Fyre Festival, the luxury experience-turned-calamity that lured thousands of young, wealthy Americans to become stranded in the Bahamas with little food, water or shelter in April 2017, epitomises millennials’ dysfunctional relationship with technology like no other event.
Entrepreneur Billy McFarland and early 2000s R’n’B star Ja Rule wanted to throw an elite party in the Bahamas. Their marketing campaign consisted of a video with a group of the most famous female supermodels and influencers – with social media followers in the tens of millions – partying on a spotless beach, draped off yachts and jet skis, selling this lifestyle to those who bought tickets to their mysterious festival.
This wasn’t just their marketing campaign – this was all the festival was; shoot the video and ask questions later, like how to supply plumbing, running water or food for 10,000 people on a remote island. The woefully inadequate organisation meant the promise of luxury villas to thousands of VIP guests, influencers, festival-goers and staff became hurricane relief tents, the only accommodation they could supply en masse at such late notice, and soaked through by torrential rain.
No viable infrastructure existed for the 3,000 attendees that actually made it to the site before the festival was cancelled, and the scene had descended into something “closer to Lord of the Flies than Coachella [Festival]”, as described by court documents from the case that subsequently sentenced McFarland to six years in prison for fraud.
The advert’s influencers were doing what they are famous for, selling a very specific product: a lifestyle of beauty, exclusivity, and #goodtimes. From that one video, Fyre sold 95 per cent of tickets within 48 hours. What was the festival site? How many stages of music? Were the models going to be there? The answers to these questions were washed away in the slick montage of cocktails and absurdly sculptured torsos. Basic tickets were worth thousands, while packages worth up to $250,000 advertised bungalows, yachts and private chefs that didn’t exist.
The saga almost reads like a cruel satire of our age: rich kids lured by a social media video to live for a night like refugees displaced by volatile climate patterns. But what would a successful Fyre Festival have been? On offer was not jet ski-ing with a supermodel, as per the video. That was never going to happen. On offer was the chance to portray your life to people who follow you on Instagram as the “jet ski-ing with a supermodel” kind of lifestyle, through suggestion and euphemism; a heavily-filtered aesthetic of laughing faces and golden hour horizons. To pimp out your Instagram. The bar for the festival’s success was actually then quite low; no need for rap group Migos in a flawless musical spectacle, as they also promised, but simply enough plumbing and hygiene facilities to document a believable façade of the dream Fyre had sold.
This dream-chasing is not a pathology limited to a small cult of crazed social-climbers. How we live our most valued moments has been radically shaped by how we document them on social media. Research in the Journal of Consumer Research shows taking photos to share later reduces enjoyment of an event, directly and indirectly. We more or less knew this. Standing throughout a concert recording on your phone is probably not the most enjoyable way to experience it (but we all do it anyway). However, research also shows people who document experiences on social media form less precise memories of those events.
Documenting an experience, such as going on a tour round a church or attending a TED talk, makes people perform less well in tests on details of that experience, as a study in the Journal for Experimental Psychology shows. Details get lost as you live the act of documenting. Living a double life, one on social media and one offline, is therefore difficult; sometimes you have to pick one of the other. Instagram’s 400m daily users become little more than unwitting amateur ethnographers of their own culture, experiencing life only indirectly.
The harmful power of documenting does not stop there. If you are constantly documenting and sharing experiences you are not enjoying, surely the stream of underwhelming experiences will eventually force you to wake up, and come to terms with an alienating lifestyle? Not if you remember them as happy memories. In the 2000s we started externalising knowledge, to search engines. Now, we have begun to externalise memories, too. Posting photos not only weakens your memory but can become itself the memory of an experience.
“You have a new memory,” reads an iPhone notification when photos on your camera roll become internally categorised by time or place. This is not as inaccurate as we’d like. We rely on photos for the memory of events, and those photos come to shape the memory themselves. You may come to remember the beach holiday that was actually quite miserable (but looked great on Instagram), eventually, as a great time – after all, look at the beautiful photos.
“I went with friends to a beach bar on [the Greek island of] Mykonos because the photos on Instagram made it look amazing,” says Roxy Alexander, 26, a digital strategist from London. “We took so many pictures – because it felt normal to do so – that when I think of the night, it’s through literal snapshots in my mind, all of which went on Facebook or Instagram later.”
This has consequences for how materialistic we are. The service sectors of advanced economies have ballooned, as middle class and wealthy people choose increasingly to spend their money on experiences like eating out, holidays and activities, over possessions. But “rather than living experiences, we consume them,” writes Marc Weinstein, a festival consultant for Fyre and chief whistleblower in Netflix’s behind-the-scenes documentary, Fyre. “We capture key moments in time to share on social media, and as such take each experience as a possession.” Valuing experiences over possessions is not a break from consumerism, but a new frontier in it.
Fyre, and Generation Y’s existential reckoning with technology that it epitomises, will not lead to a purge of smartphones from crowds at every gig or public event. But the size of this particular calamity in chasing the social media dream has brought the simmering conversation out into the open. For what and for whom are we actually living our experiences?
Additional reporting by Ellie Jacobs