How the Fyre Festival is a parable for how we live our lives in the Instagram age

Life never has and never will live up to the snapshots we select to represent it on social media, says Vicky Spratt.

If Hans Christian Andersen’s Emperor’s New Clothes was a fictive parable for the age of industrialisation in the West, Fyre Festival will go down in history as it’s factual 21st Century counterpart for digital times.

In an age where projecting perfection is rewarded, not only with likes but with financial reward, is it any wonder that people bought into the empty husk that was Fyre, projecting their hopes of the perfect weekend away into it, because its marketing looked good on Instagram?

In 2017, a very average guy in his mid-twenties called Billy McFarland partnered with the rapper Ja Rule to launch an app for booking music acts called Fyre. In a moment of inspiration, they decided that throwing a physical festival in the Bahamas was the perfect way to promote a service that would only exist in cyberspace.

In recent years, Instagram has breathed new life into music festivals. From flower crowns at Coachella to the perfect dry shampoo sponsored updo, summertime has never lent itself more to documentation. Fyre Festival promised to be the zenith of festivals, unprecedented and peerless.

A short film was shot on a Bahamian island to promote the as yet unarranged festival. Aspirational Instagram royalty from Kendall Jenner to Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski and Chanel Iman were invited to appear in it, all they had to do was spend a weekend on said island and look like they were having fun with Billy, Ja and their crew. Online sensation, Jerry Media, was brought in to manage the social seeing and create Fyre’s oxymoronic online brand: exclusivity, for everyone. This was summed up by an elusive burnt orange tile posted by the likes of Jenner. She was reportedly paid $250,000 for her post according to the documentary. She did not declare the post as an ad.

It worked, the video looked amazing. “The actual experience exceeds expectations” a computer simulator-style voiceover declared at the start of it, assuring viewers that they were about to be taken to the next level. It, text on the screen declared, would be “transformative”. This spoke to every millennial’s innate desire to self-improve at all costs.

If utopia did festivals, it would have looked like the short promotional film made that weekend. I remember sitting in the office the day it dropped, my colleagues were excited and intrigued. One even said she was going to buy a ticket. They cost anywhere between $500 and $1500. It seemed ridiculous but, god, for a second, I wished I looked like the women in that video.

Billy and Ja promised the world. The best of the best, luxury at every turn. The festival, which did not yet exist, sold out.

It soon became clear that Fyre, as it had been advertised, could not and would not exist and, in slow motion, Instagram fantasy – luxury tents, premium villas, glossy yachts, gourmet canapes, private jets – collided with reality – crappy tents, bad mass catering, poor logistics, sweaty, stuffy bog-standard commercial planes – and, on arrival in April 2017 the social media scales soon fell from their attendees eyes.

Things fell apart. McFarland, who had leveraged tens of millions of dollars from investors was convicted of fraud. Now 27, he is somewhere in federal prison in the US because of his social media scam.

Fyre Festival is a parable for our times, McFarland is its protagonist. How, people have asked, did he manage to scam so many people? How did he convince people to buy a fantasy?

The answer, surely, is obvious. It’s everywhere. All over social media, influencers are selling us castles in the sky. McFarland merely tried to do that on a grand scale and anyone who crossed his path, from his employees at Fyre to the Bahamian workers who were never paid for their labour, was collateral damage.

Fyre says more about the millennial generation than we care to admit. It is a harsh reminder that everything, everything, looks better edited and filtered. The festival sold out because it made people feel that they, for a weekend, could be like Bella, Chanel and Kendall. That they would be seen, valued and documented too.


View this post on Instagram


This guy was the real villain of Fyre Fest

A post shared by Netflix ANZ (@netflixanz) on

People didn’t buy tickets for a festival when they signed up for Fyre, they were subscribing to a lifestyle. We are now starting to understand how social media affects us, how it draws us in and speaks to our innate desire to know that we exist and to have our existence reaffirmed at all times.

We trade in status on social media. It is obvious, defined by how many followers you have, how many likes you get. Fyre appeared as a shortcut, a way of gaming the system and moving up a few levels.

We are told constantly by study after study that millennials value experiences over stuff. This is often spun as a redeeming feature of a generation that is often cast as solipsistic and self-involved. The truth, though, is that experiences are Instagrammable. The better the experience, the greater its social media cache. Fyre was the optimum experience. It was conceived for Instagram, it only ever existed there.

McFarland was his audience, that’s why the scam worked. I question whether he even realised it was a scam. He wanted to be validated more than anyone on his team, that’s why he was so able to doggedly sell people an idea, a vision, an illusion without a flicker of conscience. How much of our brain do we all shut down every time we post a perfect angle, the good light that occurs for only 10 minutes in the morning or the highlights of our week as though that’s all there is?

Fyre was the optimum experience. It was conceived for Instagram, it only ever existed there.

Watching the documentary I felt triggered. Anxiety washed over me, ‘am I a scammer?’ I kept asking myself. ‘Do I overpromise? Do I make things look better than they are?’ These days, online, nobody is overtly misleading anyone, nor are they being entirely honest.

In 1977, Susan Sontag wrote an essay called On Photography, which was about the rise of a new art form and the dawn of consumerism.

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” she wrote, “industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”

Have we ever consumed and produced more edited imagery than we do now? Fyre was the cognitive dissonance we all practice daily on Instagram writ large. Was buying a ticket for it so different from buying a self-help book written by an influencer with no psychology qualifications? To following a celebrity couple, you know probably aren’t together in real life? To taking career advice from an Instagrammer in their 20s who hasn’t had a career yet?


View this post on Instagram


A lot of people don’t know this, I designed the FYRE lineup poster. It was absolute chaos, this being the 15th version. Swipe right to see the original poster I designed for a friend from Anchorage. I was asked at 11pm by the FYRE team & my ceo at the time to go back to the office & create more options. I worked till 6am, slept on the couch in the office til 8am then gave my friends Anchorage poster as a sacrificial lamb to the FYRE team by 9am. Now it belongs to the internet & is a meme. That was very hard to see at first, but today I’m proud & happy to join in on the joke with all of you. Enjoy! | • • • • • • #vectorillustration #fyrefestival #fyre #fyrefest #tdkpeepshow #eyeondesign

A post shared by Hi, I’m Oren Aks (@orenjous) on

It can only be a matter of time before McFarland gets out of prison and is rewarded with a movie adaptation. It will be like the Wolf of Wall Street for digital natives. He was, is, a modern Gatsby, he worked, he borrowed, he leveraged, and he scammed in order to appear a certain way. The documentary captured him working ever frantically to present something as being a thousand times better than it could ever possibly be. It was like watching a cartoon of someone who had been indoctrinated with the millennial side-hustle work porn.

Work more, Instagram more, spend more, appear better and you can overcome the economic odds stacked against you. That’s what young people are constantly told. The end goal (a perfect life), though, is unattainable by its very nature.

In the great race to be the best version of ourselves, we gloss over our flaws, we edit out what we don’t want people to see and we pretend everything is okay when it is so obviously not.

The Fyre documentary came out just as the Competition and Markets Authority in Britain announced that they were cracking down after months of investigation into influencers being paid to promote content online. Some say this would prevent a Fyre Festival occurring here, I doubt it. Fyre was about more than sponsored content. Even if influencers declare the payment they receive to sell us a lifestyle, we’re still buying a dream that, perhaps, we aren’t able to make real.

An edited fantasy can never live up to reality. We are setting ourselves up to be eternally let down. If you stare too long at the ideal version of the world, what you see around you when you look up from your phone can only disappoint.

Words: Vicky Spratt
Photos: Twitter, Netflix, Instagram

This article originally appeared on Grazia