It starts with a Facebook message, usually. The name and picture seem vaguely, but not immediately, familiar – was there a name change since high school? The message itself is both slightly generic and relentlessly chummy, implying a long-standing, easygoing friendship rather than some half-remembered high school acquaintance.
“Hey girl!” writes Jessica (I apologize to Jessicas everywhere, but must speak from lived experience). “How have you been!? I just wanted to let you know that I’ve launched my own business selling [Beautycounter, doTERRA, etc., etc.], and we’re having a sale right now! I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss out [crying-laughing face emoji]. Let me know what you want and I’ll hook you up!! Or if you ever want to chat about the amazing opportunities at Beautycounter [etc.], let me know!”
When you see this message, do not panic, disconcerting as the tenor of the whole interaction is. You have not suddenly lost your ability to appropriately match social cues with reality. The snaking tendrils of the MLM-industrial complex have merely made their way to you.
“MLM” stands for multilevel marketing, a business model in which companies recruit independent contractors to buy their products wholesale and retail them to their families, friends, and contacts. In its most famous and successful iterations, women market products to other women, as in the Tupperware parties of the ’80s and ’90s, or door-to-door Mary Kay sales.
The typical MLM promises earning ability to women – it’s almost always women – who cannot or do not want to access the traditional labor market. It promises almost limitless rewards, with bonuses like new cars and expensive overseas vacations lavished on top sellers. And in some cases, it delivers. MLM participants have access to two streams of income: directly from sales, indirectly from recruiting new sellers and taking a percentage of their commissions – the “downline.” For a lucky few, this adds up to serious cash. For many more, it means taking a loss on wholesale products purchased more in hope than foresight, and attempting to draw on increasingly strained or diminished social networks of people who are sick of hearing about it.
The most recent iteration of MLM, reconfigured for the social-media age, bears many similarities to its forebears: small, feminine-coded consumer goods are sold by women attracted to the promise of extra income on a flexible schedule. In both cases, the business model exploits the extent and complexity of women’s social networks.
But since Facebook, the transposition of social networks to social media has had effects far beyond increasing the reach and speed with which the saleswoman can deliver her pitch. Now the MLM sell has been folded into a larger pattern of self-narration, self-curation, and personal branding and social media. On Facebook and Instagram, you’ll probably encounter the personal pitch described above if you hang around long enough. But the first place you are likely to encounter essential-oil agitprop (or its equivalent) will be in a post celebrating the amazing transformation that participation in an MLM has effected in the poster’s life. She has been “so blessed.” She has been given the tools to “take control of her own life.” She “owns her own business.” She is “building a legacy.” She is “working with an amazing, talented, supportive group of women” who “blow her mind every day.” And so, beckons the siren, can you.
The MLM sell has been folded into a pattern of self-narration, self-curation, personal branding, and social media.
You’ve seen the posts: the ideal representative of the typical MLM is conventionally attractive and fit, but also relatable, rocking blue jeans or yoga pants, a messy bun and an all-American million-dollar smile. She has an adoring husband and a couple of kids she stays home with, all while earning her own money. The kids feature prominently in her posts, their antics, struggles, and development all providing their own major source of content to laugh at, narrate, or charmingly deprecate. Her kitchen is farmhouse chic, and she is down-to-earth enough to occasionally post about how messy it is. She is empowered without being programmatically feminist, a girlboss within the circle of traditional domesticity. She has managed to square the circle that industrial and post-industrial economies often make of women’s lives, all in a reassuringly normie way. The MLM mom’s basic-ness makes her a figure of endless mockery, but it is in fact part of the sell rather than a detraction. The MLM mom is aspirational in a way that feels legitimately achievable.
This presentation is accomplished in post upon post, photo upon photo, reel upon reel. The process is not accidental, not just a byproduct of the selling process moving onto social media. It represents the perfectly matched marriage of social media’s tendency to produce “curated” selves for public consumption with the business structure of MLMs. Because most MLMs are closely related to pyramid schemes, sellers often make their real money not primarily from selling, but from getting other people to sell, bringing them into their downline. The most successful MLM participant is not the one who can make her products seem the most attractive. She is the one who can make herself seem attractive, and proximity to her desirable – the one who can make other women want to be her, or failing that, to be her friend: to join her network, to become part of this “amazing, talented, supportive group of women” who are “launching businesses” and “building legacies.”
The social media-fueled MLM suggests an example of what Aristotle calls friendship of utility, in which two people are bound together by their usefulness to each other, or their common pursuit of utility. This is what the hyperingratiating sales pitch is trying to achieve, if clumsily and one-sidedly. She is trying to maintain a friendship with you in hopes that you will buy her product. But for the most successful MLM saleswoman, friendship is not the means to the sell; it is the thing being sold. The MLM influencer is a perverse variant on Aristotle’s virtuous man, who is loved for his goodness. But rather than goodness, she is loved for a kind of glossy, curated, Instagrammable excellence: the arete of the algorithm, the eudaimonia of user-generated content. And it is precisely her friendship that is for sale, for the low, low price of an entry-level shipment of product you’ll have to move.
If I seem unsportingly harsh to the aspirations of a demographic that is not my own, let me hasten to add that no group so clearly mimics the dynamics of MLMs as (ahem) professional and semi-professional writers. In both cases, the public-facing figure is aspirational: here, a professional doing her own creative work, far away from both the genteel indignities of nine-to-five life and the private oblivion of housewifery. In both cases, the work is usually supplemental to another source of family income. And in both cases the aspirations involved are narrowly targeted to a specific demographic: basic, Joanna Gaines–loving housewives on the one hand; English majors working at nonprofits and hoping rents don’t rise faster than they can pay off their student loans on the other. And in both cases, that aspiration – and the allure of proximity that comes with it – are where the real money is. The best way to make money as a writer is not to sell words. It is to sell enough words in prestigious and fashionable spaces, to cultivate enough of a persona, that you are invited to give talks and lead workshops and finally, one day, secure a post at a creative-writing program. There, you will mentor the next generation of aspiring professional writers. More for your downline.
Plenty of writers network with each other, with various degrees of prudence, generosity, affability, and craven ambition. But you have hit an elite level when proximity to your glamor, and the possibility of your friendship, is a product you can sell.
In fact, if you start looking, the move from straightforward friendships of utility (common to realtors, salesmen, writers, professionals of all stripes) toward a commodification of friendship itself pops up more and more. It is the engine that drives all the parasocial professions, where posters, podcasters, content creators of all kinds can make a living from creating cultural products – many of them very good – but also from managing their own clout and their audience’s desire for access to it. The parasocial professions clustering around the intersection of the gym-bro and dilettante personal-finance industries may be as paradigmatically a masculine example of the phenomenon as MLMs are paradigmatically feminine. Many men must have bought obviously worthless NFTs from their preferred weightlifting-stoicism-raw egg-supplement social media personalities, not because they had any considered belief in their value, but because it was a pledge of membership in the männerbund of their influencer-warlord. Surely wealth, power, “legacy-building” would flow from proximity to him just as the spoils of war were once distributed among the rank and file of a steppe khanate. He is the ring-giver; the booty he provides takes the form of creatine supplements. And though you have to pay for them, they are probably on sale.
The aspirational personal branding that enables friendship to be bought and sold as a product is a natural aspect of the every-man-for-himself, attention-driven world of the side-hustle and the independent creative. But professional nine-to-fivers should be wary about feeling too smug about what’s happening in the economy’s digital Ringling Brothers’ circus tents. There is virtually no white-collar job that remains immune to the friendship-of-utility-to-friendship-as-commodity shift, the downward spiral from imperfect to grotesque. Indeed, LinkedIn, the internet’s ground zero for professional development and networking, is to salaried workers what Instagram or Twitter is to the hustlers: a medium on which to build a personal brand through incessant self-narration. To be successful on LinkedIn, it is not enough to maintain an updated résumé and a sufficiently pleasant profile picture. Nor is LinkedIn merely the online equivalent of a Rolodex, a way to organize and maintain contact with your various professional connections. You must stake out your claim to attention and followers by developing your personal voice, unique insights, uplifting content. You must post about your #Passion, your #Inspiration, your #KeysToSuccess. You must set yourself apart from the crowd by outlining The One Mistake Most Executives Don’t Know They’re Making. You must be sure to salute others for their career milestones. You must frame your comings and goings from one job to another as intentional steps on the road to greatness, like the MLM mom who describes each sale as #LegacyBuilding. Above all you must present a version of yourself with no aims in life, no thoughts, no frames of reference that do not ultimately bear upon Key Performance Indicators and the rewards that follow from meeting them. From a man, you must become a Thought Leader.
Professional norms have always threatened to become totalizing. They have always been a way of making a contracted job into a way of life that touches on every other part. Friendships of utility – that old analog Rolodex – were part and parcel of this. But just as MLMs’ move onto social media transformed and concentrated their dynamics, the metamorphosis of the Rolodex into a social media site meant that networking became inflected with the performance-oriented proximity-worship of Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley, founders want access to venture capitalists. Engineers want access to founders. And the rest of the workers want the prestige, the frisson, of being ensconced where things are happening, with the people who are breaking shit and building things. Successfully projecting an image of yourself as the charismatic, visionary founder – whose proximity, comradeship, friendship is its own reward for service – is a way to rapidly acquire big leverage and big money, as Elizabeth Holmes understood so well.
And now this is the attitude that characterizes the performance of all professionalism. It’s about passion, it’s about mission, it’s about getting to work with such an amazing, talented, supportive team. It is not, by any means, about anything so crude as the dollars and cents you need to take home to your family as fast as you can get out of the building. For one thing, you may or may not have a family; for another, there probably is no building.
The world of the white-collar nine-to-five, the world of the creative self-employed – in any space that marries the pursuit of money to an internet connection, you will not be able to escape the MLMification of the economy. I’m in the same boat as everyone else, on Twitter every day trying to sell my clout and land a job. I have no real solutions for creeping MLMification. Or rather, on the individual level, I have several: I could get a more useful and more difficult job assembling circuit boards at the local factory. I could build a shelter in the woods and live off small game, or at least log off. One of these days, maybe I will.
But at the level beyond individual solutions, I have more of a hope than a prescription: for the internet to recede as the primary, quasi-public, third space of American life, and with it the ability and impetus to construct palatable, consumable versions of ourselves to market to others. I hope – as long as I’m hoping – for its replacement by spaces in which we can act and appear to others, where we build and work and speak, yet where nothing – least of all our friendship – is for sale.