‘Influencing is heading into the void’: Natasha Stagg and Kate Durbin on the future of social media

Following the release of ‘Sleeveless,’ author Natasha Stagg joins Kate Durbin to discuss the Kardashians’ quest for immortality, ‘it girls’, and maintaining identity in the content economy.

During the Victorian fin de siècle, the closing of an era inspired a literary and artistic climate of decadence, malaise, and fashionable despair. This phenomenon took another form in the Y2K scare at the turn of the millennium, when panic at the prospect of a calendar glitch escalated to the point of apocalyptic mania. Natasha Stagg captures a similar state of anticipatory ennui with her second book Sleeveless, a series of essays and stories on fashion, art, and culture in the New York of the 2010s recently released with Semiotext(e). Stagg’s image of the city is rife with conflicting desires: the self-commodification of the attention economy and the hunger for authenticity, the autonomy provided by new media coupled with the neurosis of increased surveillance, and extreme material wealth and the spiritual emptiness of late capitalism.

In dispatches spanning the anthropological history of thong underwear to the mechanics of the Kardashian’s identity marketing to the role of synthetic influencers, Stagg deftly chronicles the intersection of capital and identity. Divided into categories (Public Relations, Fashion, Celebrity, and Engagement), the main thrust of her critical analysis focuses on the cultural impact and social mechanics of new media such as Instagram and Twitter, where concepts of selfhood have become increasingly conflated with late capitalist values of improvement and production. Her frank analysis of New York media is made possible by an intimate knowledge of its strategies: having worked as both a writer and copywriter, she is both participant and critic, creator and consumer, the influencer and influenced. With a voice that is in turns cynical, witty, and tremendously personal, Stagg renders the image of a future that appears as both an apocalyptic prophecy and the indelible product of its past.

Following the recent release of Sleeveless, author Natasha Stagg joins writer and digital artist Kate Durbin in conversation for Document.

Kate Durbin: Sleeveless spans nearly a decade of your time in New York City working as a magazine editor and consultant. Over that time, media changed drastically, print magazines devolved, and we all became complicit in and self-aware of our own branded online identities. When you were putting the book together, what organizational strategies guided you? What discoveries did you make when putting all these pieces in an order?

Natasha Stagg: It’s hard not to get really meta or stuck in a loop of questioning when you’re trying to write about language and media, as I’m sure you know. That I’m adding to the discourse which I’m ostensibly critiquing definitely have me pause me a few times, which is why I end up pivoting back to my own experiences so often. While talking with other people about my first novel Surveys and now Sleeveless, I’ve learned something we all know to an extent: that everyone is seeing the world through a tailored feed of ads, and therefore our worlds have become very distinct from one another. I was surprised to find out just how different these worlds are, even between myself and other 30-something writers living in New York.

Kate: Can you talk about the relationship between this book and your first book, Surveys? While reading Sleeveless, I sometimes felt that the narrator in Surveys was the same person reporting to me in the essays and autofictions, as if this was her inevitable future. It also fits somehow with the meta-moment we live in, on and between platforms.

Natasha: Even when I’m writing so-called non-fiction, I always put on this semi-sarcastic voice, which might be a defense mechanism, but I see it more as an appropriate tone for the times. I was sort of developing it when I wrote for DIS magazine (some of the essays in Sleeveless started as articles commissioned by them). I had an advice column there, and it was premised on finding a language for the art they were producing, so it was a little facetious, reaching for academic and also fashion-savvy, but landing on sort of intentionally clueless. We were discussing topics that were so new, in their developmental stages, and so a self-serious all-knowing voice would make no sense. I would include too-long quotes from whatever text I happened to be reading at the time and force an answer out of them. I found out later that my sense of humor was maybe not coming through and that the column was being read as sincere advice, which I loved.

Kate: I loved your essay on the Kardashians and found it very beautiful. You end your essay talking about how Kim’s legacy will be her entire life, which I think speaks to the Kardashian project as a quest for immortality. You also talk about Kim’s goal as being one of omnipresence. In this way they are something like gods of our new media age. Can you talk a little bit about the Kardashians? What do you find most interesting about them, and what do they exemplify about our cultural moment? About all of us?

“There are so many versions of this in our individual lives now: if you are not participating in the media…do you even exist?” — Natasha Stagg

Natasha: Thank you so much, it means a lot coming from you. This piece came from a publication requesting I write about Kim and my reaction being, Why? She’s never not relevant, so far, but she’s been written about so much, Kardashian think pieces have sort of become their own genre. So I was trying to figure out why that is, why she’s so transfixing to culture writers in particular (which has also been done). I have watched every episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and I don’t even think it’s a good show, really. But my interest is in the show more than it is in the real lives: the narrative of a famous family who is now living at the mercy of their audience. To rise to fame in such a contemporary and unpopular way, and then to become more talked about than anyone else, suffering through scandal and heartbreak so publicly: in some cases the suffering being caused by the public-ness of their personas: maybe they are the first living proof that not all publicity is good publicity.

Kate: I’m curious to hear you talk about Kylie Jenner, a millennial who is the latest kind of influencer, one who claims to crave privacy and has agoraphobia as a result of growing up on social media with its surveillance. (She also grew up in a famous family.) You talk about how Kylie’s identity is branded as shy or resisting of fame, and how that this is part of her appeal: that she supposedly wants to be left alone even as she is constantly online, and this is something her young fans relate to as they also grew up online with its attendant anxieties. You also talk about other influencers, other young women who barely leave their houses and how this might relate to the trauma that comes with constant attention. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between this youngest generation of influencers and the Internet? It seems very fraught, even as the fraught-ness is still something to be performed.

Natasha: I love the examples that the Kardashian family provides us. Kylie is the shy one, and yet, Rob is so shy he has opted out of the show. There are so many versions of this in our individual lives now: if you are not participating in the media (social media, etc), do you even exist? How do you leverage a certain trait to be more entertaining or monetizable, if all brands are personal and all personalities are brands? Is it better to be coy in your selfies, or would it be more coy to not post any selfies at all?

Kate: You write about how Influencers have become more basic: this interesting distinction you draw between the ‘It Girl’ of the ‘90s, who like Chloe Sevigny was a kind of muse and counterculture icon and party girl, and today’s influencer, who is, as you say, the popular vanilla girl from high school who is now on The Bachelor, a blonde with a toned body and a perfect, bland, ‘successful’ life. I’m still thinking of Kylie, too, who posts these very brief videos that are almost nothing: like, just her turning around or dropping the camera: the more brief, the more enticing somehow. It feels like influencing is heading into the void…into nothingness. Is this just the eventual demise of capitalism or this form of advertising? Is it something else? I hate asking future prediction questions, but I am curious where you feel influencing is heading.

Natasha: I really don’t know where it’s heading, but there have been a lot of signs that consumers can easily see through influencer marketing and therefore aren’t as convinced by it lately. On my last flight, there was an option to watch some thrown-together educational series about ‘the influencer,’ so you know it’s kind of over already, and yet it was always around, in its general concept, since the first celebrity endorsements. Influencers are really just celebrities who are only popular with a certain crowd, which is every celebrity, I guess.

“It feels like influencing is heading into the void…into nothingness.”— Kate Durbin

Kate: I loved the Fashion section. It seems in fashion you locate a site to explore your anthropological impulse, a physical article of clothing to circle around. Your scope expands, for example, in your essay on the thong: where you look as far back as the history of the loincloth, tracing it to ‘90’s ‘Thong Song.’ You call it a ‘hidden object,’ both ‘decorative and invisible,’ that is misunderstood. What interests you most in writing about fashion? Are there things you feel it reveals that are unique to it, since we wear fashion on the body?

Natasha: Fashion is a game, and I feel like I understand it, so I can’t stop being fascinated by it. I don’t understand sports or money or politics but I understand fashion. It’s a type of art that is aware of its industry. It responds to the states of corporations and consumers instead of attempting to work against them. I’m also usually at a loss with art, since it so often seems anti-capitalist and working within a capitalist system, or blatantly acting out some other hypocrisy.

Kate: You write about an artist, Ally, whose artwork consisted of her body, primarily exhibited on Instagram. Ally made me think of other Instagram and Tumblr artists, people like Molly Soda, Leah Shrager… In its early days, social media seemed such an interesting site for young women to explore and perform the body, sex, and narcissism: all these very human things. But I wonder if you feel that that time has passed for Instagram as an interesting platform for art? Especially now that so many have done it?

Natasha: I think we’ll see who the more rigorous artists are once a few of them prove they can’t make anything outside of social media, since social media will have to become irrelevant eventually. But the It Girl phenomenon will continue, maybe, and at least we’ll always have an interest in who was interacting with the media in the most avant-garde or effective ways at certain times throughout history.

Kate: How would like to see our current media culture change, or would you?

Natasha: It seems fine the way it is, in that it is always changing.