A wise Instagram caption once said, "One day you will be at the place you always wanted to be." That's how I felt when I first stepped foot in a place I had spent hours staring at on social media: the suburbs of Salt Lake City, Utah.
I know, it doesn't sound like a bucket-list-worthy destination. But to me it was. Sure, I've swiped through photos of the beaches of Santorini and lusted over the breathtaking views from the mountains of Cape Town. But mostly? I have swiped and scrolled and liked and commented on photo after photo taken in Provo, Lehi, Alpine, and Draper. I have heard of their chain restaurants, and even know the specialties to order.
That's because this stretch of highway among the jagged rocks of the American West is the fertile crescent of a slice of the internet that I have spent the past decade of my life obsessed with. In many ways, the world of bloggers and influencers was born here.
It's jarring to visit somewhere you have spent so much time visiting virtually from a phone screen. Scenes look both familiar and foreign. The Utah suburbs are a Candy Land soaked with rugged beauty and dusted with the air of new money and fame. Custom-built McMansions dot the scenery like Chiclets, hanging off the side of rugged hills so majestic and awe-inspiring that they could make even the most devoted skeptic believe in the existence of a god.
In the valleys below, young adults with smooth hair and even smoother skin carry their babies close to their chests as they walk through the shiny strip malls filled with everything you could ever need to live a peaceful suburban existence. This is the land of fast-casual anything; you can get any type of cuisine you wish in a bowl from a counter. You can buy an outfit for a night out at myriad chain stores. You can buy yourself a Diet Coke loaded with heavy cream and a splash of coconut, but it's hard to find a Starbucks or a glass of wine. As foreign as that Diet Coke is though, it's also not, because you have seen video after video of people trying it. After all, it's gone viral on TikTok.
I made my pilgrimage to the land of Mormon influencers in January 2022. By then I had been reporting and writing about bloggers and influencers for more than five years, and following, engaging, and thinking about them for more than ten. Finally, I was in my subjects' natural habitat. Excited would be an understatement.
I had come to Utah to visit one of these influencers after nearly two years of talking with her about her career and the impact it has had on her life. Shannon Bird had been sharing her life and that of her family with thousands of people on the internet for a decade, and now she was willing to give me a peek behind the curtain, to see what her family actually looked like offline. Instagram versus reality, if you will.
A perky, blond, Mormon mother of five, Shannon is an OG "mommy blogger," the group of women who took over the mid-2010s internet with their version of aspirational parenting. These women, many of whom are Mormon and live in close proximity to Shannon, were some of the first to live their lives for the masses online, make significant amounts of money doing so, and be true internet celebrities, with their lives dissected on gossip forums and blogs.
Shannon isn't the type of mommy blogger you may be envisioning. If the typical mommy blogger posts a beautiful photo of her quiet, serene children coloring in front of a dreamy background, Shannon's kids are on her stories showing off their rabbits (who may or may not be having babies of their own) and roaring around on dirt bikes. If others may show their kids only in perfect outfits with perfect hair, Shannon's kids often look like, well, kids, with messy curls and sometimes just a diaper. And when some moms post idyllic Christmas shots of their brood in matching pajamas, Shannon uploads a video of her husband, Dallin, taking a chain saw to the trunk of their Christmas tree in the middle of the living room, surrounded by her cackling kids.
Shannon is her own person, and thus her own influencer, and she wants to post only what she thinks is actually good content. She could post videos of herself putting on makeup and her kids doing homework in sepia tones, but what fun would that be? If she were to compare herself to anyone, she would say she is the Adam Sandler of mommy bloggers.
"Shannon loves putting out content that the normal lady trying to sell her minivan or better her life is thinking, 'What is this woman doing?'" Dallin, Shannon's husband, explained to me.
I got to know Shannon over a two-year period. Initially, I found her fascinating for one specific reason: much like many people hate and mock Adam Sandler's movies as lowbrow and cheap comedy, many people on the internet mock, belittle, and even hate Shannon. In fact, she has a reputation for being one of the most "messy" bloggers on the internet, with hundreds of pages of comments in online snark forums absolutely ripping her to shreds.
"People think I'm a shit mom," Shannon repeats over and over in our conversations, with the deadpan breeziness of someone who knows she isn't one and doesn't care that people think she is.
The Birds live in Alpine, Utah, a ritzy, upscale suburb that looks like a cross between a ski town and a bougie town populated by Real Housewives and strip malls. As I drove through in my rental car, each home seemed grander and more ostentatious than the last. By the time I pulled up to Shannon's home, which has five bedrooms and is more than fifty-five hundred square feet, it seemed modest in comparison.
Meeting Shannon and Dallin for the first time was surreal, like watching a painting spring to life. Dallin was taller than I expected, greeting me that day with a relaxed surfer bro energy that I would soon learn was his natural resting state. Shannon soon bounded up beside him, carrying her youngest daughter, London, then two, wrapped in a towel. Shannon was glammed up with long bouncy blond curls, wearing a crop top and jeans. I wasn't sure if she had gotten dressed up for me or if this was just how she always looks. After all, she needs to be camera ready a good amount of the time.
Shannon and Dallin live in the epicenter of Mormon bloggerville, surrounded on all sides by some of the most famous names in content creation. Two of the biggest fashion influencers on Instagram can literally look down on the Birds from their massive homes on the hillside above. A major home design influencer lives down the street. And the Birds were willing to show off.
Soon after I arrived at their home, Shannon got an idea. Did I want to go on a tour of her neighborhood, and she could point out all the houses of famous influencers? It could be a true "Utah experience," she said. Um, absolutely. Had I died and gone to Mormon mommy blogger heaven?
Shannon recruited Dallin as the chauffeur for our outing. I rode shotgun and three of her kids, Holland, then eight, Brooklyn, then four, and London came along.
We first drove to the top of a hill near Shannon's house to the home of Rachel Parcell. Rachel started her blog Pink Peonies just before Shannon started blogging, and Shannon has known Rachel and her three sisters, known collectively online as the Skallas (their maiden name), since she was a kid. Now they are all influencers and live in the same neighborhood. Rachel is a major success on Instagram and has turned Pink Peonies into an empire, with a line at Nordstrom, her own fashion line, and more than one million followers.
Rachel and her husband, Drew, who works in construction, recently built a massive home that sits on a hill literally looking over Shannon's. I'm not sure if I should be embarrassed to admit this, but when we drove by I recognized it right away from her Instagram-perfect Valentine's Day wreaths framing the front door.
Dallin nodded to it. "There's her house," he said, "and there's her dog," a yellow Lab relaxing on the grass in the sun. I felt weird taking a picture, but the Birds egged me on, so I did. Of course, I texted it to my friends, asking if they could guess whose house this is. They knew immediately. "This is unreal!" one wrote back. From Rachel's house, we drove down the street to see where her sister, Emily Jackson, also an influencer, is building a similarly enormous house.
From there, we zipped down the mountain, as Dallin pointed out to me all the other enormous mansions and whom they belonged to. Alpine used to be a relatively modest town, he explained, but Salt Lake City has experienced a tech boom in recent years. Overstock.com and Ancestry.com are just two major players in tech that are headquartered in what some now call the "Silicon Slopes." Since they moved in, the Birds have watched small home after small home get knocked down to be replaced by enormous McMansions.
When I mentioned to Dallin I was surprised by how many tech firms were in Utah, he pointed out to me that startups weren't the only innovative new business driving money to where he lives. Influencers are also tech startups, driving a remarkable amount of wealth into Alpine and the surrounding communities.
We took a tour break for a snack at Swig, a shop selling the aforementioned viral soda. Swig recently had gotten big on TikTok because of its unique business model: it sells soda concoctions to Mormons in the style of coffeehouse drinks or cocktails. Most Mormons don't drink hot drinks or alcohol, so places like Swig have popped up to fill the fancy-beverage void. They have become massively popular both in real life and on social media, where non-Utahans comment about their perceived oddity, then try them for themselves or post videos about their favorite drinks they have tried when they visited.
I got a "classic" drink on the menu called "The Founder," which consists of Diet Coke, lime, sugar-free coconut syrup, and coconut creamer. It tasted exactly like a Malibu rum and Diet Coke I would have drunk in college, which I announced to the delight of the Birds.
Sodas, sickly sweet sugar cookies, and pretzel bites in hand, we headed out to finish our blogger tour. I was probably most excited to see the home of the mega home influencer Shea McGee, of Studio McGee (I own several items from her line at Target), which was beautiful but more understated than I expected.
As I stared at her house, I thought about my house, which had been so heavily influenced by hers. Did I have a personal home decor style before I started following Shea on Instagram? I don't really remember, but I know that as I looked through photo after photo of Shea's style, mine came into focus. I could say the same about so many things in my life.
When I wanted to figure out an outfit for a night at the bars in my twenties, I would scroll through bloggers' outfits on Pinterest. When I wanted to learn how to cook something, I'd consult a food blogger. When I realized I had too much credit card debt, I would read financial diaries. When I wanted to improve my marathon times, I read race reports on running blogs. When I got married, I went to every single blogger I had ever followed who was married and read their entire wedding series. When my husband and I decided to buy a condo and I was filled with so much anxiety I thought my head might explode, I found comfort in watching Instagram Story highlights from influencers who described their own home-buying experiences. When I dealt with a year and a half of infertility, I found similar comfort in reading in-depth posts from influencers who had struggles just like mine. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I devoured Instagram posts and Stories like "first-trimester recap" and "what I put on my baby registry" with the fervor of a college student cramming for an exam. I read a few baby books, but most of my preparation came from these women online, guiding me through.
As I sat in Shannon's car, I began to wonder, Who would I be without them?
My fascination with influencers probably arose because of one rather embarrassing fact about myself. I am nosy.
Come on, don't tell me you aren't too. It's one of the fundamental reasons the influencer industry exists. Isn't there something amazing about getting an inside peek into someone else's life? It's enthralling to watch a person who is willing to cut their life open like ripe fruit and then, hands outstretched, invite us all to consume it. Especially if we view them as more conventionally attractive or powerful than we are.
This fascination is why I write about internet culture as a journalist, and specifically about influencers. It's not a topic I ever expected to write about. In college I thought I'd become a "serious" journalist, reporting on Capitol Hill or, I don't know, writing about the UN or something. But once I became a journalist, reporting on what I had always viewed as more serious pursuits didn't interest me. Because when I wasn't at work, I spent my time consuming influencer content.
It was the voyeur in me. I am endlessly fascinated by influencers: how they live their lives so publicly, the things they are willing to share, and how they navigate the internet on their own terms. Some made me want to buy things from them, others made me mad, and still more made me cringe, but they all held my attention. When I talked to my good friends, they were all following their own influencer obsessions. But I began to realize that no one was really talking about them in the mainstream media.
In 2016, as a reporter for BuzzFeed News, I began to write about influencers as part of my day job. When I began to seriously cover them, I noticed a few things I found interesting.
At the time, people in popular culture tended to throw around words like influencer and content creator, and did so interchangeably. But these terms refer to two distinct groups of people. The first group is what I in this book call "video creators," or "creators," as others in the media have called them.
This industry was born on YouTube. Since the first videos started going viral in the late 2000s, the medium has become a hotbed for virality and social media fame. The earliest video creators pioneered an entirely new industry by creating easily consumable short-form video entertainment. The medium soon became known for a variety of tropes, like daily video diaries known as vlogging, comedy skits, and stunt or prank videos, which thousands have tried to emulate in a quest for their own social media fame. In 2012, an app called Vine made stars of even more of these video creators, who were able to successfully turn the app's six-second looping video clip format into full-on comedy shows. Once Vine shut down in 2016, many of these "Viners," like the Paul brothers, Lele Pons, and David Dobrik, were able to successfully migrate their followings to YouTube. Now, of course, the next generation of these types of video stars has been born on TikTok, the newest app on the scene that relies on video content as the main form of entertainment. Whether on YouTube or Vine, these video creators are akin to actors working in television or film.
Copyright © 2023 by Stephanie McNeal. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.