With the coronavirus pandemic essentially eliminating British theatre for the foreseeable future, Dolly and I have been exploring new ways to keep The Mancunion’s Theatre section interesting and exciting.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about people’s performative use of social media and how it is, in a way, a form of theatre. Social media is a virtual stage — a platform, where we construct identities and establish curated images of ourselves. We show the world what we want the world to see. We are acting; portraying semi-fictionalised versions of ourselves – our best selves.
This article series – A Tough Act to Follow (get it?) – is an exploration into the performative nature of social media. Each feature will see me interviewing an Instagram influencer, social media personality, or somebody who utilises social media to advance their career, as we explore the construction of online identities.
I absolutely had to start with the fabulous Max Hovey, who is, indisputably, one of my favourite Instagram users. Hovey is a 21-year-old university student, content creator, and mental health and queer activist.
Max, who has always said that social media is, essentially, a “highlight reel”, agreed with my analogy and appreciated my concept. He described social media as, largely, “performative”.
Whilst Max is very young, he has experienced great personal growth over the last few years, seeing his intentions and outlook develop significantly. When he first began using Instagram, he developed an unhealthy relationship with it. His personal insecurities lead him to use the platform as a means for validation, with little regard for the content of what he was posting.
He gradually began to realise that this was not who he was as a person and found himself posting and sharing more positive content, dedicating much of it to mental health activism. This, unexpectedly, lead to his profile skyrocketing.
“When I wanted it for the wrong reasons, nothing was happening, and then when I just detached myself completely, it happens.”
Whilst at first surprised by this, it quickly made sense to me, because I, myself, followed Max because of his very specific (and positive) use of Instagram. After purging my following list of superficial influencers who served only to negatively influence my insecurities (where I found myself jealous that I did not look like their facetuned faces), coming across Max’s feel-good profile was just what I needed!
But whilst Max seeks to establish a positive community, he also wants people to know that he too has bad days. He wants to make other people feel better but also let them know that it’s okay not to be okay. He quickly changed the topic when he caught eye of my Boys Get Sad Too t-shirt – a brand and campaign that seeks to end the stigma of male mental health. The t-shirts are affordable, sustainable, and fashionable – and I ordered mine in pink as a double “F-you” to the patriarchy. Go get yours!
After discussing our mutual appreciation of BGST, I asked Max how he crafted his social media identity – the main theme of this new article series – but quickly realised that Max had already answered my question: he has eliminated “Max Hovey”, in favour of just being the real Max Hovey, aka himself.
Crap, I thought, fearful that this rendered my concept redundant, but then I realised that this makes it all the more complex, convoluted, and compelling. See, Max really is the antithesis of the superficial, performative nature of social media. He actively goes against social media norms. One might term him the ‘anti-influencer influencer’.
Max explained that he had initially crafted a “façade”, which reflected his superficial outlook, before embracing himself – and it is this authenticity that drew people in. He made the important point that this is why he does not focus entirely on mental health and activism, because there is more to him than that – he is not simply a young man who has turned his struggles with mental health into activism, but a full-rounded, multi-faceted person with interests in everything from comedy to fashion. He wants his profile to have a multitude of things that people can relate to, but his commitment to mental health lead him to found Happy Smiley, a blog – or safe space – that is purely for mental health activism.
Max created what is now called Happy Smiley years ago as a personal blog before deciding to turn it into a community called Our Happy Place, though he had to rebrand the name for legal reasons. The blog recently reached the milestone of thirty featured writers, who seem to be very enthused about sharing their stories – and listening to the stories of others. Happy Smiley works differently to lots of other blogs, in that it seeks to remove the disconnect between reader and writer: the goal is for people to share their own experiences and then give advice to others. A recent article on queer sex education is especially informative and interesting.
His long-term aim is to build his blog up as a brand and, eventually, write self-help books – to share his story and help others. He hopes that people read his book(s) not only because he has written it but also because of what he has to say.
Max has received a lot of positive feedback for the interactive and personal nature of his profile. Indeed, when chatting to him, I felt like I already knew him, because of the tone of his posts. Every day, he asks his followers – whom he terms “beautiful people” – how they are feeling on a scale from one to ten, before telling us how he is feeling. His sheer honesty, in which one day he says he’s an eight and the next a four, differentiates him from most social media users who seek to show the world only the positive aspects of their lives.
Interestingly, Max admits that his profile seems to have come to a bit of a halt recently, now that he has begun focusing more on fashion and art, as opposed to selfies and body pictures. So, whilst his anti-artifice approach to social media drew in thousands of followers, he still recognises the requirement of one to embrace some superficial aspects to have stellar growth and trajectory.
Max admitted that it can be frustrating how the things that he is most passionate about can be the things that do not get the most attention. This can be worrying for influencers, who need a source of income, just like people working more stable, less abstract jobs. However, it is something that he has learned to deal with, by focusing on what he does have, and the comfort that he can bring to others. That, in itself, is a reward.
A growing number of influencers have turned to OnlyFans – something which The Mancunion’s own Cara Conte wrote a fantastic piece about, in which she spoke to @rubexcubex for a better understanding.
I wanted to ask Max for his opinions on some of his fellow influencers’ foray into virtual sex work. “Sex work is still work”, he said eloquently, but acknowledged that it is a double-edged sword: whilst the vast majority of people watch and enjoy pornography, they often shame, demean, and degrade pornographic actors. Further, using your body as a form of income is time-limited: whilst OnlyFans can be lucrative and enticing, its users must acknowledge that looks fade, and in a shallow and superficial society, sex work becomes a short-term form of income.
But this goes beyond sex work: Max explained that even influencers who do not partake in OnlyFans have to establish a balance between both short-term (e.g. sponsorships) and long-term forms of income.
As well as being an influencer, Max is a full-time student in Media and Communications. He says that most people do not realise how much work goes into being a content creator, especially running a blog alongside his Instagram account. He recently interviewed dancer Sam Salter and has some big names – notable queer figures – coming up in the new year. He has admitted to finding it really tough, especially after having four months to dedicate himself entirely to his career but now being back at university. However, all of the modules that he is taking are to help him with his career.
A big downside to having such a large following is the increased pressures and scrutiny put upon you. This is especially the case for women and minorities. I am all too familiar with this – I’m no influencer, but all too often, when I express a bold opinion on social media, fellow users bring my race, ethnicity, and religion into the debate. So, I was curious to know how much worse it is for a member of a marginalised group – as established, Max identifies as queer – with a stellar social media following.
Having followed Max on Instagram for some time, I have witnessed his gradual embracing of his “feminine” side. A few months ago, he posted a beautiful photo in which he wore earrings. Whilst this received a positive reception from most of his followers, he was unfollowed by a shocking number of people.
He recently took part in a campaign for Phillips One Blade, where he made a TikTok video. In this video, he wore inoffensive grey nail varnish – which he termed “bland” and a “starter kit for wanting to experiment with gender.” When his video was pushed to a mass market, he received a horrific amount of homophobic abuse, which he struggled with, especially after being shielded by his social media “bubble”.
However, he has used his suffering as fuel and motivation for activism. I noticed that he had grown his nails and painted them a bold red – claws out, literally!
For all his defence of the queer community, Max is unafraid to criticise problems within it, for instance, the seldom discussed bigotry and discrimination that one sees all too much of on gay dating apps, such as Grindr.
Shortly after I interviewed Max, a tweet by Gustavo E Palisandro (@GEBP1988), a gay Latino man, went viral. Gustavo had been hit on by a White man who, after asking for more photos of him, responded, “sorry, I don’t do Indian.” Ironically, Gustavo is not even Indian; maybe this mistake came from the fact that he was wearing henna. Regardless, it is hilarious and hideous that this White man was attracted to Gustavo when he thought he was Greek but not when he thought he was Indian. There are all too many similar stories. A few years ago, Owen Jones wrote a fantastic piece on this topic for The Guardian.
Max also spoke aptly about the fetishisation and sexualisation in the queer community: whilst he thinks “queer” should be an umbrella term for the LGBTQIA+ community, many people in this community insist on specific, suppressive labels. This is especially true amongst some gay men, who divide themselves into subgroups, e.g. “twinks”, and will only date certain types of gay men – though some do find themselves desiring people-of-colour as a sexual fetish.
Max believes this is the fundamental problem in the gay community. Whilst this community is ostensibly accepting, racism and other forms of discrimination operate below the surface. One might argue that these subtle forms of discrimination are more insidious, because they are not immediately obvious, and thus harder to call out.
Of course, this is not merely a problem in the queer community: one of my first articles was a bold criticism of South Asian, Middle-Eastern, Arabian, and Islamic communities for their selective outrage on acts of discrimination. Speaking about his own community, Max passionately told me, “we’re a community, we’ve got enough hate as it is; we don’t need to hate each other and make things ten times worse”.
Something I really admire about Max is the fact that he does not fight solely for the communities that he is a part of. A White man who recognises White privilege, he has dedicated much of his social media content to fighting racism and White supremacy and has spoken openly in support of Black Lives Matter. But whilst he seeks to educate others, his activist journey has also been a learning experience for him: his followers are not afraid to let him know how he might word something better. I imagine this is because of Max’s indisputable friendliness, openness, and willingness to listen and learn.
I have no doubt that Max will excel in the long run as much as he is currently. Intelligent, eloquent, entertaining, and as lovely on the inside as he is on the out, his success as an influencer is really no surprise. I for one cannot wait to read the self-help book that he aspires to write, but in the meantime, I’ll find solace and comfort from his uplifting social media accounts.