The flip-phone arrived at my house last week, delivered by a courier. Nokia got wind of me writing about my (slow, painfully slow) migration away from the smart-phone and offered to send me their latest model. I said yes, because undergoing the whole experience of new-phone-buying in crowded tech shops in December was going to be hell on earth – also, because holy God, a free phone.
I am a person online but I am not a person who receives free things online – with the exception of advance-copies of books that publicists ask me to read. It’s no secret at all that Ireland booms with influencers: smart, charismatic people who talk into the camera to us, the fourth wall invisible, their parasocial impact amped up to the maximum. Some have hundreds of thousands of followers, some have a mere fraction of that. They talk about their lives, and products. Hashtag spon, hashtag ad. I don’t mind this, and in my daily scroll am happy to peer into some of these women’s lives. I’m interested in their opinions, I like hearing smart women talk. They feel, at times, like company. Their hair is generally immaculate. Their homes, symmetrical and clean. They are at once hyper real, and unreal. I know I am speaking in generalities here, because I don’t want this to turn into a study of individuals, more of a phenomenon.
There are some who I followed for years then had to unfollow because they were, frankly, making me sad with their glamour and wealth. Their performance of progress: weightloss, businesses booming, homes bought. Their eyes staring through the screen like a friend on Facetime – which is not something I generally use with my real friends, just these ghosts in my phone. Turning away from some of my daily check-ins was a relief: the disparity between what I am able to perform and achieve and what they were posting was a chasm that had started to give me vertigo. It has, and I know this, skewed what I can expect from myself.
And look, I haven’t hate-followed anyone since the days of MySpace and clicking around looking for ways to feel bad about myself for not being a thin American women with pink hair and enough confidence to be a GodsGirl. I’m online long enough to know that when a stranger’s content is hurting me, I can literally just look away if I resist the impulse to follow the pain even for a minute, for five minutes, then it goes away. We choose every follow ourselves, the mute function is a relief. These women with expensive lives don’t know me, I’m just data in their views. And like the anonymity of connecting to Youtubers, I can participate in silence while still feeling like I’m connected in some way. Nobody is going to ask me anything. I can just listen and absorb. Feel like I’m less by myself, while remaining entirely by myself. The only time I’ve ever read anything that captures the strange, parochial but still somehow enormous power of Irish influencer culture, is Sophie White’s Filter This, which I devoured with a familiar delight and horror in a single sitting. It is such a new phenomenon, this world beyond the digital veil. I’m not sure how to talk about it: but I guess that’s what this column still is, isn’t it, figuring out the internet, week by week.
To be influenced is a strange feeling. I’ve always swam against the tide, and to discover a deep want to emulate these women was a weird left turn. I believe many of these women when they vouch for things. In my heart of hearts, I don’t always know when people are being sincere, generally, when they talk about products they’ve been sent. Or books. The internet is a hall of illusions and I’m not going to pretend I’m smarter than them. I know that I’m more malleable than maybe I once was, that my self esteem is and has always been soft: how I feel about my face is different, I know how I dress has changed, how the image I want to project has pivoted.
I also know that while I’ve felt longings for expensive advent calendars full of makeup, or eyeshadow palettes that I definitely would be allergic to, or had strange urges to go to spas for the first time in my entire life – I also don’t know how I’d feel about receiving beautiful or expensive things for free in exchange for public review. I’ve also never had to wonder, until the arrival of this phone. I have journalist friends who have kindly passed excess PR samples of products my way, and there was one incident a couple of years ago where I ended up with a pallet full of sickeningly sweet lavender water in my kitchen because I made a joke about eating soap on Twitter, but that’s the size of it.
Even writing this column is terrifying to me, frankly, but I couldn’t write about integrating this phone into my life without acknowledging that it was sent to me as PR. Upon publication of this column, I’ve donated the retail price of the phone to the DRCC – because it’s December, and because in good faith I would have bought the phone myself anyway, and because if I’m still unpacking how I feel and don’t feel about beautiful symmetrical women on Instagram talking to me about products, then I don’t even know how to begin unpacking what it is to talk about an phone I was sent as a gift. I feel as though I should have said no, but I said yes.
I’m holding it in my pocket, then putting it back in its box. I haven’t put a sim in it yet. I’m practicing using it, trying to get my hands around the new buttons, the analogue feel, the lack of a touch-screen.
I’m going to write about it and I’m glad I told you how it came to me. The more I think about influence, though, the more unnerved I am. I do have pink hair, sometimes, now. Mostly lavender, or grey, but pink a few times a year. The girls I followed on MySpace are still in my Instagram hall of influencers, ten years later, living their best lives. I leave them a like sometimes, on pictures of their lunch, or crystals, or the interiors of their immaculate homes, even if their caption text isn’t in their voice and is a copy/paste from a press release. Even if it’s followed by an #ad, or a #spon. Their imprint on who I am now is palpable: it’s kind of too late. But the new year is coming, and I’m starting it with a slower phone in my pocket, and a slower heart in my chest. I’m interested to see who I’ll turn into when I’m out of the influence, or if anything will really change at all.