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Would you sell a kidney to be famous? Success is now determined by our hunger for clout

Everything is turned into pornography of the self. (Chris Hyde/Getty Images for boohoo)

Everything is turned into pornography of the self. (Chris Hyde/Getty Images for boohoo)


October 14, 2021   6 mins

To no one’s surprise, and almost as little excitement, Marvel Studios is extruding new content. The Mr Whippy of cinematic fantasy disgorges Eternals in early November, and yet more Spider-Man in early December.

Meanwhile, column inches continue to be generated by whether or not the next 007 should be a woman, and Superman is now bisexual. Just as reliable as the output of these franchises is the grumbling about our apparent inability to come up with fresh new stories.

The usual explanation given for the domination of franchises over new material is that media industries like a known quantity. But what if the real problem lies deeper? What if, in truth, we’re no longer able to come up with new stories because we’ve turned storytelling itself into a branch of influencer culture?

This was the unsettling implication of last week’s water-cooler debate: “Kidneygate”. A long New York Times essay told the strange story of Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson, two aspiring writers now embroiled in a bitter dispute.

Dorland donated a kidney to a stranger, then created a Facebook group to talk about her “journey”, and shared it with her writing group. Larson, a member of the same writing group, then wrote a short story depicting an egotistical and implicitly borderline racist woman donating a kidney. When Dorland learned this, she began an increasingly monomaniacal campaign of lawfare against Larson.

Like the dress that was either black and blue or white and gold, the story prompted a lot of debate. When does taking material from the world around you stop being legitimate and become invasive? Do we “own” our own stories? Or as the NYT put it: “Who is the Bad Art Friend?”

But perhaps the question should be: would you trade a kidney for a shot at immortality? For while on the face of it Kidneygate seems to be two women arguing about art, in truth it’s about the only form of immortality on offer since the internet killed literature: clout.

Once upon a time, the way to get famous as a writer was to publish a book. But the internet inverted that. The print publishing industry today is both bigger than ever and more beleaguered than ever by competition from other media, not to mention the ocean of free digital content. The result is diminishing returns: more than 188,000 books are published every year in the UK alone, but only 5% of authors sell enough to earn more than ÂŁ30,000 a year.

Against that backdrop, not unreasonably, publishers are more likely to be interested in people with the sort of profile that will help market their work. There are countless talented writers out there; the decisive factor in who gets the book deal is often being an existing player in public conversation. In other words, the swiftest route to becoming a famous author today is already being famous for something else.

That means aspiring writers need that indispensable resource for an attention economy: “clout”, which translates roughly as “the number of eyeballs you can persuade to notice you online”. And chasing clout is indisputably a skill, albeit not a literary one.

Building up clout can be done several ways, but perhaps the two most common are emotional exhibitionism and identity-politics controversy. Expert wielders of clout attract fans and haters in equal measure, set people arguing among themselves and then leverage the resulting public profile for real-world power or earnings.

One such expert clout-engineer is Nikocado Avocado, real name Nick Perry, a YouTube celebrity famous for his “extreme eating” or “muckbang” videos. Nikocado Avocado’s content is voyeuristic in the extreme. Categories on his channel include “Fights”, “Emotional” and “Upset Feelings” among others. More importantly, he has 2.6 million subscribers — a store of clout that translates into serious earnings. In 2019, his net worth was estimated at $3m.

It’s almost impossible to go too far with this kind of content. The only unforgivable crime, as far as consumers are concerned, is being caught faking the emotion. “Mommy vlogger” Jordan Cheyenne was recently pilloried after she accidentally uploaded an unedited video of herself and her child, in which she could be heard encouraging her child to act like he was crying. She has since deleted her channel.

In the more traditional cultural spheres of academia, politics and literature, competition for eyeballs drives clout-chasing identity politics controversies. These can be guaranteed to spice up any otherwise dull policy debate with angry culture war clicks, while handily boosting the profile of the would-be activist. Perhaps the consummate operator in this mode is the US Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who attained meme status recently by appearing at the $30,000-a-ticket US Met Gala in a white dress with “TAX THE RICH” scrawled across the back, then blamed the criticism she received on racism and sexism.

In every case, though, the core feature of clout-chasing is that it centres not on what you say, but on others’ perception of who (or what) you are. And here we see the heart of Kidneygate: a dispute over who gets to use the organ-donation story as a means of cultivating their public self.

If Nikocado Avocado figuratively spills his guts for those who follow his channel, Kidneygate saw someone spill them literally — and then post about it on social media. Dorland created a Facebook group to collect the applause she expected to receive. She walked in a local parade as ambassador for organ donation. She even created a hashtag: #domoreforeachother.

Larson, in contrast, wanted to use the kidney-donation story alongside her own Asian-American ethnic identity to boost her profile with a short story about “white saviour” politics. That is, she wanted to apply the clout-rich filter of American racial politics to this highly emotive content, in order to increase her own standing in the world of fiction-writing. And it should have worked: before Dorland’s legal action scuppered the offer, Larson’s work had been selected for “One City One Story”, a Boston literary award that would have seen her short story distributed free all over the city.

I’m just about old enough to remember the Before Times prior to mass social media. Back then, we still clung to the idea that writing was about immortality — an idea captured by Shakespeare: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

Now, though, writing a book is just part of the “media mix”. Where fame used to be a means of getting your message out, now messages are a means of getting your fame out. In September, CBS launched The Activist, a show that turns political activism into reality TV — and where successful activism is measured “via online engagement, social metrics, and hosts’ input”. Never mind making a tangible real-world impact: like successful writing, successful activism is measured in clout.

And once you’ve attained enough of it, you can pivot effortlessly from reality TV to book-writing, perfume launches, politics or whatever. The only condition is that, like Harry and Meghan, you continue to feed gobbets of personal tragedy, emotional intensity, marginalised identity or some other kind of emotive content to the clout machine.

Do this, and the whole media mix is yours. It’s not just the raft of celebrities flocking to write children’s books. The 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman made history earlier this year as Biden’s inauguration poet, as much for her look and ethnicity as her aggressively bland poetry. Shortly after the inauguration, she signed a modelling contract.

And this pipeline works just as well in reverse. Transgender model Munroe Bergdorf has a threadbare literary track record, having attained clout mostly for being photographed wearing clothes, or for public rows with corporations and gender-critical feminists over identity politics. And yet Bergdorf received a six-figure advance from Bloomsbury for the “memoir and manifesto” Transitional.

The true message of Kidneygate, then, is not about art but what art now serves. It signals that if we allow it, the world of letters will irrecoverably join cinema, music, politics and activism as mulch for an online economy of attention.

And the Faustian nature of the bargain is increasingly clear. A culture powered solely by the hunger for intensity will devour any form of culture that isn’t already literal pornography. For in a raw economy of attention, the aesthetic or moral value of your work is irrelevant: what matters is emotional intensity and the power to generate discussion. Whether it’s politics, art, literature, music or simply people’s personal lives, the clout economy will transmute it, by a kind of reverse alchemy, into pornography of the self.

Before pivoting to YouTube emotional exhibitionism. Nikocado Avocado dreamed of being a concert violinist. Before pivoting to organ donation for clicks, Dawn Dorland dreamed of being a celebrated author. But there’s little clout to be gained through working hard at creating beauty for a common cultural domain. No wonder one in five British children want to be social media influencers when they grow up. And when everyone’s so busy crafting their online selves, no wonder there’s no creative energy left to dream new shared stories, leaving us nothing but zombie franchises crudely gingered-up by the culture wars.

Will we rediscover an ability to resist donating everything — even our organs — to the clout machine? I hope so. If we don’t soon regain a measure of digital self-restraint, the endpoint of every aspiration will be emotional porn. Or perhaps we could call it Kidneygate culture: a never-ending livestream of lost and miserable souls self-defining, fighting, crying, binge-eating or quite literally eviscerating themselves, all for our voyeuristic pleasure.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

Everything is going in the toilet, isn’t it? I’m just left wondering what will actually pull the flush.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a Twitter….
After TS Eliot

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
2 years ago

Another excellent article from Mary

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

She’s quickly becoming my favourite essayist.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

Great work from my fav columnist.
The franchise writers strike me much like the artist whose contribution to art is drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. That is to say, principally motivated by envy of those more talented than themselves. They destroy the works of others because they cannot hope to create anything worthwhile themselves.
The case Mary mentions of the mother accidentally uploading the video instructing her child to express emotion for the cameras, is one I have watched. It reminded me of two things:

  1. People high on the narcissistic spectrum, who require a perpetual audience, are essentially like crack addicts living next door to a crack dealer. They succumb to the endless addiction of approval from fans, often living double lives where the outward story to the world is completely different to the inward reality.
  2. Even good “non-narcissistic” humans can become more narcissistic and shallow in the never ending exposure to to endless social voting.
Last edited 2 years ago by hayden eastwood
J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Dorland created a Facebook group to collect the applause she expected to receive.
LOL. Just when I thought I couldn’t become any more cynical.
The real tragedy in all this is that large numbers of people buy the books, and consume the internet content, of nonentities such as Bergdorf. Then again, twenty years ago there was a craze for Beanie Babies and before that entire nations waited breathlessly to learn…Who killed JR?!
Plus ça change…

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

But it seems the level of saturation by social media is creating something new. Where do people find the time? Do they not tend their garden, wash their car, mow their lawn, practice their piano, wash & iron, chop wood, cook and clean …. let alone fit in social activities like a game of tennis, a picnic, lunch with friends …. why are people spending so much time following this garbage?
“Things respectable people do” has changed a lot since the 1950s!

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

Some tend their gardens, wash their cars and mow their lawns, although mostly they pay others to do the last two. Nobody plays the piano anymore – they are a dime a dozen on Craigslist, you can hardly give them away. It’s virtually illegal to burn wood. Tennis has shrunk to pickleball (they don’t have to run as far and the ball is a lot slower). Picnics? Who does picnics? There’s needles and bum tents and detritus everywhere. Lunch with friends? How? All of them are social media friends that live who knows where?
(I’m exaggerating, of course).

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

..and long before that, crowds waiting on the docks in NYC for the latest chapter of Dickens to arrive from England!

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
2 years ago

When I was a kid I was told that god was aware of my struggles and was listening. My faith left during my teenage years but I could never completely shake off the sense that someone was listening. Without the faith part some may see this as a mental illness of sorts but it’s one I’ve become quite fond of. Most children today are raised instead to think nobody is listening to the the struggles inside their head. It must be quite lonely. Their only option is to throw their thoughts out into a world of others doing exactly the same. Only a supernatural figure could make sense of all that white-noise, whilst simultaneously having the integrity to not respond to it with ‘now let me tell you about MY day’

Alan B
Alan B
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

This reminds me of Luther’s remark that there must be a God because we need someone we can trust.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

All of this is so depressing.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

Indeed. Here’s an antedote: arrange to meet a friend, a colleague, or even a stranger and tell them a little story about something. Anything. Really listen to what they say in response and do the same for them in return. Agree that neither of you will report it on social media.

Here’s another: switch off all electronic devices, leave your phone at home and go out for a walk and focus on what you see, hear, smell etc in the moment, and feel grateful to be alive.

I find both techniques can help. Maybe they are just coping strategies in a world going increasingly mad but perhaps if enough people do things like this we can turn the cultural tide.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

Meanwhile, column inches continue to be generated by whether or not the next 007 should be a woman

What on Earth do we need a female James Bond for? We’ve had Modesty Blaise since the 60s. Don’t recall any protests or resistance from the patriarchy.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Morley
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Has this column just proved that the most of the modern world has run out of exciting and new ideas, on several levels?

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

In most of the Western world people have become ‘immediacy’ junkies. Ideas must be ‘new’ and ‘exciting’, coffees must come in new strange flavours with several types of ‘milk’. TV programs that grind on without a break for 30 minutes or more are boring (thank goodness for adverts(sarcasm)). Fewer people read long books, but more read novellas. Supermarket shelves contain weird food that only needs a few minutes in the microwave.
But still people chase the new and exciting… perhaps it makes humdrum lives more liveable?

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

Celebrity = ÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁ.
Celebrity victimhood = ÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁÂŁ
Business is business.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

5% of published authors earn at least ÂŁ30,000?
Then I re-read, and check The Guardian story you linked to. You didn’t say “published”, mea culpa, and the linked story just says “5% of writers”.

But let’s assume that they mean published authors and aren’t just inflating the numbers with every one of us amateurs out there.
It’s still quite a lot.
Assuming each of the 188,000 books published in the UK had a different author, that’s close to 10,000 earning ÂŁ30k or more solely from writing.
A look at the report linked shows that it includes educational books in the overall number, which make up 41%. STM (Scientific, technical, medical) books are excluded
So, about 109,000 of those books are for general audience.
How many of these authors really expect to make a full-time living from it?

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

Of the 5% who earn ÂŁ30,000 p.a. I’m guessing about a third write school textbooks, another third write self-help manuals and the rest write for Mills & Boon.

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
2 years ago

This article says a lot about the poison of current cancel culture. Those who shout the loudest, and say the most outrageous things, get the most fame and attention.

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
2 years ago

The World, or at least the West for sure, is bored stiff with comfort and security and like spoilt children a portion of the population crave trivia and shallow emotional reassurance.
I blame religion really, it lied to people for thousands of years that it’s wonderful teachings about living well came from a supernatural being and promised bliss if you obeyed or damnation if you didn’t. I always thought how brilliant it was that the seven deadly sins are all sins against ourselves; Envy, Sloth, Lust, Greed, etc. – they destroy us, not anyone else. Had the effort gone into teaching why these things are truly right then we might be ok, but they took the lazy route and now the belief in the Being is fading the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.
A big war would end it as more pressing needs would predominate, or maybe a pandemic (a proper one, not a pumped-up cold). Or maybe someone can make good on the failures of organised religion so that we can see the teachings of Christ etc. are actually really beneficial but without the cheap trappings. Either that or it’s the garbage the author references, for those without better things to do.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Phil Mac

Not all religions promise salvation by works.

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago

Vanity and stupidly have always been two of the most enduring aspects of people, now that it has been democratised it is here to stay, there will be no going back to the days of vanity and stupidly for the gilded few. Progress means change it does not mean better.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

I was wondering what your life expectancy would be if your DNA was on a database and you turned out to be a match for someone powerful, wealthy or famous in need of an organ.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

The thought of something like that stopped me from doing 23andMe.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

The thought of something like that stopped me from doing 23andMe.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

I was wondering what your life expectancy would be if your DNA was on a database and you turned out to be a match for someone powerful, wealthy or famous in need of an organ.

robert stowells
robert stowells
2 years ago

Brave stuff and well observed. 
My view is that if you know that donating a kidney would not give a clear shot at immortality and realised that everything relating to the story would be up for grabs then you would not do it.
However on media, it is my view that the availability of audio, video alongside the traditional reading in book form is a richness rather than a negative.
My advice would be leave that “meat doll” thesis aside and just give us that beautiful prose that you do so well particularly when it can be combined with astute observation as in this article.