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    PloughCast 65: Buying and Selling Friends

    Money, Part 5

    By Clare Coffey, Daniel Walden and Susannah Black Roberts

    July 19, 2023
    • Michael Nacrelli

      This transcript needs a glossary for all the acronyms. The "podcastsphere" is foreign to some of us. When I looked up "MFA" the most common result was multi-factor authentication, which doesn't seem to fit with the topic(s) discussed here.

    About This Episode

    Clare Coffey and Dan Walden discuss influencer culture, multilevel marketing schemes (MLMs), and the monetization of friendship.

    They also go entirely off script and end up in so many different rabbit trails that it is frankly difficult to write a podcast description that even begins to reflect the reality here.

    Among the topics covered: Whether Blackwater is kind of a MLM for guys, whether Clare is willing to take CIA money to write mean essays about Mary McCarthy for The Partisan Review (she is), the plight of the lumpen bohemian, and what it would take to make a really good American Iberico cured ham.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough, and today, Susannah will be speaking with Clare Coffey and Dan Walden about multilevel marketing and the monetization of friendship.

    Clare is a freelance writer, published many places, and a Philadelphian expat, and sort of at this point a columnist for Plough; Dan is a philologist and essayist whose writing has also appeared in Commonweal, Plough, and elsewhere.

    Susannah Black Roberts:

    It starts with a Facebook message usually. The name and pictures 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, et cetera, et cetera,] and we’re having a sale right now. I wanted to make sure that 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, et cetera], 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.

    That was the beginning of Clare Coffey’s latest piece for Plough, called “Selling Friends.” Clare, thank you for being on the podcast.

    Clare Coffey: Thank you for having me.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We also have with us today Dan Walden, friend of the pod, also Plough author, and kind of bon vivant in general in various ways. Dan, thank you for coming on the pod.

    Daniel Walden: Thanks a lot, Susannah.

    Clare Coffey: Oh, of the two of us of the introductions, Dan actually has the impressive resume. He speaks like fifteen languages.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s true.

    Clare Coffey: Including Proto-Indo-European.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Dan is a philologist and just puts us both to shame with excellence of various kinds. Dan doesn’t need to have a personal brand because he speaks fifteen languages.

    Clare Coffey: Exactly.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s how it works, which kind of leads us into the topic of this piece and podcast, which is personal branding and multi-level marketing and influencer culture. Clare, do you want to tell us a little bit about the piece?

    Clare Coffey: Yeah. Obviously, you asked me to write something about it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I did.

    Clare Coffey: And I more or less expanded a mean tweet I made a couple of months ago, which was just that if you’ve ever gotten an MFA (Master of Fine Arts degree), you don’t get to complain about other women’s MLMs.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think I might have actually pitched you because of that tweet.

    Clare Coffey: Yeah, well, I ended up just expanding it into a 2,000-word essay, just trying to be honest about how we’re all up to our necks in this kind of weird pyramid scheme culture.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, so you did a little bit of backgrounding on what an MLM is. Do you want to just explain that in case someone is at a loss.

    Clare Coffey: I’m not an expert, but an MLM is basically, it’s short for multi-level marketing, and it’s a business model that, it recruits people as independent contractors, basically, who sell the product to their personal social networks. So, Tupperware parties in the ’80s, Mary Kay, I think operated this way. The big ones lately have been, I feel like doTERRA got a lot of attention, the essential oil company. A bunch of makeup brands are MLMs. What else? There was the legging, the one that kind of fizzled out that was …

    Susannah Black Roberts: LuLaRoe.

    Clare Coffey: Yeah.

    Daniel Walden: You’re omitting the great granddaddy of them all.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Which is?

    Daniel Walden: I live in Michigan.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, here we go.

    Daniel Walden: I live on the east side of the state. The west side of the state is known for two things, for having ten gazillion different Calvinist churches and for the DeVos family whose fortune was made at Amway.

    Clare Coffey: Twist! I did not know that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I actually did know that, and I learned that at a Front Porch Republic conference at Hope College near Calvin College and in a kind of associative frenzy of thoughts led me to wonder about when Blackwater was a kind of guy focused MLM thing. I can sort of see it. You’re selling your culture of being sort of mercenaries, and you’re selling things … and it’s all kind of partying like a…

    Clare Coffey: Soldier of Fortune magazine.

    Daniel Walden: I was in choir with Erik Prince’s kid for a year.

    Clare Coffey: What?

    Susannah Black Roberts: What? What?

    Daniel Walden: That was a whole thing.

    Clare Coffey: Oh my goodness.

    Susannah Black Roberts: What? Under what? At St. John’s? Where?

    Daniel Walden: No, no, no, no, at Michigan.

    Clare Coffey: Oh my gosh.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah. I sang at the Glee club at Michigan for a decade, and one year-

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh my gosh.

    Daniel Walden: I don’t remember his name. He was pretty close to a guy who was a good friend of mine, but I never knew him particularly well, but he was in the choir for about a year.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK. Well, OK, and so just to connect us for our listeners. Erik Prince …

    Clare Coffey: Too much deep Michigan lore.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, seriously, Erik and Betsy DeVos are brother and sister, I believe. I think that’s right.

    Daniel Walden: Yes.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Anyway, OK. Well, I really do kind of like Blackwater as a kind of MLM for guys because there is… Obviously, your piece focused mostly in the beginning on mommy blogger type people and work from home moms who are the major victim slash perpetrators of MLMs. There is also this kind of incipient manosphere MLM-ish say, which I feel like Andrew Tate is kind of an example of, but it’s a little bit different.

    Clare Coffey: I feel like that’s sort of how the whole NFT thing works. You just have to find a sucker stupider than you, and you do that by telling them they’re going to build a legacy by buying your, whatever it is.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Your Bored Ape-

    Daniel Walden: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: … thing.

    Daniel Walden: Matt Bruenig has followed Andrew Tate from far longer than most people have and-

    Susannah Black Roberts: What?

    Daniel Walden: Listeners to Liz and Matt Bruenig’s podcast have gotten some real deep lore, but that’s been the whole structure of the thing for a long time. The real money comes from selling these, as Clare says in her piece, it comes from selling proximity. The money comes from membership in the whatever, the big man, tough guy club or whatever, the He-man woman haters club, Little Rascals, but monetized.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m a hundred percent editing the heck out of this podcast.

    Daniel Walden: Oh boy.

    Susannah Black Roberts: My boss’s brother, by the way, is the only one who’s going to hear the uncut version of this podcast.

    Clare Coffey: OK, good.

    Daniel Walden: Thank God.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Anyway, sorry. Sorry, Dan. Carry on. You were saying?

    Daniel Walden: Clare talks in her piece about, it represents a transformation of a certain kind of relationship into a commodity form, and I appreciated that her use of the word männerbund in there because I think it’s completely right.

    Clare Coffey: Susannah’s excellent addition.

    Daniel Walden: Well, because the whole point of an association like that is these things were in pre-modern and even early modern societies were predicated on the basis of some kind of underlying presumed reciprocity that there’s just sort of, an exchange of favors always happening and nobody’s really keeping track and this is how all these friendships work. Your friend does you a favor and you want to pay them back in kind, but maybe you can’t pay them back in kind, but you make a symbolic payback and it’s enough.

    Clare Coffey: Someday, and that day may never come, I will ask you to do me a favor.

    Daniel Walden: I’m in the midst of moving right now, and I had a friend come over on Saturday night to help me just pack away my library into boxes and we filled thirty bankers boxes with books and it was like, we’ll just hang out and box things up and I’ll buy the pizza and beer, and is that actually monetary repayment for their labor? No.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right.

    Daniel Walden: But in the context of a healthy relationship of reciprocity, the act of just making an effort at repaying somebody becomes enough, whereas whatever this thing is… Well, one, there’s nothing reciprocal about it. It’s all a bunch of people shoveling money into the pit and it’s unclear what’s actually being exchanged here because Clare says, and I think she’s totally right, what they’re after is a kind of proximity to glory to what they see as a powerful man and they want to form part of his court or whatever, but whether it’s actually taking place, it’s not clear that it is.

    Clare Coffey: But you’re not actually sacking any cities together. You are the city that gets sacked.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Or the female version is that you are both included in the kind of inner ring of this mommy blogger with a messy blonde ponytail. You’re included in her friend group and you’re also kind of on your way to becoming her in some way.

    Clare Coffey: You’re a cool Mormon.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Which I guess this is the sort of longhouse version, which is preying on male and female social anxieties in different ways.

    Clare Coffey: Susannah, did you just say longhouse?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I’m sorry, I can cut that, too. I apologize. I’m sorry.

    Clare Coffey: I’m going to roast you for that for the rest of your life.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I know that. I know that. I apologize. I’m sorry. Yes, I’ve listened to too many bad podcasts.

    Clare Coffey: That is the fundamental disease of our time: too many podcasts. It’s like what neurasthenia was, or however you say it, in the 19th century.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yes.

    Clare Coffey: The podcast disease.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Maybe we could get sent to a Swiss hotel where they would put us outside in the cold, but wrapped up, as a way to cure us of knowing who Bronze Age Pervert is…

    Clare Coffey: To cure podcast brain.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah, we need to get sent to the sanatorium in Davos and encounter a guy who’s actually just Renaissance humanism as a person.

    Clare Coffey: Yes.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We will be able to return.

    Clare Coffey: Our minds will be clean.

    Susannah Black Roberts: … to our lives. Except then, there’ll be the First World War and that’ll be sad.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah, that’s not good.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Clare Coffey: Yeah, but-

    Susannah Black Roberts: Boy, this podcast is different than it is when …

    Clare Coffey: Sorry, Peter.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Sorry, Peter. All right, the section that we are talking about is this section about the manosphere influencer culture.

    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 nnerbund 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.

    Obviously, what you are trying to describe here, Clare, is a common pattern of contemporary social life slash economy, and although the MLM is the most obvious and paradigmatic example, starting with apparently, the DeVos family, everything that we know including in our own horrific professions is downstream to a certain degree from that.

    And I do think that, one thing that I do want to plug, is the possibility that it’s appealing because it’s like parasitic on real stuff, and I don’t think allowing ourselves to get cynical about the good that it’s parasitic on just because it’s clearly got these kind of, parasites of relationships and the monetization of friendship and stuff because I actually do think that journalism is worthwhile and I think that academia is worthwhile, even though Anne Helen Petersen had this great piece about how grad school’s kind of like an MLM, which I’m not going to send to you, Dan, because I don’t want you to read it, and I don’t think it’s to stop doing things because we’re worried they’ve been MLM-ified. We just need to try to help try to make them not MLM-ified.

    Clare Coffey: Yeah. I guess in my ideal society journalism is basically a leisure activity, but until the Coffeys take the throne of the Windsors and reintegrate Christendom under iron fist, I don’t see this happening anytime soon and I’m still a working writer. I’m obviously able to live with this. I don’t see any real alternative. As the big tent poles of journalism kind of collapse one by one, as it becomes more Substackized, where you’re just trying to build a personal brand and get this tiny sliver of followers that are paying for your content enough to keep you personally funded in a way that a whole magazine once been funded, I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to see more of this, more personal brand selling. You can at least always laugh at it. Some of it is inevitable, some of it is to be resisted, but in all cases it can be laughed at.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s helpful. My brother and my father were both, I guess over the winter, reading George Gissing’s New Grub Street for some reason, and they’re both Hollywood writers basically, and it’s a novel about the horrors, the hideousness of post-Victorian Edwardian popular journalism and trying to make a living through being a journalist, I guess 1910s, and it’s incredibly bleak, and they were both reading it and being like, why are we still reading this? And they couldn’t stop, so to a certain degree possibly, it has always been this.

    Clare Coffey: Well, there’s that’s sweet spot in the mid-century. I want to go back to that interwar period where you’ll get the Partisan Review to, I don’t know, pay you $2 a word for a really rude article about one of your best friends.

    Susannah Black Roberts: But that was funded by the CIA, Clare.

    Clare Coffey: I’ll take CIA money to write mean articles about Mary McCarthy. I’ll totally take … CIA, I’m right here. Peter Thiel, I’m right here.

    Susannah Black Roberts: She will. Clare will write all the mean articles about Mary McCarthy that you want her to.

    Clare Coffey: I just feel like if you’re going to sell out, you should sell out big.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I also feel like this is probably the crossover between the Blackwater as MLM and little magazine culture as CIA op … OK, this is way too … this is a psychotic podcast.

    Clare Coffey: We should get Blackwater funding.

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, we can’t get … This is an Anabaptist podcast. We’re not getting Blackwater funding or CIA funding. No.

    Clare Coffey: OK, OK, OK.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m putting my foot down.

    Clare Coffey: OK, you’re right.

    Daniel Walden: OK, but we’re on the subject of writers right now and I think Clare’s tweet that launched a thousand weird podcasts about MFAs is apt in a lot of ways. It’s been a criticism for decades at this point that the MFA is basically, a paid networking degree and mostly what you’re getting out of it is a network of people who have a vested interest in your work succeeding, and you can always turn to them for positive reviews, and I’ve seen this happen. I reviewed a novel for Gawker last spring. Speaking of the classic-

    Clare Coffey: RIP, memory eternal.

    Daniel Walden: Right, right. This time last year-

    Susannah Black Roberts: Pour some coffee for them or something.

    Daniel Walden: I reviewed a novel for Gawker last year. It was an Iowa alums first novel.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah. Speaking of CIA.

    Susannah Black Roberts: For our listeners.

    Daniel Walden: But I saw it praised publicly by a writer whose work I admired tremendously, who has won a number of awards and deserves to win more.

    A writer who has done what I think is excellent work, whose knowledge I admire, whose criticism I admire was backing this novel, and frankly, this novel was not very good. It was pretty thoroughly mediocre, attempting some interesting things and it did a couple of neat tricks, but it wasn’t a good novel, but again, this much more accomplished, and I think much better writer, was also an Iowa alum. There’s a certain amount of sticking together that happens, especially in a, let’s say, institutional set with the kind of reputation for success that a place like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has, but you see this all over the place.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s sort of like, the more successful novelists come … Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the more valuable an Iowa Writer’s Workshop sort of thing on your CV is, therefore, it’s in the interest of everyone who goes to Iowa to review everyone else who has gone to Iowa. That is the framework, I believe.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah. In a lot of industries, we would call this unethical, but since writing is totally unregulated and based entirely on who you met at the cocktail party, we just have no problem.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, thank God. I don’t want there to be a sort of licensing department for journalism because we’d all fail, and we’d be in constant violation and they would give us, I don’t know, the equivalent of cockroaches.

    Daniel Walden: Well, I think, this comes around to a really good point of discussion though, because look, we’ve seen past the veil here. Meritocracy is fake. It doesn’t exist. It never has. Everybody is doing favors for their friends and it’s not a bad thing to do favors for your friends. Let’s be very clear about this.

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, it is not. You are doing Clare and me a huge favor because I just reached out to you two hours before this.

    Clare Coffey: Thank you, Dan.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yes, it is very good.

    Clare Coffey: What a mensch.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It is very good for Dan to do favors for his friends. You are a mensch.

    Daniel Walden: I’ve gotten jobs just because of who I knew, and look, and that’s the way getting jobs works. That’s the way getting opportunities works. It is always about who you know, and there’s no way to make it otherwise.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s a human thing, it seems to me.

    Daniel Walden: Right. We tried raw meritocracy and as it turns out, it just doesn’t work. What you end up doing is you end up giving a veneer of meritocratic luster to other ways that rich people buy favors behind the scenes, as opposed to before meritocracy, when everybody just knew that rich people bought stuff behind the scenes.

    Clare Coffey: Yeah, I agree that it’s not bad to do favors for friends. I have no problem with that. I think when I was thinking about writing about MFAs, it was distinct to me and somewhat hyperbolized in this piece was, so often it seems to me that the best, the most stable way to make a living as a writer is to teach writing, which sometimes can just be… Which doesn’t strike me as a problem if you’re just teaching writing as sort of a good across all human domains and you happen to be very good at it, so you’re teaching it, but there does sometimes seem to me with creative writing departments something a little like, so you’re trying to help people break into this industry that you can only scrape out a living in because you’re teaching younger entrants how to break in.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Here’s the way out. My dad did this. He was originally a poet, and then he got married and realized he couldn’t make a living being a poet.

    Clare Coffey: Nice.

    Susannah Black Roberts: He was writing a lot of his poems in chalk on sidewalks in Paris, and then he became a novelist. Being a sort of, literary novelist, also is not… It can kind of work for a while, but then when you have a kid who’s entering kindergarten, it begins to be a little shaky. So then, he got a job teaching creative writing. He was a writer of residence at Mount Holyoke. That is the way. That’s the path, but the next stage is that he went to Hollywood, so there is a kind of breakthrough actual mark. It just means that you have to get out of the East Coast. Maybe that’s the solution.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping – Don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of our conversation with Dan and Clare after the break.

    Clare Coffey: Yeah. If I’m honest, I am a writer both because it’s the only thing I’m good at, and B, because I am kind of a lumpen bohemian who just does not want to have a real job. I do not like going to work. I do not like having a boss. I would rather starve than have a boss ever again. I’m looking for a job, by the way.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, this is what, yeah. If any listeners have a job for Clare, please just DM me.

    Clare Coffey: Thank you. I think probably for me, it’s going to be some part-time and itinerant work like that I have picked up a different … to supplement my income, bartending, factory work, different things, or just eventually, when I get my little trailer in the woods of Pennsylvania, and go full Unabomber, I’m raising hogs on nuts, creating the American Iberico. Anyway, that’s the long term dream, but I think the path to happiness for me at least, is probably writing, and then also doing other things as needed because those kind of jobs can be picked up and put down. They’re not a career, and so they don’t trap you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, which this only is worthwhile if what you’re doing is making something that’s really good and you’re a very good writer, and therefore, I’m-

    Clare Coffey: Thank you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: … very pleased that you’re going to be a kind of hand-to-mouth hog raising-

    Clare Coffey: Lumpen bohemian.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It benefits all of us, but we’ve gotten very far from the topic of this-

    Clare Coffey: Sorry. Sorry.

    Susannah Black Roberts: … podcast.

    Clare Coffey: Was that supposed to become Clare’s career?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Which is fantastic. No, we also do career consultation for lumpen bohemians and for overeducated philologists and weird sailing obsessives. This is one of the things that we do here at Plough. Please write in with your questions about your career path and how you can monetize yourself more effectively, and we will help you with that.

    Clare Coffey: We will help you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Because it’s the Bruderhof, they’ll probably just invite you to sell all that you have and lay the proceeds at the feet of the apostles and do an Acts 2 and 4, which is probably what we should be doing anyway, and therefore, we all win.

    Clare Coffey: OK.

    Daniel Walden: They will probably ask you if you can use a lathe.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yes. They will ask you if you can use a lathe. Can you use a lathe, Clare?

    Clare Coffey: I don’t think I can use a lathe, but I can butcher rabbits.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s true.

    Clare Coffey: I can process livestock.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You are very good. Yeah, you’ve been killing small animals lately, right?

    Clare Coffey: Yeah, it’s a lifestyle.

    Susannah Black Roberts: In the woods? Yeah, OK.

    Clare Coffey: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I can’t use a lathe, sadly, either, which is why they don’t work in the furniture factory. I’m cutting all of this. This is total nonsense. Let’s reorient ourselves.

    Daniel Walden: We had the bit about the difference between finding work through your relationships, and then we were starting to contrast this with the monetizing of your network.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yes. Yes. OK, so this is a good one. What is the distinction between the normal process of nepotism and getting jobs for your friends, and Adam Bellow actually has this book, Saul Bellow’s son, In Praise of Nepotism, which  I just got, which I’m going to find comforting. What’s the difference between that, which is a kind of common human thing, not bad, I don’t think, and the monetization of relationships that happens on specifically, it didn’t originally happen on the internet, and it just seems that the internet, particularly Facebook, and then Instagram, are just incredibly fruitful, and they’re accelerants for a certain kind of self-marketing and selling of your social proximity that seems a lot sketchier than the normal getting jobs for your friends thing? What is the distinction and what does the internet have to do with it?

    Clare Coffey: I’ll take a stab at it first. I think there’s three ways this can go. You can do favors for your friends because you love them, and you would love them in the same way if they were unable to ever do a favor for you, and then you can have, a little below that, you can have just common garden friendships of utility, where you can be useful to each other and you are, and you have some affection coming out of that, but that’s kind of the basis of the friendship. You’re kind of networking acquaintances. That’s a very common and very old thing, too. It’s not the most beautiful thing, but it’s not new. What seems somewhat new to me is not just using a friend for something, but the idea that the friendship is actually what you’re selling, that they want to be your friend, and so they’ll buy your product. Not, they’ll buy your product because they’re your friend. That seems very wrapped up in the whole selling of the self as this wonderful thing, this wonderful total life package that you can create through a screen and that people want access to, want to be part of, want to imitate.

    Daniel Walden: I agree with what Clare has said so far. I think the internet dimension of it, I think comes in… The internet makes people more brazen because it has a distancing and anonymizing effect. Even if you’re posting under your real name with a photograph of your face, there’s a distancing and anonymizing effect nonetheless, that is going to make people more brazen in making the kinds of asks that you would be ashamed to make in person. Really, it’s the same impulse at work that is leading desperate, lonely, maybe somewhat disturbed men to send inappropriate messages and photographs to a gazillion different women on the internet because it’s just like, well, I might as well, and if you make enough attempts and you get a hit, and that’s essentially, the same thing that’s at work when the person you haven’t spoken to in 15 years hits you up on Facebook about their MLM. Because it’s over the internet, they’re less ashamed of it and who knows, they might get a hit.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of marketing messages like that. I just started a Substack and I’ve used my Facebook and my Instagram to post links to my first couple of articles and it feels iffy, and I’ve told myself, reassured myself and reassured my friends, I’m only going to do this a few times. I just want to make people aware of it, whatever, but do I hope that people pay for it? Yes. Obviously, I hope people pay for it because I would like money. I would like to keep having a roof over my head and to keep drinking good whiskey. Of course I want people to read my writing because I like when people read my stuff, but I also want them to pay to read my writing because I like having money, and there’s not an easy separation there. I am engaging in the same thing that more brazen marketers are doing. I’m trying not to do it in a way that’s violating a code of social behavior, but that’s not a hard and fast line. It’s a fuzzy one and it’s one that varies between people and between communities.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Not bad. Alastair’s and my Substack, we haven’t figured out how to turn the thing on. People have tried to pay for it, but we don’t know how to get the money that they’ve tried to give us, but I would like to. I think we should try to.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah, I think you should try to get that money.

    Clare Coffey: I feel like if I have a Substack, it’s just going to become descriptions of my favorite bars in North Idaho.

    Daniel Walden: I would use that in a heartbeat.

    Susannah Black Roberts: What’s wrong with that? Clare, it would be one of my favorite reads. Some of my current favorite Substack reads are, my sister-in-law has one called Safe ‘n’ Warm about life in Los Angeles, and I love it because she’s hilarious. Clare, do you remember that piece that you and I, and I can’t remember who else, a bunch of other people wrote for First Things. We wrote a listicle.

    Clare Coffey: Oh, very, very vaguely.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think the only listicle that First Things has ever published.

    Clare Coffey: Yeah. I have vague memories of this.

    Susannah Black Roberts: All right, so here it is. Hot Takes and Viral Hits for Your Hip Christian Women’s Magazine by Susannah Black, Clare Coffey, Maggie Kelly, Leah Libresco Sargeant, and Alexi Sergeant. This was 2016. This is legendary.

    Daniel Walden: Oh no. Oh, wow.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I am a hundred percent dropping a link to this in the show notes. Eggs Benedict Option: Saving Western Civilization over Brunch. Ten Espadrilles That Scream Gender Realism. Forming Intentional Communities: Ten Ways to Spot a Frenemy. You’re More Than A Piece of Meat: Getting Him To See You As a Walking Advertisement For a Vaguely Retro-Hipster Lifestyle Brand.

    Clare Coffey: I think that one was mine.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK. We are actually starting to podcast again. One of the interesting transitions, morphs between two different areas of self-presentation and self-marketing, which has happened recently is Elizabeth Holmes. Elizabeth Holmes was originally part of the Silicon Valley, obviously, she’s the … of, what was it called?

    Clare Coffey: Theranos.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Theranos, right. It was a biotech grift that turned out to be a grift. It was originally sort of a very exciting biotech startup in the kind of Silicon Valley “break things and influence people” or whatever it is, sort of ethos, but it turned to be a grift and she was sent to jail and she is, I think out of jail, but anyway, she’s transformed herself. Sorry?

    Clare Coffey: There was just a profile of her that everyone was freaking out about. I didn’t read it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right because she’s transformed herself from a kind of Silicon Valley black turtleneck, that kind of influencer-

    Clare Coffey: Steve Jobs.

    Susannah Black Roberts: … to a sort of mommy blogger. She was only kind of like a Zero to One startup, and she’s now rebranded as Liz Holmes, and she is now sort of aiming to be perceived as a kind of wholesome mommy blogger type.

    Clare Coffey: She knows the age of the girl boss is over. The tradwives are trying to rise. They don’t have that dog in them so they won’t succeed.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, there’s some terrifying tradwives out there and the founder of LuLaRoe, what’s her name? The Mormon who founded LuLaRoe was a terrifying tradwife ambition mongerer, so maybe Liz has a future in that.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah. The reason that’s not going to happen is we’re all chronically underestimating a really, really important demographic, and now I’m stealing from one of my own tweets. We are underestimating the power and the numbers of the demographic of people who do like woo woo vibe stuff, but who also think January 6th was good, and there’s a lot.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh yeah. Yep.

    Daniel Walden: That’s one of the fastest growing demographics in the rapidly becoming former Bible Belt. Evangelical disaffiliation is not coming with a decline in what we might call spirituality. They’re not all becoming English empiricists.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, even, there was the guy with the horns at January 6th itself.

    Daniel Walden: The QAnon Shaman.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, this is the post-Christian right, and it’s not just that it’s, and obviously, there are some of them who are terrifying and seriously kind of fascists, but then there are some of them who are really flaky and that’s fascinating. The rise of the flaky right.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah. Well, and-

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’ll be interesting.

    Daniel Walden: I think the kind of stuff that is going to move into the MLM space and into that religious/MLM overlap, it’s not going to be the tradwife stuff. They’re not going to be monetizing their quasi-schismatic parish or whatever. It’s going to be stuff that, it was the kind of thing that Tara Burton has written about. It’s going to be the Christian weight loss movements. There’s a great HBO documentary about Remnant Fellowship in suburban Nashville, which is a massive megachurch started by and led by a woman that was basically, a weight loss program.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh my gosh.

    Daniel Walden: That was basically relying on combining MLM direct marketing tactics, overlapping with what we might call direct evangelism with the in-group solidification that we tend to associate with churches that are maybe starting to look like cults, that are clustering around one charismatic pastor, and it starts as a weight loss group. That church still exists. The woman who started it is dead. She died in a plane crash and her daughter is running the church now and it’s still there.

    Clare Coffey: Word.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Wow.

    Daniel Walden: That’s where, again, in these vast exurbs that still have some population density, but they’re not urban. This kind of thing does not often happen in urban centers. It is very much a kind of suburban/exurban phenomenon, and those places still exist and those demographics are still there.

    Susannah Black Roberts:This is going back to obviously, pre-internet age, but very much not back to pre-consumer capitalist age. It’s not that different than Norman Vincent Peale.

    Daniel Walden: No, not at all.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There is a certain, which was sort of Trump’s church, which I’m not sure if it was Christian explicitly or if it was self-help.

    Daniel Walden: It was Marble Prez.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK, so it was Presbyterian.

    Daniel Walden: In New York.

    Susannah Black Roberts: But that kind of self-help slash religious vibe, that’s also huge, and that is… John Maxwell is a kind of good example of that. I don’t know if you guys know that guy, but he’s a self-help/excellence/leadership guy. Leadership is a big kind of phrase in those circles where it’s like, it’s not clear whether discipleship or teaching how to be a good salesman or teaching how to follow Jesus or doing spiritual disciplines. Can you talk a little bit about the part of the piece where you discussed the way that this doesn’t really, we can’t really escape this by going into the “professional world” as opposed to being louche bohemians of various kind because LinkedIn has become something that you basically have to present yourself on the way that you have to present yourself on Instagram. What is that culture like?

    Clare Coffey: Yeah, I found that when I was last in the professional world, easily the most humiliating part about it was the norms around LinkedIn and participation in LinkedIn is this kind of professionalism, which just means constantly gassing everyone else up when they get a job, which, that’s nice. That’s great, I guess, but everyone who’s using LinkedIn and really trying to max out its value is constantly posting these narratives of “going to a new opportunity,” “so excited to,” “I’ve learned I’m really passionate about companies that are in transformative spaces and I’m taking the brave step to pursue that.”

    It’s really hard for me off the top of my head to give a sense of it, but a constant self-narration that really is, I think in parallel to what you see on Facebook and LinkedIn, and it just seems more and more ubiquitous and more and more important if you’re trying to actually use it to network or make contacts and especially if you’re representing your company in some way. I don’t think part of the point of this piece was there’s been a lot of hate on MLMs, and deservedly, and a lot of pieces covering at why they’re bad, and I kind of wanted to go beyond that and say, what is this weird through line that seems to be just everywhere and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of computer job where you can really get away from it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The solution is live in the woods and make cured hams.

    Clare Coffey: Yeah, that’s been really helpful. I just decided I didn’t want to use LinkedIn. It just felt too, it actually just felt humiliating. I felt like I was, every once in a while, some sad boy on Twitter talks about the terrible degradations of modern life to the young man of spirit when he should be conquering cities, and mostly it’s like, all right, let’s see you do a pushup first, but with LinkedIn, I get it. This is just not how people should talk or think about themselves and I don’t want to do this.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The closest I’ve come to that is when I used to work when I was doing my deckhand job and I was working down by the base of Wall Street sailing on this tall ship, and we would do tourist sails around the Statue of Liberty, and part of my job was to just get people to come on board, and a lot of the people I was trying to get on board were these guys who worked on Wall Street who would get lunch, and then they would go and sit on Pier 17, and they would sit there and it just felt like they were living in this world of self-maximization in a very, very narrow way.

    And they were obviously doing well. They were literally working on Wall Street, but it felt like they needed to be rescued in some way, and I would try to rescue them by getting them to come on the boat, but it somehow felt to me the energy that I had to try to get these guys to stop being Wall Street for a second and come sailing was really, that is the kind of energy we should have for evangelism because it is a little bit like that. It’s like, stop being profit maximizing people who are living your lives in service of incredibly boring men, but that makes you use buzzwords and come start living a human life, and I feel like that is what evangelism is, but I felt it very powerfully about people coming on this boat as well.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah. I think the point that LinkedIn is this endless succession of narratives I think is really, really vital, I think, because everyone who’s posting on there is aware very explicitly at some level that they have to be posting something that is a narrative of success. That’s what gets the engagement. Nobody’s interested, the LinkedIn algorithm is not going to highlight stories of, oh yeah, I’m kind of struggling right now. It doesn’t prioritize honesty. It prioritizes just endless success narratives, and I think Susannah’s totally right. This is what Christianity is in the business of rescuing people from because there’s a great sermon by Herbert McCabe where he talks about that so much of sin is a failure of realistic self-love. We create an idol, which is a false image of ourselves, and it can be false in a number of ways. We can be despairing and think of ourselves as too wretched, or we can be thinking of ourselves as always on the up and up, but either way, whatever your relationship to an image like that is, it’s not going to be healthy and it can’t be a relationship of love.

    You have to be able to take a look at yourself really in the mirror and be like, yeah, here’s what I am. There are these good things about me and there are these bad things about me, and that’s just the way it is, and that’s OK, and I can know that because I know that God loves me and I can learn to love myself in some way. Also, learn to love other people in this way as well, but the success grind narrative, Susannah, you made the point that it’s not even fun. I know, we’re not encouraging people to have vices on this podcast here, but man, if you’re going to be in the service of mammon, at least make your vices fun. Go get the three martini lunch, man. If the Silicon Valley tech CEO self-optimization stuff, it’s all bulletproof coffee and green juice, and I’m like, dude, where is the decadence? Where is the $400 Bordeaux? Where are the things that are fun?

    Susannah Black Roberts: I do think that it is interesting the way that there is this attempt in some of the highest levels of these tech and business worlds to rediscover a kind of asceticism in the sense of dopamine fasting, which I think Jack from Twitter, if you see pictures of him, he kind of looks like an orthodox monk of some kind of a staretz, and whether it’s feasting or fasting, it just feels like it’s in service of something that is smaller than you. They all just need Jesus. That’s good.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s true. It’s true.

    Clare Coffey: That is true.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s true.

    Daniel Walden: Yeah. Y’all need Jesus.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I do think, I want to circle back around to the idea that so much, I feel like the bad takeaway from this would be everything that you do that suddenly starts to feel like it’s MLM or influencer culture influenced, is terrible and corrupt. I think there’s too, everything is kind of influence or culture influenced and that’s bad, but at the same time, in life, there are things that are worthwhile doing, and it’s kind of like everything is influenced by capitalism, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad to start a business. I feel like we shouldn’t be so worried about getting sucked into the stuff that we despair.

    Clare Coffey: No, it’s the piece. I’m in these professions. I’m in this world and I wouldn’t be in them if I didn’t want to be in them, if I didn’t think there was a good reason to be in them. I think, I don’t know, I think the piece is more descriptive, I think, than it is prescriptive. I don’t think that there’s a clear… I think there are internal virtues that can resist the really grotesque stuff, but I don’t actually think it is incumbent on me to never work as a content producer again or something.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, good.

    Daniel Walden: If there’s one thing that a Monastic spirituality teaches you, it’s that there is no running away from this. Monasticism is not actually a flight from the world because the world is there, too. We can’t isolate ourselves from this. That’s why it’s called the sin of the world. It’s not necessarily located entirely in us. It’s in the way that the world is built and we’re participating in it all the time, and we do our best. We try to avoid doing things badly for bad reasons, for inhuman reasons, but we don’t always, and you take that up with Jesus, tell him you’re sorry, and then move on and try to do better, and that’s the way you go.

    Susannah Black Roberts: A solution would be, because all of these things are parasitic on good stuff, so even the mommy blogger thing is parasitic on good female friendship, or good friendship in general.

    Clare Coffey: And some mommy bloggers are extremely funny. They’re doing really good work in a really funny form.

    Daniel Walden: I should add, doing important work, because we all know that women’s health issues and women’s social issues and the isolation that often comes upon new mothers when they’re in the house taking care of an infant is extremely real, and it’s very hard. People need communities and sometimes they can only find them online and it’s good that they find what they can.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, ideally it would be a village of other women who are also raising children at the same time, but lacking that, it’s not bad to go on Instagram, so it just seems to be, yeah.

    Clare Coffey: I think I have a strong preference for, maybe it’s just because I am for textual forms of this, I do feel like there’s something about Instagram that makes it really, really hard to do it well.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Clare Coffey: And the TikToks, a lot of them are quite funny and ingenious, but there’s something about those little short clips of your life that you’re presenting that’s both too identified with you, personally, and not close enough to reality. I don’t know. I’d have to think more about what exactly assumed problem with Instagram and TikTok to me, but I don’t mean absolutely. I just think it’s harder to do well.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m hearing you say that it’s easier to be virtuous on Twitter.

    Clare Coffey: No. No. The vices are different, that’s all. No, actually, I was thinking more of the actual era of mommy blogs, the actual long form blogs.

    Clare Coffey: I would want to salvage them in the great purge of content a lot faster than I would a lot of the TikTok content.

    Susannah Black Roberts: This is why, I do think radio paper, which is the social media saying that our friend David Schaengold started. Dan, are you on it?

    Daniel Walden: I’m not yet. I feel like I probably will be at some point.

    Susannah Black Roberts: If feels to me-

    Clare Coffey: Everyone will be pulled in at some point.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. It feels to me more like the comment section of a blog, which is a very good feeling and there’s a lot less meanness and dunking and it’s longer, and kind of more awkward in a good way, I think. Nobody seems to be selling anything at the moment. There are just debates about the ontological status of AI. OK, on that note, I feel like

    Clare Coffey: There’s enough here to make a podcast.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There probably is. There may be enough here to make a podcast after I take out all the compromising parts. We’ll see. Talk later. Bye-bye.

    Clare Coffey: Talk to you later. Bye.

    Daniel Walden: Bye-bye.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By ClareCoffey Clare Coffey

    Clare Coffey is a writer living in Idaho.

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    Contributed By DanWalden Daniel Walden

    Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theatre, and the Michigan Wolverines.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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