Rachel Hollis is an Instagram influencer who has leveraged her lifestyle brand into multiple bestselling books, sold-out events, expensive merch, and interviews on daytime talk shows. I don’t follow anything she does, but I know about her because her books—straightforward self-help manuals that may or may not contain egregious plagiarism—have somehow been successful in the Christian book market (that fact brings up some topics that should be reserved for future newsletters).
My impression of Rachel Hollis is that she’s more or less Pinterest come to life. But that’s not really the topic of this post. I bring her up because something happened to her a few days ago on social media that illustrate something important about the way contemporary culture thinks, especially those who want to be thought of as “culture makers.”
Hollis hopped onto TikTok a few weeks ago and, in a now-deleted post, engaged with an Instagram commenter who had called her “privileged.” You can watch Hollis’s video here:
The enormous backlash Hollis took for this video was one of the most predictable social media outcomes I’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t quite make sense how someone as media savvy as Hollis could have walked right into it. Hollis apologized on Instagram and promptly locked down her Twitter account, and is now the subject of dozens of thinkpieces about “toxic positivity.” Hollis is rich and successful, and will stay rich and successful, but I don’t think she can count on her social media presence to give her future book projects much of a boost.
The controversy itself is a fairly straightforward tale about another personality stepping over certain social media guardrails. That’s why the controversy isn’t that interesting to me. What’s interesting is what Hollis said and why she said it. Hollis made the biggest internet misstep of her career because she was angry that someone would call her privileged…which she obviously is. In the video you can tell that Hollis is extremely agitated. Her words say she’s, like, totally fine being called privileged, but her body language and tone say otherwise. That someone clearly privileged would take offense at being identified that way is, I think, a very novel, very online thing.
The entire point of country clubs, gated property, and the Titanic is to let the world know just how wealthy the wealthy are. This is also the point of much influencer social media, which monetizes “lifestyle” and depends not foremost on selling products but selling people. The image that Instagram influencers project is an image of luxury, and the most effective influencers are the ones whose entire life can be portrayed—or manipulated to portray—luxuriously. But in the cultural economy of the Internet, there’s an even more valuable social currency than wealth, and that is story.
Everyone’s relative significance, everyone’s trustworthiness, everyone’s moral authority online boils down ultimately to their story, their truth, their experience. This is true in various degrees in offline life, of course, but because the Internet is disembodied and structured to thwart traditional exchanging of ideas, the preeminence of “your story” is supreme when it comes to social media and online writing. Nothing about you matters nearly as much as what you’ve experienced. “Telling your truth” is the deepest form of self-actualization, because it is what makes you visible online. In the digital ether, it is not you whom the world sees nearly as much as your story.
Some have said that we live in a victimhood culture, and this creates social incentives for people to imagine how they are wronged and who wronged them. There’s some truth to that, but the bigger picture is that ours is an individualistic-experiential culture. There is social currency for experiencing victimhood, but there is also social currency for experiencing opposition (“No one believed in me”) or a transformation in beliefs (“I was raised as X, but now I know Y”). The crucial question is not ultimately whether you are a victim—although that certainly looms large in political conversation—but whether you have an identifying, insight-bestowing story.
In the economy of story, particularly on social media, the constant threat everyone must navigate is the possibility of being exposed as having the wrong story. In a Substack post about online context collapse, Charlie Warzel highlights one description of Twitter culture: “Each day on Twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.” This is exactly right, and it gets to something important about what happened to Rachel Hollis. Hollis was angry that someone would suggest her story is not as interesting as the one she presents in her lifestyle influencer package, precisely because Hollis knows that her story is her brand. By hopping onto TikTok and forcefully defending herself (in the only way that felt right in the moment: comparing her story favorably to other revered stories), Hollis became social media’s Main Character. No amount of apologies or walk-backs or post deletions can fix your story’s becoming “toxic.”
It’s hard to know how much this episode will tangibly affect Hollis’s platform. Writing books doesn’t do nearly as much as aspiring authors tend to think, but one positive thing about publishing is that it’s an analog outlet. It’s a degree removed from the wild west of internet culture, which is why canceled people can still sell books. But influencers are only as valuable as their image. Hollis isn’t the first life guru to bear the wrath of the online masses, and she won’t be the last. In the complex media ecosphere of the Internet, making your life an open Instagram page or YouTube channel is a ritual of personal significance. Not long ago, in order to “find themselves” people would move to New York or backpack across Europe. Today self-discovery is often self-exposure. The more transparent your story is online, the more real you become.
Hollis’s actual life story is not particularly unique. She was born into relative comfort and married a successful Hollywood executive. Before she ever washed her face, Hollis was in all likelihood a very normal upper-class, suburban mother. Her Internet fame came to her in an almost painfully on-the-nose moment of self-as-brand:
Her breakthrough moment on social media came in March 2015, when an Instagram photo of her celebrating her stretch marks went viral."I wear a bikini because I'm proud of this body and every mark on it. Those marks prove that I was blessed enough to carry my babies and that flabby tummy means I worked hard to lose what weight I could," she wrote in the post. It garnered more than ten million views.
Hollis is living out a drama that most of us will or have experienced at some point: the Internet empowers selves to become something other than what we are, losing old identities in the potential for self-recreation that the story-as-brand Internet offers. But it’s never as simple as that. In any economy, there are winners and losers. How could the economy of selves be any different?