I had a Black Mirror moment of reflection last week when I met a guy and his avatar at a café.
It was Fondwich (fondue cheese + sandwich) Night at La Piscine, and my friend Sofia and I were catching up by the bar while waiting for our drinks. Out of the corner of my eye, kinda like an itch that needed to be scratched, I noticed a young, curly haired guy who kept looking our way.
I tried avoiding his gaze until he finally approached us and asked if we were from the United States.
“No I’m not, but she is,” I said, pointing to Sofia, who, judging by the look she shot me, wasn’t exactly thrilled that we opened our exclusive circle of two to curious young men sitting alone at a bar.
“Oh cool, I’m from the States too!” said el chico.
Sofia managed to eke out a friendly-ish query, “Where from?”
“I’m from New York,” he said.
“Me too,” said Sofia. “Where about in New York?”
“Actually…I’m from New Jersey.”
A painful three seconds passed by like a snail stuck in molasses, so I tried to remedy the awkward silence by inviting El Chico de New Jersey to sit with us and the rest of our troop at a corner table. (Though Sofia did throw me shade for it… fifty shades to be sure).
At the table, the standard pleasantries were exchanged, and another friend asked him what he was doing in Madrid.
El Chico then whipped out his mobile phone and said, “Well, I’m traveling the world, and I actually have this account on Instagram…” and then proudly showed us his IG account.
Which had over 18,000 followers.
From Slumber to Mayfair
Suddenly, like that “Nosedive” episode in Black Mirror with Bryce Dallas Howard playing a woman desperate to boost her social media standing, (or Community’s “App Development and Condiments”, for an even deeper cut), El Chico de New Jersey suddenly looked… different.
As if a different filter tinted him another shade, from a greyish Slumber to a rosier Mayfair. This guy must be someone important, I confess thinking, for why the eff does he have more than 18 thousand followers on IG? (Translation to Community-speak: Wow! He has five Meow Meow Beenz!!!)
I would wager that my friends, who were at best polite a few minutes before, had seen the filter change too, and proceeded to search for his profile on their mobiles and followed him, further padding his numbers.
So I opened mine as well and then…here’s the weirdest part yet… I discovered that I was already following his travel account. Mind sheepishly blown.
“So, yeah I guess you could say… I’m an influencer,” said Mr. World Traveller.
Heaps of questions from the gang ensued. How do you get to travel that much? How long have you been doing this? Wanna join us for dinner?
Mr. World Traveller, I guess feeling a lot more comfortable by then, divulged that not all those travel photos were his. “It came to a point when I was running out of travel pics, so I asked my friends to send me their cool photos so I could post them.” (Minus two Meow Meow Beenz).
“Oh and I get free stuff from sponsors all the time! Like this…” he pointed to his spanking leather wristwatch, “I got this for free from the brand so I could promote it too!”
In spite of admitting that, it didn’t seem to bother the hive that night. In fact, it just spurred them to ask even more questions. He even told us how he paid for an ad to get more followers “which is how you probably saw my profile and followed me,” he said to me. Crap.
Oh well, he was a nice guy anyway, and we ended up inviting him to dinner and pisco with us.
El Chico thanked us but politely said he had a meeting that night – with a manager of a famous Madrid nightclub who wanted to offer him a deal in exchange for some exposure on his Instagram. (I thanked my stars and garters for never once stepping into that nightclub in my nine years of living here – even back when I loved the clubbing scene.)
Thus was my fleeting encounter with a (not quite) globetrotting, self-styled Influencer.
As El Chico swaggered and faded into the Madrid nightscape, I thought about the thousands and thousands of the Influenced, feeding on the illusion of his dream lifestyle, when in fact it’s a strategically edited – albeit beautiful – fiction in still photos. Oh well, at least he was a nice guy. I took out my mobile phone and clicked Unfollow.