Every good story needs a villain. One of the best stories in recent memory was the debacle known as Fyre Festival, a music event promising supermodels and luxury but failed so spectacularly that two documentaries were released about it, both in the same week. The two films, Netflix's Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Hulu's Fyre Fraud , deal with the same subject—an overhyped fete geared toward rich millennials that goes disastrously, publicly wrong—but they come to slightly different conclusions about who to blame for the epic mess. The Greatest Party focuses on Billy McFarland, the mastermind who dreamt up the whole thing with his business partner, rapper Ja Rule, while Frye Fraud extends its scrutiny to everyone who helped promote it.
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There's a good case to be made for pointing the finger at each camp. McFarland is presented in both documentaries as pushing for ever-expanding glitz and glam, all while running out of money and time. Meanwhile, those who promoted the festival—largely a group of social media influencers—marketed the unknown, untested event on their Instagram feeds. But ultimately, both films conclude that the true villain is FOMO, or "fear of missing out"—the internet-fueled psychological phenomenon that defines the existence of the phone-clutching, Instagram-obsessed masses.
But even as Netflix and Hulu's documentaries critique the festival attendees, and their willingness to dive into an experience promised by a bunch of beautiful people on social media, they also speak to a different kind of FOMO—one built on the schadenfreude of watching Fyre fall apart. It happened once, in real time, when the festival floundered, and it's happening again now as two streaming services essentially raced to release documentaries about the flameout—something only possible in the gimme-more streaming age. With some of the world's greatest dramas now unfolding online, it's only natural that the festival would get a doc, but the audience appetite for not one but two productions shows there are just as many people willing to follow social influencers into the Fyre as there are now lining up to watch it burn.
Under the Influence
Fyre Festival sprouted onto the scene in January 2017 when model-slash-influencer Kendall Jenner announced it to her 100 million Instagram followers. (She was reportedly paid $250,000 for the now-deleted post.) Other model-slash-influencers, like Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Hailey Baldwin, also sent up #fyrefestival flares on their own accounts. The posts, many of them a simple, eye-catching orange tile, racked up millions of likes and generated multiple news cycles about what was supposed to be the latest, hottest luxury music festival that mixed Coachella with Burning Man.
But the true marketing achievement came in the form of a one-minute, 40-second commercial that can only be described as the juice wrung out of a million influencer accounts and reduced down to its concentrated essence like a fine balsamic reduction. Yachts skimming across impossibly aqua water. Models languidly lounging on white-sand beaches, their bodies perfectly framed and perfectly firm. Promises of fireworks and top-tier musical acts. The entire thing looked like An Experience, precisely because the organizers billed it as such. More specifically as "an immersive experience" offering "the best in food, art, music, and adventure" on an island "once owned by Pablo Escobar" that is somehow "on the boundaries of the impossible."
As one social media strategist in Fyre Fraud put it, "what Fyre Festival did prove is that the power of influence is real."
If that all sounds like gobbledygook marketing, it's because it is. In The Greatest Party , the director of the commercial, Brett Kincaid, described the advertisement as "selling a dream, selling a vacation, selling a concept." Another person described it as the Fyre organizers "selling a vision of what people want."
And sell it did. The Fyre folks sold 95 percent of the festival's tickets in 48 hours, according to the Netflix documentary. Prices ranged from $1,500 to $250,000. Some estimated that upward of 10,000 people decided they would not miss out on a chance to immerse themselves in this boundary-bursting journey of a lifetime. As one social media strategist in Fyre Fraud put it, "what Fyre Festival did prove is that the power of influence is real."
The Infamous Sandwich Tweet
But what was even more real was the logistical nightmare of coordinating such a mammoth festival, a fiasco presented in great detail by both documentaries. Organizers, who gave themselves just a few short months to plan all of Fyre, faced an unrelenting torrent of problems. They had to switch islands after running afoul of Pablo Escobar's estate. A giant competing event, the National Regatta, was happening on the island the same weekend, taxing the community's limited infrastructure. There weren't enough villas for the influencers, and the "geodesic domes" meant to house the majority of the festival-goers were actually disaster relief tents—tents that were flooded when a rainstorm rolled in the night before the festival.
When people finally showed up to the island, they found a muddy, disorganized construction site—and of course, many of them being influencers, they 'grammed the whole thing. But it was one image—of a now-infamous cheese sandwich —that ricocheted around the internet and effectively tore off the festival's aspiration filter to reveal Fyre for what it really was.
"What [the media] didn't talk about, which I think was something that was missed, was a couple of powerful models posting an orange tile is essentially what built this entire festival. And then one kid with probably 400 followers posted a picture of cheese on toast that trended and essentially ripped down the festival," Mick Purzycki, the CEO of Jerry Media, the company hired to help Fyre with social media marketing, says in The Greatest Party. (It's worth noting Jerry Media also partnered to produce the Netflix documentary.)
Rules of Engagement
In all of this, McFarland comes across as an easy villain. Even after the Frye debacle, the twentysomething "tech entrepreneur" continued his grift , selling tickets he didn't have to exclusive events like the Grammys. He ended up pleading guilty to two counts of wire fraud related to the festival, and was ultimately sentenced to six years in prison .
The influencers are presented poorly as well, as they amplified an event that seemed to only exist in the minds of its organizers. And that's partly why 100 "Does" have been named in a class-action lawsuit . "We certainly wanted to send the message to influencers that when you post a photograph and you don't say hashtag advertisement, there is some level of responsibility," Ben Meiselas, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, says in Fyre Fraud.
On the internet, sometimes it feels easy to shed the shackles of responsibility. At one point in Fyre Fraud, which interviewed McFarland (and reportedly paid him for it ), he says "the internet has no rules." That's been part of the problem of late; the place that has been colloquially called "the Wild West" for at least two decades is now being tamed in lots of ways. And, if nothing else, bad actors are being called out, whether that's online or in feature films. Specific to influencer culture, the FTC has outlined guidelines on how people need to identify product placement advertising. Ultimately, even if the internet has no rules, society does.
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