Barrett Swanson’s report on collab houses [“The Anxiety of Influencers,” Letter from Los Angeles, June] reminded me of another excellent piece of writing: George Saunders’s 2003 short story “Jon,” which follows a group of teens living in luxury, much like the boys Swanson encounters during his stay in a TikTok mansion.
Writing before the term “influencer” became ubiquitous, Saunders calls the teens TrendSetters and TasteMakers. They live in isolation, refracted back to the outside world in brief flashes: on baseball cards; in promotional material for gum and clothing. They are implanted with devices that transmit advertisements directly into their minds, replacing memories with commercials, chipping away at their personhood so they can more fully embody the products they’re peddling.
Saunders isn’t afraid of his fictional teenagers—he’s afraid for them. He knows that if they leave their TasteMaker titles behind, the world ahead will be difficult, filled with the potential for poverty and heartbreak without the glaze of commercial contentment. I experienced the same fear reading Swanson’s essay.
It’s easy to look at the Clubhouse boys through an anthropological lens, but we should also look in the mirror. Like Swanson, I’m a college educator, but as an adjunct professor, I enjoy even less job security than he does. I teach online now, and my employment is entirely dependent on student evaluations. I hope my students assess my performance based on the work I do, but I know that they’re really evaluating the person I am—or at least, the personality I’ve created in the digital classroom. The desire to please inevitably influences every grade I give. Of course, I’m not alone; entire categories of workers rely on online reviews and customer surveys to stay afloat.
There’s hope for the teenagers in Saunders’s story: they can get their implants removed and leave. In the reality Swanson describes, the prospects for departure are murkier. Readers know the outside world will one day find the Clubhouse boys, whether the boys know it yet or not. They can’t leave. Few of us can.
Iowa City, Iowa
For all of Swanson’s attempts to humanize the Clubhouse boys, I couldn’t help but feel his indifference to their plight. Despite the spoils the boys enjoy as top-tier influencers, they’re clearly being exploited by the hand that feeds them, a darker undercurrent that I wish Swanson had explored in greater depth. By focusing exclusively on top-tier influencers, Swanson ignores the rest of us Gen Z-ers, who aren’t in the spotlight but generously provide the engagement these influencers need to stay in it. The experiences of average college students may not be as glitzy as TikTok mansions, but it’s through influencer audiences that we might gain a better understanding of current cultural shifts.
I agree with many of the points Greg Jackson makes about the climate crisis [“Prayer for a Just War,” Essay, June]. I found his invocation of prayer deeply resonant. We do need to believe in something in order to survive: namely, that each and every living thing on the planet is worth protecting. However, I fundamentally disagree with framing our response to that crisis as a form of war. Jackson’s wartime frame glosses over who instigated this fight: humans. We are the aggressors; we are the usurpers and destroyers. The planet is acting in self-defense.
We need a new cultural eschatology, one in which we create abundance through respectful and compassionate interdependence. Try to imagine it: a world in which meeting basic human needs like shelter, food, and water are unconditional priorities. It looks nothing like the world we live in now.
Jackson claims that social isolation has made us immobile in the face of the climate crisis. Disconnection will ruin us, he warns, if a “more pressing” issue like climate change does not first “drive us back into one another’s arms.” This argument is compelling, but it doesn’t go far enough. I have spent my career researching social isolation, a pressing problem that’s worthy of attention and resources for its own sake.
Jackson cites increased suicide rates as evidence that loneliness is a lethal epidemic. There is ample other data to demonstrate the wide-ranging impact of isolation on mental, cognitive, physical, and economic health. While the pandemic has illuminated social isolation’s
devastating toll, the problem was significant long before lockdown, and continues to be underappreciated. I realize our limited resources must naturally go to the most dangerous threats facing our planet. But we won’t be able to tackle them without addressing their root causes.
Salt Lake City
Because of an editing error, “The Anxiety of Influencers” [Letter from Los Angeles, June] inaccurately described Raising Cane’s as a “West Coast chicken franchise.” Raising Cane’s is a national franchise with headquarters in Louisiana.
The article also mischaracterized the results of a 2019 poll, which found that 12 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-eight describe themselves as social-media influencers, not 23 percent.
We regret the errors.