues arising from the constant pressure to present oneself as effortlessly young, rich and carefree.
One ugly cautionary tale happened in 2018, when a 9-year-old influencer named Lil Tay became infamous for posing at home in Gucci and Louis Vuitton accessories surrounded by stacks of $100 bills. Even by social media standards, it was a vulgar spectacle. When the façade finally collapsed, it was revealed that her alleged “Beverly Hills penthouse” was really an unsold property in Vancouver represented by her real-estate-agent mother, who was fired after also using her boss’ sports car as a lifestyle prop.
Then, last month, an 18-year-old TikTok star named Josh Richards issued an apology (through his public relations firm, of course) after unflattering articles surfaced about his party lifestyle, sharing a “collab house” in the tony Los Angeles community of Bel Air with a group of young social media stars. The statement, although vaguely worded and unclear about what, exactly, he was apologizing for, did include a link to the shopping site for his branded hoodies and other merchandise.
A week later the Hype House, another well-known Los Angeles group home for TikTokers, was burglarized by “fans” who allegedly stole clothes and personal possessions belonging to their idols. Naturally, the intruders posted videos of the whole caper on TikTok.
To be sure, modern teenagers didn’t invent embarrassing exhibitionism. (Remember the trend, circa 1985, for wearing multiple Swatches at the same time?)
But the audience of at least some high-profile influencers appear to finally be sick of their antics. Recently, Jeffree Star, a YouTube beauty influencer with his own lucrative cosmetics line, was accused of undermining rivals, while Shane Dawson, a longtime social media provocateur, apologized for making sexual jokes about minors and appearing in blackface, among other tasteless infractions. Both saw their followers leave in droves.
As top-tier social media personalities, the earnings of each would comfortably be in the millions. But now that their fans are demanding accountability, the shock tactics of the last few years may no longer profit.
Ben Widdicombe is the editor-in-chief of Avenue magazine. His memoir of 20 years of reporting on New York’s rich and famous, “Gatecrasher: How I Helped the Rich Become Famous and Ruin the World” (Simon & Schuster), is out now.