What does it mean to ‘be kind’? After former Love Island host Caroline Flack passed away at the weekend, this has been the refrain across social media, repeated and shared over and over again.
These words were in a post made by Flack herself, talking about mental health, late last year. For many, the presenter’s own call for empathy seemed an appropriate – and eerily prescient – response as the news broke on Saturday evening.
Regular viewers of the show speak of the comfort of relaxing with it for an hour every night; over time, they become fond of the contestants, their character arcs and quirks, and often in-jokes and new phrases enter common use. It has sparked conversations on abuse and consent. When the winter season was announced, it felt like overkill, but its saturated colour has warmed the gloomy winter evenings of late winter. Like any structured reality show, there are fights and upsets, but watching has become a ritual for thousands of viewers, some of whom say it has been good for their own mental health to switch off and connect with it each night, folding the dozen constestants into the rhythm of their evenings. This familiarity is what made the news so shocking.
After the deaths of two former contestants by suicide, Flack is the third person linked to the show to have died within two years. Some have called for the show to end, blamed the press, or social media abuse, of which, certainly, there is a lot. By all accounts, Flack was also in a difficult place in her personal life, with a court appearance for the assault of her ex-partner looming. It was this incident which saw her removed, apparently temporarily, as host of the current season of Love Island. There was a lot going on that viewers were party to, but the certainty with which any one factor is pointed to by outsiders is quite telling.
Dependent on constant attention
Of course, it’s helpful to recognise patterns. The UK has a mental health crisis in general. The press hounding that continues post-Leveson now operates in tandem with relentless, 24/7 online scrutiny. There is a sense that the influencer boom has already peaked, an unsustainable income stream even for those at the top, many of whom have branched into branded product ranges, diversifying their income stream before the bubble bursts. There are stories of Youtubers who started young and hit big before the current crop of Instagram stars rose up, now open about burning out, taking the production and performance skills they taught themselves and seguing to management of their fellow online stars or making marketing content.
Such careers are dependent on constant online attention. Flack was a presenter, but for TV wannabes that’s often no longer the end goal. Love Island is a fast track to profitable influencer status, with contestants typically moving in such circles before plucked, already building and monetising online popularity. They return to this work afterwards, having been boosted by the TV appearance to ultimately land more online sponsorship deals.
But outside of the influencer-reality TV star niche, personal brand building has become rife. It’s seen as part and parcel of getting ahead, particularly for those aspiring to fame, creative careers or journalism. The problems of an attention economy aren’t only reflected in celebrities at the sharpest, most lurid end, but can be glimped in average citizens giving away their personal lives to keep pace with peers in the modern day.
A real person
Doing what you love was once the career mode for millenials, encouraged into unhealthy working atmospheres with poor work-life balance, their passions exploited in unpaid internships with the perks of a pool table or beer fridge. The sheen of that has worn off, more often seen for what it is. For younger generations, ‘do what you love’ has shifted to ‘be who you are’, as personal lives become synnonymous with earning ability, social media companies profit from us as walking adverts, and the boundaries between private and public erode in the interest of monetisation.
There is a lot to be concerned about when examining the pressures faced by anyone in the public eye, and how we now, through social media, automatically opt in. If we are to seriously understand this problem, individuals being kind to one another is a nice sentiment, but doesn’t really cut it. It doesn’t take into account how audience-chasing media companies profit from high engagement and high emotions; how little incentivised they are to turn the temperature down, how public discourse has followed suit, how this has all impacted on the way in which we communicate with each other, human to human.
Caroline Flack was a real person, with complexity and an inner life the public knows nothing about. Many have forgotten salacious tabloid detail and online existence are not the entirety of a person.
Often knee-jerk accusations link the death to pre-existing pet peeves or causes. To draw a neat parallel between suicide and any one external factor is to reduce the individual to an avatar. In this instance, that manifests not in booing or cheering entertainment personalities, but making an unqualified call on someone’s cause of death. Some responses to Flack’s death calling for bans of this or that enact the phenomenons they blame – the reduction of public discourse to labelling any entity good or bad, social media gavels coming down on right or wrong, reducing the complexity of death and mental health to simple factors.
If only it was that simple. But people are not that simple; not only in this instance, but across the board. The shapes we contort ourselves into, in order to push ourselves into a society that demands immediacy, bluntness and spectacle, are increasingly uncomfortable.
If we are to be kind, perhaps it should begin personally, by taking small steps of resistance to social and economic demands for our constant public performance, and to accept that some things have the right to be complicated or unknown, including ourselves.