Jul 22, 2021 • 1HR 0M

Five Days in a TikTok Mansion

How bowing to the algorithm is impacting our sense of self, with Barrett Swanson

Emilie Friedlander
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Cathartic conversations about culture in the platform age. Join journalists Emilie Friedlander and Andrea Domanick as they parse the structural forces shaping the 21st century creative economy — and how they impact us as human beings.
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It's summer, and what once felt like a slow, tentative return to normalcy has been accelerating at a jarring clip. Just weeks ago, many of us were trying to decide if we were finally ready to dine out. Now, hardly a day goes by without someone inviting us out for happy hour, or to some swanky, 17th century-themed rave, or to celebrate-for-Instagram somebody else's major life milestone, like a birthday or a marriage or a baby. Whatever our personal comfort/agoraphobia level, the experience economy is back.

On this week's episode of The Culture Journalist, though, we turn our attention to a phenomenon that exploded during its year-and-a-half absence—a time when any experience of adventure and escapism was necessarily a vicarious one, mediated by the billion-dollar platforms that we couldn't stop scrolling even as we privately admitted to friends that they were making us feel sick. Friends, we're talking about collab houses: The McMansion-sized influencer incubators where young social media celebrities shack up to shoot TikTok videos, churn out brand deliverables, and generally lead glamorous lives for the sake of turning those experiences into content. 

Just when we thought we couldn’t read another take on the phenomenon, a contributing editor for Harper's named Barrett Swanson dropped a mammoth work of culture journalism about these Black Mirror-esque abodes. “The Anxiety of Influencers: Educating the TikTok Generation” transports readers to a wildfire-engulfed Los Angeles, where he spends five days shadowing a crew of "well-complected," college-aged collab house residents as they seek fame and fortune in the wilds of the American influencer industry. 

Barrett Swanson. Photo courtesy of the writer

Barrett's is the best piece we've read about the phenomenon—and not just because of its pitch-perfect detailing of a world where your every word, White Claw bender, and Macarena-simple dance move becomes a vector for hundreds of thousands of views. More than a work of cultural anthropology, it's a searing indictment of for-profit social media, one that connects the worlds of influencing, higher education, and journalism to excavate the existential anguish we all face as we negotiate how much of ourselves we want to share with the world. That is, to the extent that it is even possible to conceive of a self at all beyond the one we project for others online: Though "the angle of our pose may be different," he writes, "all of us bow unfailingly at the altar of the algorithm."

Join us for a conversation about life in a TikTok mansion, navigating a world that asks us "to create [ourselves] in full view of the public," and Barrett's new book of essays, Lost in Summerland. Much like the piece, it’s an exploration of the collapse of the grand narrative in American culture and the bizarre fascinations and ideologies that are sweeping society in its wake. 

Read more by Barrett Swanson

The Anxiety of Influencers: Educating the TikTok Generation”

“Lost in Summerland: At the world’s largest gathering of psychics and mediums, two brothers confront a painful secret”

Lost in Summerland is out now via Counterpoint Press