Influencers play a crucial role in the functioning of social media platforms and in socializing their audiences. One of the roles they perform is underreached. Influencers can also be analyzed as reproducers of platform ideologies. The influencer concept hides an enormous range of different categories of content producers on social media. We usually tend to see them as those who use their cultural status to sell products; from make-up artists, to fashionista’s. Other influencer categories would be those who produce entertainment, try to sell their services to their audiences, activists and politicians adopting the influencer tactics (Maly, 2020 & 2021) or intellectuals catering for a special audience. Considering the topic of this article, it makes sense to look at still another category: namely the influencer that gathers a following because they seem to understand digital media and give advice to people who dream to become influencers or at least use social media in service of their business, their dreams or passion. Gary VaynerChuk is one of those influencers. And it make sense to analyze him as a reproducer of platform ideologies: a digital ideological entrepreneur.
Who is Gary VaynerChuck?
Gary Vee, as he is commonly known, presents himself in his Facebook bio as ‘CEO of VaynerMedia. Creator of VeeFriends. Investor in Facebook, Coinbase & more’. He likes to call himself a ‘serial entrepreneur’ and a 5x New York Times bestselling author. He presents himself as a humane entrepreneur, somebody who want to help other people to become happily successful. Someone also who is not jealous of the success of others, on the contrary. The CEO has a massive online presence. He has over 6 million followers on Facebook, 10 million on Instagram, 4,15 million subscribers on YouTube and well over 3 million followers on Twitter. This massive following didn’t come out of thin air. ‘Outside of his businesses’ says the GaryVaynerchuck website, ‘GaryVee” has spent the last decade pioneering the practice of building a personal brand online through his series of original pillar shows’ (Vaynerchuk, 2023a). This personal digital branding is not just some hobby ‘spielerei’, it is profoundly connected to the different businesses he owns, runs or is chairman of. Some of those media:
- Vaynermedia is a contemporary global creative and media agency.
- Vaynercommerce is an innovation growth and technology firm that builds enduring e-commerce brands.
- VaynerSpeakers is a traditional speakers bureau to help the modern planner and Vayner3 is a web3 consultancy firm.
The Vaynerchuk brand is thus relevant for almost all the companies that he is involved in. Being successful on social media is the essence of his profession, and thus of his and his employees livelihood. It is thus not so surprising that Vaynerchuck and his companies are very well integrated in the digital ecology: their livelihood is connected to people and companies who are willing to be on social media. In other words, his companies depend on the success of social media uptake. In the next sections, I want to look closer at how he is constructing this brand and more importantly how this brand, his social media tactics are connected to what we define as social media ideology.
The personal is big business
The first thing that one cannot help but noticing while consuming the content Gary Vaynerchuk is pushing out, is that he is personal and professional at the same time. He also clearly knows how to produce affective content. This is of course not unique. ‘Narratives of authenticity and realness; the instrumentality of affective relationships; and entrepreneurial brand devotion’ argues Duffy (2015: 3) are the three most salient features of digital creative labor. Contrary to many influencers, we do not see the actual personal life of the CEO. We do seem to get access to the back office of his professional dealings. We get to ‘know him’ as a global entrepreneur and motivational speaker. His followers see him travelling to Dubai or Japan, getting interviewed, doing speeches and Q&A sessions, making his videos and sitting in the limo that drives him. What is not there, is him at home in a family situation. When the personal is mobilized – for instance in the form of autobiographical details - it is always connected to his professional activities. The personal narratives on his dreams, his family and his childhood help establish an identity of a media savvy, natural-born but humane entrepreneur who likes the rough speak and dresses casually. Some of these narratives tell the story that he, as a little boy, made 1000 dollars with a lemonade stand. Or that he turned the wine business of his parents into an online shop and increased the annual revenue from 3 million to 60 million dollars in five years. In all these short clips, he establishes himself not just as a very successful entrepreneur or as an expert in digital media, but as an expert in life. The reels, clips, and posts usually are pieces of advice on branding, using social media or new technology hypes. But they can also deal with how to raise children so that they become happy (and successful), how one can become successful as ‘a content creator’, an entrepreneur or ‘an influencer’.
Emblematic of his ‘humanistic side’ to his online performance is his narrative about his childhood dream of owning ‘The Jets’. The story has been narrated by him dozens of times on different media and in different formats. It goes like this. When he was 7 years old, he moved with his parents to New Jersey. Most of his new friends wore sweaters from the Jets and that is why he eventually also became a Jets fan. He therefore asked his mom to buy him a Jets sweater. Because they were too poor, that wasn’t an option. The mother couldn’t buy one, so she knitted one instead. This origin story, according to Vee, is the basis of his successful career as an entrepreneur. The fact that they couldn’t buy the sweater installed in him the goal to buy The Jets. This is not presented as a form of greed, or as acquiring a business that can make him even richer: ‘The quest to buy The Jets is my happiness’ he says (Vaynerchcuk, 2017). See here the connection between the private life, the humble origins, ‘what makes him happy’ and of course his success as an entrepreneur. This origin story frames Gary Vee not only as a caring, empathic person, it portrays him as living the Digital Dream, the American dream 2.0. This digital platform version of the American dream reserves a central place for digital media in realizing the dream.I’ll come back to this, but for now it is important to note that digitalization in Vee’s discourse is regularly framed as a tool that not only has changed the world, but has unlocked the potential of human beings to ‘Do what they like’, become happy and make a living from it.
The videos, memes, slides and reels that Vaynerchuck shares on his different media connect the personal – who he is or who his audience is – with success on social media or/and business. This link between the individual and business is not a coincidence, nor is it typical for Gary Vee: it is emblematic of social media ideology. Remember the old slogan of YouTube: ‘Broadcast yourself’. Vee is advocating the embrace of one’s ‘true self’ not only to become happy, but also to become a brand and as such become successful.
An emblematic example of this is his Facebook post of 2 May 2023 (see image 2). The post, nor the actual content is unique. Vaynerchuk doesn’t hide that he keeps repeating the same things over and over again. According to Gary, this is because he takes the audiences into account. They can hear the same message over and over, but it can take some time before it resonates with them. In the post, we see that Vee defines success in very personal/individual terms: ‘do what you want, enjoying what you love and waking up every day to being excited to do it’ (Vaynerchuck, 2023b). What success is, argues Vaynerchuck in the video, ‘is something you can decide (…) it is being able to do what you want to do’ (Vaynerchuck, 2023b, min 3.05)
Doing what you like, what makes you happy, is a constantly reoccurring advice that he gives. Again, this is not very unique advice, it aligns nicely with dominant digital culture narrative about the good life. In his address to Stanford University’s class of 2005 Steve Jobs famously stressed that the only thing that kept him going after he got fired from Apple was that he loved what he did: ‘you’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for work as it is for your lovers. Work is going to fill a large part of your life. And the only and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. And if you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.’ (Jobs, 2005, my italics). We hear Job’s words echo when Vaynerchuk says that ‘most people don’t do their hobby as their profession’ and that he lives his life differently: ‘Like, this is my hobby, this is my passion, this is what I love to do. I love building businesses’ (Vaynerchuk, 2019a). ‘I was so about my art, that I had to do it anyway. I lived under the context (…) I don’t care, I’m just going to do me’ (Vaynerchuk, 2023c- min. 15:02). This egocentric motto - do what you want – is central to how he sees the opportunities that social media gives him.
Digital media as the key to do what you love
In Vaynerchuk’s worldview, the personal is the foundation of digital success: individuals need to combat insecurity and fear, and start to embrace oneself to be able to commodify their personality online. Success, in terms of doing what you want to do or in terms of financial gains, is unavoidably connected to ‘putting yourself out there’. The reason people don’t do it, according to Vaynerchuk, is because they can’t deal with ‘the emotional feedback that comes with putting yourself out there’ (Vaynerchuk, 2023d). ‘Fear is the biggest way to not make money’ (Vayncerchuk, 2023d). This slogan is launched by Vaynerchuk in a talk in Dubai. The talk discusses the way in which social media can be used in creating a personal brand, that can then be levered for the professional ambitions of that person. Do what you love, is in Vaynerchuk’s discourse, clearly related to the financial opportunities digital media provide: ‘The biggest opportunity on earth for every broker that exists is making content on social media at scale. Period. In 2023, as we sit here in this room, there is no second option, compared to the truth that is if you sit in here and are capable of producing 15 to 25 pieces of content a day across 4 to 5 platforms a day that the business ambitions you have will come true’ (Vayncerchuk, 2023d).
This highly ambitious publication strategy is called the ‘reversed pyramid model’ (Vaynerchuk, 2019a). They start with a piece of ‘pillar content’, usually a keynote, a Q&A show or a podcast. This pillar content is posted in its entirety on one social medium like for instance YouTube. His team then starts extracting soundbites, memes, reels and other formats that can be used on all his social media. The post-production of his videos is of high quality. Even though most of the items seem filmed with a smartphone, which contributes to the authenticity, the post-production is high end. All videos have the speech graphically shown. They are not routinely published, but published with curiosity triggering statuses and good thumbnails. This media strategy has shaped Vee into a multiplatform brand: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Medium, TikTok: all platforms are used to the full and successfully.
It also is obvious, that this is hardly something a beginner can do on their own, or at the very least not as a side job. This is a full-time job if you do not have a team at your disposal. For that last category of beginners, Vee has specific advice (see image 3). Even though he advices to start small, it is quite clear that even that ‘small start’ asks quite the time investment. Reaching out to hundreds of creators is not something that is done overnight. And then the actual work still has to start. The advice is also not immediately original or ground breaking, doing collabs is a tried and tested influencer practice: the internet is littered with advice on doing collabs. It is even widespread in the far-right margins of the internet (Lewis, 2018).
Already in 2016, Vee made clear that ‘attention is the game’; influencers were praised as the future of marketing (Vaynerchuk, 2019c ). ‘I am obsessed with consumer attention.’ He says (TeamGarryVee, 2020a): ‘I don’t give a rat’s ass about Fucking Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest or any of that horseshit. Where does the attention of the customer, and if you are not there, and you are not properly in that, you are going to lose’ (Vaynerchuk, 2014). As a consequence Vee is an early adopter; embracing new media and affordances when they come along, or moving to old media when they succeed in again grabbing eyeballs. Being unashamed to trying to capture those eyeballs is key, and it is obvious that in trying to do this he and his team try to find out how exactly what works on which platform:
- First step is to understand the algorithmic logic of a platform. In this case, Vee’s online presence is a trial-and-error game (Vaynerchuk, 2019a) that allows him to gain algorithmic knowledge (Maly, 2018). This organic reach knowledge is based on the analysis of his own postings and building theories on why his content, organically, takes off (Vaynerchuk, 2019a min 46).
- Second ingredient is a thorough understanding of the digital culture of a platform, what Vee calls PAC’s: Platforms and Culture (Vaynerchuk, 2023e min 3:25). The role of influencers are key in understanding PAC: they get what works on a certain platform. Understanding digital culture is in that respect understanding the ‘attention-grabbing’ practices on and abilities of new content formats that are being used by influencers who are native to a certain platform (Vaynerchuk, 2023e).
Attention is thus not something connected to one platform, but related to the affordances of the platforms, the algorithmic nature of the content organization on platforms and the digital cultures that arise in relation to those technologies. On the basis of this relation, Vee gives advice to his paying customers and his followers on all his different channels. This type of content – social media advice – shows how Vee is reproducing social media ideology. Never does he question the workings of social media, they are embraced as a fact of nature, as something that is there and can be exploited but never resisted. Even more, in his advice to his audiences, he is consistently praising digital media as the path to success. Investing in pushing content out, is lauded as the way to success, to make money from your passion. In other words, he is pushing people to become influencers, and companies to turn to digital media to reach potential customers. Combine this with his mantra that they should be willing to put in the work, and you see how Vee is consistently reproducing social media ideology by suggesting to people that they too can become successful, if they are willing to put in the (free) labor. In this narrative social media are consistently framed as instruments that do good; they create the ‘techno/opportunity’ (Beekmans, Maly & Van Hout, 2023) that needs to be grabbed. This position further enforced every now and then by showing his audience clips of ‘common people’ who thank him for their success after they followed his advice so many years back (see here for instance: Vaynerchuk, 2023f)
The dark side of the ‘Do what you love’ -mantra
The Vaynerchuk method is clear: Embrace your passion by making your hobby your profession (Vaynerchuk, 2023c min. 15:02). To be able to do that,
- You need to work on yourself by combatting your fears and ‘stop giving a f*ck about what other people think’. Regret and insecurity is what stands in the way of happiness (Vaynerchuk, 2023g),
- To succeed in branding yourself and making your passion, your business, people, according to Vaynerchuk should be prepared to ‘take a step back’, and take risks to do the stuff they want to do.
- You need to embrace digital media in order to turn yourself into a brand (and thus follow in Vaynerchuk’s footsteps). That means understanding which media are important, using the latest media to the full (without any critical question), we have to be where the attention is.
- Start posting a massive amount of content on a daily basis.
This is richly illustrated when Gary chats with a man who testifies that he quit his job, sold his car and lived back at his parents place. This decision is framed not just as brave (or dangerously stupid) but as an example in the status of the post:
‘It’s just time. Take a step back even to reset and find your joy. Don’t worry about what people may think about what you have accomplished or are up to in your 30ies … it is your life … don’t compare, don’t envy others. Just be you and go get your happiness. You have time! (Vaynerchuk, 2023h).
This status gives insight in the ideological function of Vee’s discourse:
- First, notice the stress on the idea that ‘time’ doesn’t matter. The status opens with the statement that ‘time doesn’t matter’ and it ends with ‘you have time’. It is something Gary repeats quite often: no matter how old you are, you still have time to take risks, to change your life. ‘It is just time’ is, especially in a capitalist society, a very misleading statement. Not only does our human condition naturally limits our time, and thus makes time valuable, within capitalist context, time is of crucial importance: it is our ‘labor time’ and labor time produces value that in a normal working context results in a wage for the laborer and (usually too much) profits for the employer. In digital capitalism, with its rentier characteristics, we have seen that the time of the user is where value is made: ‘Capital tries to commodify disposable time, which explains the emergence of play labour, digital labour and prosumption’ (Fuchs, 2015). Gary Vee’s discourse normalizes the existing digital capitalist surplus value production by normalizing ‘the giving away of time’ in the hope of achieving wages or profit later
- Secondly, Gary Vee’s discourse is an overoptimistic ‘you can do it’ narrative in which not only time, but all other potential constraints are framed as irrelevant. Surely, it should be clear that time is not limited, but what is even more obvious in the real world is that inequality is a key characteristic of contemporary societies. Central in his narrative is that an individual can be happy if he or she is truly oneself and dares to do what makes them happy. All material inequalities, all real barriers disappear: everything is possible. This is reminiscent of Digital utopianism’s negation of inequality, racism, discrimination and sexism as shaping society and limiting people’s possibilities. His own personal Digital American Dream narrative reinforces this notion that everything is possible for everyone: as he was poor, and now is filthy rich, you can do it too!
This Doing what you love-discourse is the official mantra of our time (Tokumitsu, 2014; Duffy, 2015). It is visible not only in influencer culture – but also offline, in the rise of reinvented craftmanship that use social media marketing to sell it. Think of all the new breweries, jewel makers, fashion designers and woodworkers who carefully market their crafts online. In first instance this follow your passion mantra sounds beautiful, but behind this seemingly compassionate mantra and high hopes to be successful with the stuff you love, we can see a far more grim reality. Implicit in Vee’s narrative is the description of digital capitalism as a world of endless opportunities to become happy, one only needs to ‘give up some time’ and ‘work on oneself’. He may be somehow modest in comparison with other ‘success-guru’s’ that create million dollar hopes among their followers, he shares with them the notion that individual success is in reach if you try. He redefines success in terms of do what you like, even for a modest pay, but it is clear that he too sketches a world where everyone can ‘do what he or she loves’ and become happy. Interestingly, the narrative is clearly centered around ‘the individual’: it is the individual that needs to work on himself, that has to work hard and to really want it. In all the posts, reels, podcasts and videos, Vee sketches a world that is completely detached from the actual reality of people who have kids, families and friends that they need to maintain. It also sketches a world in which everyone can do what they love, thereby disregarding that a lot of the jobs that are necessary to have a society, are rarely the jobs ‘that many of us really want to do’. Dirty jobs are part of life, and are necessary in a society. Vee creates a fictional world, in this ‘Doing what you love’-discourse, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.’ (Tokumitsu, 2014)
This of course neatly aligns with the dominant individualism embedded in digital media profiles. In social media, individuals have to compete for attention, and thus successful monetization of their content. Behind the seemingly compassionate and empathic humanism, lurks the competitive world of digital capitalism, with its deeply unequal power relations, its exploitation and rentier logic. In effect, Vee’s consistent stress on the fact that people can make it, if they do what they want, is grounded in a selfishness in which the world is never about society, about what we can do as a collective. Central is the individual that needs to do what they love, not what is for instance necessary for society. The current internet is clearly not the freedom paradise that Barlow imagined in 1996. But one wouldn’t realize this watching the output of Gary Vaynerchuk. He never ever questions the reality of digital capitalism in which new power relations create deep inequalities, where attacks on privacy are legio and a culture thrives that is not immediately positive for non-dominant groups (Noble, 2018 ; Maly, 2018). Vaynerchuk’s discourse normalizes a very individual perspective on labor and obfuscates the structural inequalities and discriminations (Byerly and Ross, 2006). Even more, his ‘Do what you love’-discourse normalizes inequalities. Duffy for instance has shown how the DWYL narrative has not only given birth to ‘aspirational labor’ where people work for free in the hope that they will, sometime in the future, will be paid to do this work ‘they love’. She also shows that it are mostly females who are lured into working for free. ‘Aspirational labour’, Duffy (2015: 14) concludes, ‘has succeeded in one important way; it has romanticized work in a moment when its conditions and affordances are ever more precarious, unstable, flexible – and unromantic.’ Ergo, it is this discourse that normalizes the rentiership of platforms.
Reproducing social media ideology
Vee is best seen as a reproducer of the social media ideology. First and foremost comes the suggestion that digital media are empowering for business, and for individuals. Digital media platforms are framed as holding the potential to liberate individuals. Even though Gary Vee stresses that competition and envy is something he doesn’t have, it is clear that within the digital economy, competition is at the heart of things. Attention is limited, and all influencers, companies, politicians and activists are fighting for their piece of the pie. Vee never sketches the real relations of production, and thus never produces insights in the rentiership of digital economy, and its contribution to inequality online and offline. On the contrary, his ‘success’-discourse normalizes the actual relations of production within the digital economy.
Vaynerchuk’s media contribute to the integration of others into this digital economy. The whole brand of Gary Vee focusses on luring people into social media in order to create a brand with the promise that they then can become happy doing what they want. What those people should do is ‘take risk’, chase their dreams and build brand by communicating online, by becoming content creators. Social media are in this narrative presented as empowering, all that one needs to do ‘is to know how to use them’. In essence, he will integrate many others in the digital economy, who in turn will put in ‘time’, ‘money’ and effort, and will possibly fail to succeed and never see that money back. This reproduction of inequality (which contributes to the profits of those Big Tech companies), is then rationalized as: it is better to do and fail, then to have regrets later (Vaynerchuk, 2023i). This 'Do what you love’-discourse contributes to what Morozov sees as the ‘refeudalization’ (2022: 96) of neoliberal capitalism, especially in its digital form. It normalizes aspirational labor, or free labor that keeps people hooked and thus turns them in data fields that can be harvested by the platforms.
The digital culture of producing endless streams of content, and rehashing them for different platforms, shows the importance of the digital infrastructure itself. This endless stream of content is an answer to the algorithmic logic of platforms that select content to become visible. This competitive high output culture is the effect of an algorithmic logic that consistently introduces and reinforces competition. Competition translates in massive amounts of consumable content which in turn keeps all others liking, sharing, commenting and thus producing data. This ‘data extraction is becoming a key method of building a monopolistic platform and of siphoning off revenues of advertisers’ (Srnick, 2018:58). The network effects allow for the growth of only a couple of massive monopolies that dominate digital communication for large parts of the world’s population. Clear is that digital culture is intrinsically connected to the material structure. This material structure is not just enabling specific digital cultures to exist, through its algorithms, interfaces and affordances platforms are effective (co-) producers of data. Digital platforms fuse base and superstructure in one. In other words, whenever we study digital culture and digital platforms, we cannot dissociate digital practices, norms and from the very specific economic organization of those platforms.
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