Gig Economy – Anne Cooperstone
September 25, 2022
The guy who runs the Tik Tok Shade Room, a gossip page about teenage stars, hates dogs. Today, he picks up a hot girl wearing denim shorts that cleave her fleshy inner thighs, and her Bichon Frisé who steps with grubby paws all over the backseat of his personal-work vehicle. For thirty eight minutes he stops and starts on the 405, holding in his disdain, trying to ignore the frantic scuttling of canine nails against the glass of the car window. He delivers his passenger and her dog to the lip of the curb at one specific Ikea which, his passenger tells her phone, is rumored to have a warehouse of vintage lounge chairs and one ceramic terrine Nejlika kitchen set. He hardly waits for the click-swish-snap of her seatbelt unbuckling before he exits the car, wrenches open the back door, and inspects the puckered upholstery for dog-induced damage. He brings his face so close to the microfibers that they scratch his orbital bone, examines stray hairs for evidence of their origin—is there a way to tell the difference between a dog hair and a human hair, anyway, once its so far from the open follicle of its creation, that gaping pit of loss? When he can find nothing of note, he begrudgingly toggles her five stars and opens Instagram to check his shade account DMs.
He used to have to scroll all day and night to keep tabs on newsworthy items to post on his account, his eyes dry and unblinking in the blue light of dawn that filtered in through the dirty windows of his first Los Angeles apartment; build-a-block dances, memeifications of songs that were popular back when he was in high school, teary-eyed boys overlaid with threatening text about their fragile emotional psyches, underage girls twerking in bathing suits, boys in maid costumes, POV videos, POV your dad is in love with me and now I’m your step-mom, POV you accuse me of blackmailing you when really I was the one trying to save you, POV you catch me folding 1000 origami cranes, POV you find out it’s your destiny to marry royalty. He watched the climb of mundane teenagers to life-changing and incomprehensible fame, he watched Sylvester Stallone’s daughter get cancelled for wearing a hijab and woah-ing to the Aladdin soundtrack, he watched the POVs correct for their crucial misunderstanding of perspective by including fool-proof directives to read the lines in green if you want to be the girl who escapes her rapist’s basement and not the rapist himself.
But now his account is big enough that he doesn’t have to open Tik Tok ever again if he doesn’t want to, he can just scroll through the tips in his DMs and post whatever will drive the most traffic. Some DMs he deletes right away, ones that start with “Check out my new soundcloud…” or “I’m gonna kill myself if…” Others he recognizes immediately as meaningful: Munchonmybrains666 broke up with her boyfriend and now he’s posting shirtless videos from his bathroom. TamarBriar is using they/them pronouns and Elliot Page commented “so proud<3” and now HBO is in talks with Tamar’s manager for a first look deal.
When he first started the account, he thought it might be the first step to a career in gonzo journalism, that he might be like Hunter or Perez, Joan Didion even, actually invited to the parties he’s investigating, a welcome documentarian, known and loved by celebrity, not like that guy with the video camera who loiters outside the houses of Tik Tok conglomerates asking what they think of their ex’s new thirst trap. This was his passion, after all, or maybe a way out—what, he was supposed to be a gig driver forever? But he never quite figured out how to make money off of his page, let alone a name for himself. The editorial voice he worked so hard to cultivate became obsolete once the kids themselves started writing treatises in the comments. He’s almost 40 years old and his personal account is only in the triple digits. But so what if they don’t know his name? They still live on his kingdom, graze its supple plains while he sits high up in the mountains, sprinkling content-manna when he feels like it. This, he thinks as he scrolls, this is power. This is sovereignty in the age of the Internet.
Outside the Ikea he ignores a homeless woman holding up a cardboard sign right up against his car window, it says, GOD WON’T ABANDON YOU IF YOU REPENT. PLEASE, I AM TAKING CARE OF MY PREGNANT DAUGHTER. His DMs are gilded and dripping. So many of his followers are horny for unpaid labor. They want to be the one to give him something good, they want the clout of being mentioned as the extra reliable source. They make it so easy for him. He posts a screen recording of a Tik Tok a follower sent him, a girl making baby-faces in front of a ring light, overlays it with a screenshot of a thirsty comment from another Tik Toker with a micro-famous girlfriend. He outlines the comment in red and composes a caption: “#cadycandy posts a thirst trap and #brodychevron responds enthusiastically. Guess he and #Mona are on the rocks…if they weren’t before, they are now. #like #follow #subscribe #tiktokroom #shaderoom #TSRtiktok. Thanks @kingdongalert4 for the tip.”
He closes the app and puts his phone back on his dash. He drives the maze of the Ikea parking lot, aiming for the freeway. Now that his post is out of the way, he has time for other more important things. Now he goes to his house in Inglewood and trades his car for his helmet and mopeds to Artie’s pizza. He delivers three pies two doors over to a user with a doorman who instructs him to leave the food on the floor. He drives to Encino and puts together a chaise lounge in the living room while the customer argues with Tucker Carlson on the flat screen. He delivers a rib cheesesteak from Arby’s to a tanning salon in Marina Del Ray. He likes it this way, he thinks as he puts on his helmet, a heavy orange orb with an Apple sticker on its rear. He doesn’t answer to anyone, not like at those desk jobs he used to work with the call logs and restaurant reservations, he’s not a serf for the professional managerial class, he has no boss besides God, he’s not responsible for anything besides this chicken teriyaki for as long as it takes to get from here to the door. He drops his moped at home and checks his notifications from behind the wheel of his Prius. The post is blowing up, there are like thousands of replies and so many shares, probably because Mona commented, “Brody? Never heard of him.” Later, he’ll be able to turn that comment itself into a whole new post, a self-referential economy of which he is the invisible hand.
It’s nighttime now. He gets a surcharge notification and accepts a pickup in the Hills. He pulls his emergency break on a slope outside the house, one in a line of many Priuses. Kids trickle down the dark driveway like a slow motion stampede and open car doors in near synchronicity. He is filled with so much loathing for these teenagers that it takes everything in him not to mow them down one by one with his eco-friendly hybrid. How did mediocrity become the prerequisite for celebrity? How come he didn’t get free stuff when he was their age and just as mediocre, how come he didn’t get to party with other more beautiful kids, how come he spent his teenage years mopping up the cafeteria because he brought a samurai sword to school, once, for a presentation in world history? Everything in him tightens with hatred and despair. He was born too early. These kids don’t know how lucky they have it.
And then his car door opens. He recognizes her signature bottle red pigtails. She’s so familiar to him, like an old friend or a memory, that he wants to reach out and embrace her, tell her how long it’s been. The loathing sheds like a sheet removed, his insides unfurl, he is overcome with conviction for the yet unfulfilled promises of fate.
“For Tennifer?” She asks only once she’s closed the door behind her.
“Yes,” he breathes. “Yes.”
He looks at her in the rearview, her spandexed body, her diamond-shaped face. Her skin looks eerily like skin, a tight sac of flesh wrapped around muscle and bone. He posted just yesterday about a Tik Tok she made, renouncing the drugs she was rumored to have been on, her recommitment to Jesus’s path. She’s from Kentucky, he knows. She made it rich unboxing and reviewing hair care products. She’s good at it, too. A few months ago, he bought the hair-loss pills she was paid to try on her old, bare-bodied poodle. Glancing at his reflection now, he thinks there’s a difference.
As she settles in the backseat, he can’t shake the feeling that he knows her, not just from his screen but from somewhere beyond it, a metaphysical plane on which their connection is indelible and meaningful. They make eye contact in the mirror, and for a moment it’s as if she feels it, too. His post must have driven traffic to her account; could she sense here in this car that he was responsible for some errant followers, some hundreds of likes?
“Could you listen to Google Maps exactly?” Tennifer says, gesturing toward his phone with her own. “They have the best software for traffic and stuff.”
He nods and takes off through the canyon, the dark pressing in on them from all sides, only their faces illuminated by their phones as his box of metal chugs them through the inky chasm. He watches through the rearview as she scrolls. He knows what types of videos she’s watching just based on the sound. Transition video, montage of old pictures before the glow-up, a dreamy voice instructing viewers how to shift realities. Does he even have to say that this is what he’s been waiting for? That this could be the moment of his becoming? It’s me! he wants to scream, The Tik Tok Shade Room! But his voice locks in his throat. How can he say something from the driver’s seat, anyway, without being accused of harassment, lechery? So many girls with followings endangered by their Uber drivers. They’d cancel him in no time, they’d say he tried to touch her, they’d say he pulled over into a dark ditch and knocked her out cold and stretched her young elastic limbs into a selfie pose and posted from her account, “POV your Uber driver abducts you and now you’re posting it for some yum yum daddy clout.” But how could he let this opportunity slip by? He is a fatalist and this is kismet.
“I think I know you,” he says when there are eight minutes left until her destination. “From Tik Tok.”
“Oh,” Tennifer says. She makes brief eye contact with him in the mirror and then looks back down at her phone. “Yeah.”
“Maybe you know me too,” he says. He pulls to the shoulder as an ambulance flies by and then pulls out again. “You know the account the Tik Tok shade room? Like the shade room, but Tik Tok drama? That’s me. I’m a journalist. I run the account.”
Tennifer puts down her phone. She’s alert, now, staring at his phantasm in the rearview. He smells her flowery deodorant intensify with the dampening of her pits. After a moment so pregnant with potential he thinks he might cry, she says, “Aren’t you, like, a grown man?”
He swallows. “I wasn’t always,” he says. She doesn’t respond. He wants to nose-dive off a cliff, he wants to take her by her fragile neck and scream so loud in her face that she’s no better than he is, that her shitty endorsements make her look like a sell-out and a corporate mule. He longs for days bygone when it was still appropriate to talk to the person in your backseat, before the micro-influencers, before the crusades, before artists were forced to perform their worst song at concerts so their fans wouldn’t say “she didn’t play the one song I came for, she doesn’t care about me at all.” And just because all the famous people happen to be teenagers, now, everyone who indulges in the culture is a pedophile, a creep? What happened to child labor laws, what happened to art? This was their world now, this was the techno-Renaissance: banal teenagers talking to their phones, a congregation on the public feed, so many mass followings, so many pulpits from which teenagers may deliver their sermons. So many singular billion dollar industries unto themselves. So many adults churning through the hot heaps of garbage for the gold. God forbid he want some of that parasocial bounty. Could he really be penalized for lapping at the dregs of this machine?
And then there’s a bright, white flash in his eyes. “Not my Uber driver running the Tik Tok shade account,” Tennifer says, her acrylic nails gripping his head rest. She’s recording a Tik Tok.
“Stop it,” he says. He swats her phone away and then, panicked, apologizes swiftly, “I didn’t mean to push it, it’s just the light, I can’t see, I’m driving, it’s unsafe.”
“You’re good, bro,” she says. She types on her screen and her lips gesture toward a smile, like she’s too busy for the full monty. “This is gonna blow up.” The sound of her laugh grates against his ear drums. “You really run a shade account?”
“Like the most popular one,” he says, but his defense is futile, there is no saving himself in a world without God, or where God is an app.
“I can hop out right here,” she says, gesturing toward a house of concrete rectangles behind a tall plexiglass gate. There are motion sensors which blast light into the car and there is no hiding the abject shame on his face, the detritus of a corrupted ideal. He stares straight ahead, over the lumps of his knuckles on the steering wheel, into the fog and exhaust whose particles mingle in front of his headlights, complicated and precise like a ballet. Tennifer looks behind her into the body of the car to check for lost items. She sees his sad expression and in a moment of Christian kindness says, “Hey, I can tag you in the comments if you want?”
He turns to look at her with a face like a dog caught with a bloody rabbit in its jaws, a domesticated pet shocked to have encountered the shameful beast buried in its lineage and even more so to become it. Tennifer flinches, his body is so bummed out and limp. He gives a nearly imperceptible nod of affirmation, yes, please tag me, please God tag me, and dutifully she tags him in the comments below.
“This will get you, like, so many followers,” she assures him before waving gamely and skipping toward the gate. He counts ten, twenty, one hundred seconds before opening his phone. He stares at himself in her video which plays again and again like a tape skipping. He examines his squinting eyes, his skin so rubbery and old beside hers, his arm like a mallet as it pushes the phone away. When he can’t take it anymore, he turns his phone off and drives south. He tries to remember what he had been hoping for, telling her about his account like that. To siphon some of her fame for himself? It sounds so silly to him now. That’s not how these things happen, he knows. It takes many meetings, many instances of fortune being kind for people to rise to their callings.
He’s lost. The hills are tremendous oscillating shadows. A truck comes careening from nowhere and nearly drives him off the road. A coyote yowls. He turns his phone on, seeking directions and deliverance. A smattering of dings greet him. So many notifications. So many new followers. A spasm of hope overtakes him. His hand shakes on the gear shift as he stops and starts on the highway, back on track to home. This was only the beginning, and it happened so organically. Surely there was more to come. He thinks of his face in her video which hundreds of thousands of people will see. How many of them are putting his face to his account now? How many pickups until someone recognizes him from her video, instead of the other way around? Singled out and promoted by Tennifer—God bless Uber! There is hope yet! He feels his future in his haunches. He can almost taste it, fresh and sour at the tips of his teeth.