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Thanks to the Internet, there is this thing called the “attention economy”.
And, yes, it means exactly what you think it does. You do something, post it online and, if lots of people pay attention to it, you make money.
It’s the American dream on a case of Red Bull.
But, and it’s a statistically proven big but, the chances of becoming Mr. Beast or going from a sex-tape to the c-suite like Kim Kardashian, is as likely as getting hit by lightning while holding a winning lottery ticket.
That reality check doesn’t seem to faze many people who have been raised on YouTube and the get-rich-by-being-famous influencer culture.
And it’s a handful of those people that Burnaby filmmaker Tyler Funk focuses on in his fascinating, and often very sad, documentary Anything For Fame.
The film, Funk’s first feature-length outing, is now available on the NFB website.
“It is the gold rush,” said Funk about the hunt for online celebrity. “Everyone just hears the stories of success, and they are willing to risk it all to try and be a part of that.”
Funk says the problem is that failures are not talked about, and failures are fast and furious in this game.
“This Internet fame is so fickle. It doesn’t guarantee you money. It doesn’t last long,” said Funk. “Maybe think about how are you going to sustain this? How is this going to be a career? If you are stuck in that cycle to one-up yourself, you’re kind of doomed to failure.”
The young men highlighted in Anything For Fame risk life and limb and, in one case, freedom in a bid to turn stunts into stacks of cash.
“You could die tomorrow, but the videos are here to stay,” says a young man from Toronto named Jake Hillhouse who has collected a little over 230,000 followers on TikTok and subscribes to the Jackass business model of harm for hilarity.
The film, co-produced by North of Now Films and the NFB, is a stark reminder of how the chance at online fame often leads to the hyper-sexualization of women and pushes young men toward toxic masculinity.
“Think about Jake, he literally does a stunt where he doesn’t show his feelings while he’s getting hurt. That’s the bit,” said Funk.
While Funk shows the sadness in losing, viewers also see the sadness in winning.
Meet Ava Louise a successful TikToker (@realavalouiise) from New Jersey who earned online celebrity status in 2020 when she posted a video on TikTok of herself licking an airplane toilet seat.
“To me, when you show shame or embarrassment, you’re weak,” Ava Louise says in the film. For the record, she says she would lick another toilet seat if meant more money.
Ava Louise can also be found on OnlyFans. Despite the fact that OnlyFans and content creators try to sell the site as a home to fitness, beauty and other types of content, the subscription service is still very much rooted in the world of pornography.
“I still struggle with that question is it empowerment? Or is it just someone else getting you to do what they want?” said Funk.
“I think OnlyFans is miles above what the pornography industry was, I will say that,” said Funk, adding that adult film stars in an industry run by men often made only $800 a video, whereas Ava Louise, he says, is earning hundreds of thousands of dollars off the site.
At 35, Funk, who created the digital series White Ninja, says his own youth thankfully was free of the frantic push to make money by making a spectacle of yourself online.
“We grew up pre-Internet. It was a very different childhood than now. Then, you could make mistakes. You could be stupid. Not everyone in the world knew what you were up to,” said Funk about his childhood in Banff.
While they were iPhone-free, Funk did have a friend who was like Hillhouse, always up for some sort of stunt. Sadly, that friend took his own life in 2008 after he, Funk and other pals moved to Vancouver to be filmmakers. The loss was instrumental in Funk making Anything For Fame.
“It took me a long time to process,” said Funk about his friend’s death. “It was a reminder how this can really be a call for help, this attention-seeking behaviour. When I started seeing a lot of this behaviour on my Instagram feed and TikTok feed, I started to wonder who these people were. And it really took me back to that part of my life.”
At the end of the day, Funk hopes Anything For Fame will educate viewers on the dangerous and destructive elements of the attention economy.
“I think it’s a cautionary tale. I think the primary audience is parents my age and up. I want them to just kind of understand the landscape a little bit better,” said Funk.
While Funk’s film gets heavy and points some fingers, he says he is not anti-Internet. He uses it for his own career. What he does hope, though, is going forward, somehow, we as consumers can affect some change in cyberspace.
“I hope the film doesn’t come off as ‘Hey, stay off the Internet.’ I hope it comes off as ‘Hey, we as viewers have the power to say what kind of content we want to watch.’
“We have to ask ourselves, is this the Internet we want for our kids? We have to demand to see better stuff. We have to support creators in some financial way to make better stuff.”
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