I started noticing it a few years ago: Seemingly every young person on the internet was selling something. Not in the way that we’re all selling ourselves now, cultivating our personal brands on social media. They were selling actual stuff. Shipping hoverboards from China and unloading them in their American high schools. Running parody Twitter accounts that fed into viral ad networks. Posting sponsored content on Instagram for pocket money and freebies.
Occasionally these youthful businesses evidenced a casual relationship with grift. The hoverboards literally blew up. The Twitter accounts stole jokes from struggling comics. Teenage influencers started concocting fake brand deals so they could appear worthy of corporate sponsorship.
The sprites behind the schemes could come across as craven; an online crew of viral marketers referred to non-entrepreneurial peers as “peasants.” But most of them seemed sincere. They wanted to change the world, and they believed that the way to do that was to start their own businesses. Immediately. If corners were cut along the way, they were cut honestly. They were just kids.
I’ve been thinking of them as last year’s “summer of scam” has extended into a never-ending, all-weather “scam season.” We are held rapt by tales of big-time millennial grifters, entrepreneurs whose dizzy rises are rivaled only by their disastrous ends. Among them is Billy McFarland (born in 1991), the impresario who dreamed up the doomed Bahamas-based Fyre music festival; Elizabeth Holmes (b. 1984), creator of the at-home blood-testing service Theranos, which was once valued at more than $9 billion but never really worked; and Anna Delvey (b. 1991), the so-called SoHo Scammer, who is said to have passed herself off as a German heiress in a bid to build a plush Manhattan arts club named after herself.
Now their tales are fueling a genre of grifter-related entertainment. Earlier this month, Hulu and Netflix dropped rival streaming documentaries on Fyre. Soon HBO will air a documentary about Holmes directed by Alex Gibney, while ABC News has its own documentary and a podcast, too. An Anna Delvey show written by Shonda Rhimes is on its way to Netflix.
Stories of scammers are reliably captivating. Mark Twain’s fiction held a soft spot for the flimflam man. The terms grifter and scam have their beginnings in the carnival circuit of the early 20th century, and scam is the root of the term scamp — as in, lovable rogue. There’s a reason we call them con artists.
These people have always exploited a certain proximity to America’s most storied figures. “The Inventor,” HBO’s Theranos documentary, draws comparisons between Holmes and one of her idols, Thomas Edison, who may have been better at cultivating his public image as an inventor than he was at actually inventing. The math behind the American dream — a nobody, combined with pure grit, transforms into a somebody — is already a reach. The grifter just stretches the concept a little further.
But perhaps no moment has been so primed for grift as our current one. As Jia Tolentino wrote in The New Yorker last year: “At some point between the Great Recession, which began in 2008, and the terrible election of 2016, scamming seems to have become the dominant logic of American life.” The mantras of Silicon Valley — Think big! Think different! Move fast and break things! — encourage harebrained scheming. Venture capital requires business ideas to reap more than profits; they must promise explosive growth. And moving fast is presented not as a shortcut to getting rich but a necessary aspect of any successful venture. The grandiose expectations placed on actual children have grown wildly out of proportion with the economic reality into which they’ve been born. Only a scam could bridge the gap.
One of the greatest modern scams is the entrepreneurial fetish itself, and its marks are getting younger and younger. Silicon Valley has always romanticized the college dropout, from Gates and Jobs to Zuckerberg and Holmes. (The ABC News projects on Holmes are titled “The Dropout.”) Now a broader effort seeks to enlist children into ventures at an age before their prefrontal cortex is fully formed. In 2017, the magazine Teen Bo$$ debuted to set preteens on the fast track to wealth under the tagline “Dream big & learn fast!” And last year, Entrepreneur magazine ran its own issue on teen titans, featuring a 13-year-old candy C.E.O. on its cover. Her secret? “I just felt like I had nothing to lose.” By the time she was 10, Holmes had decided what she wanted to be when she grew up: “a billionaire.”
Meanwhile, the tools of grift have rarely been more attainable. Early chat rooms introduced a generation of kids to the pastime of pretending to be other people online. Now, everyone with a smartphone can create and manipulate images. And in this hyper-visual culture, constructing an image of something can feel like the most important step in conjuring the thing itself. Just ask the Chinese manufacturers that hawk clothes online with images of glamorous magazine spreads, then ship out disfigured imitations to unsuspecting customers.
Holmes was obsessed with the image of a finger-prick drop of blood unlocking a wealth of medical information, and many powerful people liked the picture, too. (“The Inventor” makes much of a photo shoot in which Holmes holds a tiny red vial between her fingertips.) The only thing the Fyre Festival did well was create a viral ad featuring famous models cavorting on yachts and swimming with pigs. At some level, we are all growing familiar with this kind of sleight of hand. On Instagram, we are training to create beautiful images of ourselves with no possibility — or really, expectation — that they be replicated in person.
McFarland may be the one in prison for fraud, but the most fascinating thing about Fyre was how deep the scam reached. The festival was marketed by Jerry Media, an online advertising agency that began as a popular Instagram account that cribbed other peoples’ memes without credit. It was aggressively promoted by Instagram influencers — those model/advertiser/guru hybrids whose entire project rests on smoke and mirrors. Even the documentaries on the festival seemed in on the swindle. Hulu paid McFarland for an interview, while Elliot Tebele, the founder of Jerry Media, is an executive producer of the Netflix documentary. It was scams all the way down.
And at the top? The closest-held secret of modern scam artists is how woefully unimaginative they really are. Our oversaturated scam culture seems to have produced something new: utterly unappealing con men and women who could not credibly be referred to as “artists” at all.
Though the Fyre documentaries are stocked with associates who swear to McFarland’s charm, he appears to have all the appeal of a sentient airport lounge. Holmes, built up as a striking female entrepreneur with a heartfelt personal story, is revealed as stilted and vampiric onscreen; “The Inventor” includes a haunting scene in which she celebrates a company win by dancing robotically to MC Hammer. And since her unmasking, Delvey has been dragged on the internet for her tellingly bad hair.
There’s not a lovable scamp or a master chameleon in the bunch. They’re just young people who wanted to make something incredible, failed and couldn’t accept it. In a word, unexceptional. These days, there’s a scammer born every minute.