Home Work Update


Home Work Update
Photo by Jacques Bopp / Unsplash

Need to catch up? Here's the first newsletter about how My friend's life was ruined* by a Magnolia Network Home Makeover. *made worse for quite awhile

I promised you a Home Work update last week. Here’s what happened.

I followed up on some leads, did more research and conducted a few interviews. Some of those interviews were done with people living in influenced spaces - homes flipped by home influencers. I reached out to several of those home influencers for comments/fact checking. One of them was Candis Meredith. Instead of responding with a statement, she said that she’d be happy to talk on the phone. We scheduled a phone call for last Saturday.

She emailed me before the phone call with some concerns. I understand being concerned. I  asked her if she’d like to do more than issue a statement? What if the piece expanded? What if it became about people living in influenced spaces and the people who build influenced spaces? I know that we often want a story with good guys and bad guys, but I felt very sure that story would produce neither. And that’s the kind of story I like to help tell.

Candis said she was very interested in that kind of story also. She also said she no longer had time to talk on Saturday, but wanted to be interviewed. I told her I was on a schedule, but could push everything back to Monday. She said that sounded great. She asked me to send her questions before the interview.

I know that many writers and journalists prefer to save their questions for the actual interview. This makes sense! An in the moment response is often going to reveal things a prepared response will not. But I am not an investigative reporter. I write about issues that are often hard to parse in the moment. I want people to have time to consider their responses and reactions to my ideas.

I am a naive idiot. Obviously.

So on Sunday, I sent her some questions and some prompts for our conversation. They were all fair and very interested in her story. I felt very optimistic! What could a piece like this mean for how we talk to and about each other? What if we could just have better discussions about influence? What healing could follow? I am a naive idiot. Obviously.

She sent me an email late Sunday night canceling the interview. She said she didn’t have time to prepare and that she was sorry my schedule wouldn’t allow more time.

When I got the email, I felt a little gaslit. I’d sent her questions to help her prepare. I’d already moved the phone call once to allow more time and a more in depth conversation. But ultimately, no one owes me an interview. And I am glad I tried. I sent her a few more questions she could answer over email. There’s been no response so far.

The piece had to shift again. Since I could not include her perspective, maybe I could learn more about a space before it was influenced. Old houses have many stories that don’t ever show up on IG Stories. I spent all day Monday and Tuesday crawling through public records. What I found didn't just shift the story, it upended it. I’ll be working on the research and reporting on what I found for the next little bit. When it’s exactly right, I’ll file it.

For now, a few thoughts about what the reaction to the Home Work story revealed.

(Imagine me standing beside a giant poster on wheels Fixer Upper-style. But instead of a house before a remodel,  It’s got a perfectly composed instagram influencer photo on it of whatever is most likely to influence you. And instead of revealing a gorgeously redone house, when I pull it away it reveals…a space so polluted with toxic influence nothing humane can sprout there for a thousand years.)

“Parasocial” is a term that gets thrown around a lot right now. It basically means a relationship that feels mutual but only exists on one side, usually through a screen. The concept has been around almost as long as television. Researchers in the 50s discovered that when TV broadcasters spoke directly to the camera, people watching often felt like they were developing an intimate relationship with the broadcasters. This kind of relationship requires regular viewing. Daytime talk shows were set up like living rooms to help facilitate parasocial relationships.. Here we are! Just sitting on couches together, chatting!  You’re more likely to keep watching a show every day if it feels like dropping in on a friend! You’re also more likely to purchase products advertised by a friend.

Home Work Update
Hey, Regis.

I stayed home sick a lot as a kid. I’d stretch out on the couch and watch Live with Regis and Kathy Lee. I ONE HUNDRED PERCENT had a parasocial relationship with Regis Philbin. He was like the weird, funny grandpa I wish I had. I imagined growing up to be interviewed by him. He’d know he should know me, “MEGGI!” I thought the hotel they advertised at the end of the show must be the most prestigious hotel in the world. “Guests of Regis and Kathy Lee stay at the Le Méridien…” I was going to stay there one day too.

If an hour of daytime TV can develop a parasocial relationship between a kid and Regis Philbin? Constant scrolling on social media can develop parasocial relationships between followers and influencers. I mean, influencers talk to us from their actual living rooms! Not even sets! On screens we hold in our hands! And they aren’t just interviewing celebrities, they’re sharing their most intimate moments. And so many of us are disconnected and isolated in so many ways. It’s been awhile since I had a dear friend who lived close enough for me to go plop down on their couch.

I think there are lots of people who find themselves missing that even when they do have friends physically close enough to visit. They’ve got too much work, too much care, too much overwhelming life to rest in their own homes let alone someone else's.  So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised I got outraged DMs from Andis and Candis’s followers after they published a response video to their client’s claims. Meredith Blake summed up the video pretty well in last week’s Los Angeles Times,

“...the Merediths tearfully responded to the women’s horror stories on their shared Instagram account. They claimed that an unwarranted internet pile-on had led to death threats and bullying. They admitted making mistakes but denied being consciously deceitful or using their clients’ money to foot a lavish lifestyle. They also shared a supposedly exculpatory video of Bennion squealing in delight at the sight of her finished kitchen."

They also claimed that their kids were being bullied because of the home renovation reveals. As a viewer of the video, this claim left me to choose with two equally unfathomable realities.

I don’t know which one is true, but I wish it was neither.

The first reality was that there are school age children invested in the home makeover community to such an extent they are harrassing other children. What were the taunts? “Your mom and dad can’t even finish a kitchen remodel!” What kind of parents are raising those children? The second reality is that two parents had a very publicly bad week at work and decided to pull their kids into it to soften the impact on their careers. This second reality feels more impossible to me than the first. Both options are bad and indict the adults in the kids’ lives. I don’t know which one is true, but I wish it was neither.

I was tagged in the Meredith post as one of the people who piled-on. They didn’t tag other journalists who wrote about the story for national publications like Today.com, Buzzfeed and People. It was an interesting exercise in Instagram influence. They have 140k+ followers on Instagram. I have about 15k. Their tag directed a stream of people who had never heard of me to my page.

Social media facilitates context collapse.

Social media facilitates context collapse. None of their followers knew exactly why the Merediths tagged me. My names was written next to the names of previous clients who came forward. They didn’t tag those people, they used their IG handles without the @. I was the only one actually tagged. Which means everyone tapped on my name because it was the only that was ummmm tappable. (Interestingly, this part of the caption has now been edited and my name no longer appears as tappable or untappable. I don't know when that change happened.) None of the people sending messages even seemed to know I am a journalist. They did not seem to know that I'd written one article about the story.

Instead they accused me of orchestrating an internet-wide bullying campaign. One woman thought I was a rival homefluencer jealous that I didn’t get a Magnolia show. Which is very funny if you've ever been in my home. And yeah, it was kind of a bummer to imagine the women sending the messages. Ah, she called me “a bitter bitch” at 2:30 pm on a weekday. Did she type that message while in line at the school pick up? Or was she on her way to a meeting, pressing send just as she walked into the office?  Did sending it make her feel better? I kind of hoped it did. And kind of hoped it didn’t. If that makes sense. One woman wrote that she hoped I felt good about making the Meredith kids cry. There’s no good response to that kind of message.

The DMs were passionate and personal. The Meredith’s followers felt like they were defending a friend they sit on the couch with every day. When you look at it that way, I kind of admire their restraint. What won’t we do for a dear friend?

Well, a dear parasocial friend. Influencers are not part of your relationship with them. And it’s impossible for them to even really try to be! Research by Dr. Robin Dunbar shows that humans are only capable of maintaining an average of 150 meaningful relationships. Dr. Robin Dunbardefines “meaningful” as, “those people you know well enough to greet without feeling awkward if you ran into them in an airport lounge.” It is beyond the scope of an influencer’s humanity to have a meaningful relationship with HUNDREDS of people, let alone hundreds of thousands.

Not all parasocial relationships are bad. Research demonstrates that both low-esteem and high-esteem people get energy from parasocial relationships. Which I think is true, because I definitely get some ummmm energy from my parasocial relationship with John Cho. (Oh my gosh, John. If you are reading this, I swear I am not bonkers. I just know we’d be really good friends! Call me! Or whatever!)

Home Work Update
He's waving at me...right?

I think we all have moments when we can finally see what kind of environment we’ve allowed ourselves to inhabit. For me, that response video was one of those moments. The reactions I got in its aftermath did not surprise me. The rancor I saw in response to Aubry’s story did kind of surprise me. Aubry is a single woman without children. She’s chosen her life and it’s a good one. Aubry is very, very upbeat. Meredith Blake called her IG account "relentlessly cheerful." Which made me laugh. Because...that's accurate! But in a lot of the commentary I saw, she was characterized as shrill, greedy and jealous. This was not how other married with children clients were characterized when they came forward with similar stories about the Merediths.

One homeowner is the mother of five children. While I saw Andy and Candis’s followers push back against her story, they still granted her the authority to tell it. In their online commentary, many framed it as a difference of perception, a simple misunderstanding or a shame that her experience didn’t work out. Her children and marriage somehow gave her the rights to make claims about what happened in and to her home. The Meredith’s reinforced this authority in their video by acknowledging her claims even while denying they were truly at fault.

In their video, the Merediths singled Aubry out as the person whose authority they were most eager to undermine. They did this with images and videos of her inside of her home. They repeatedly referenced their own children. For those looking for it, this created a story of a A Mother with Children Done Wrong by a Woman Without Children. This reinforced the narrative I saw spawning across the internet around the Merediths. The one that said, A single, childless woman lacks authority to correctly witness and relay what happens in her own home.

Well. Fuck that, you know?

When Aubry shared her Home Work wreck, she said she’d never share images of the kitchen Candis designed because it’d been too traumatic for her. The Merediths denied she had the right to make that decision for herself and her home when they shared video of her at her kitchen reveal. I truly hope other businesses don’t follow this precedent, “Oh you found a hair in your food and want a refund? WELL HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THIS PHOTO WE TOOK OF YOU SMILING AT THE WAITER AS YOUR ORDERED YOUR FOOD? ALSO WE'VE SHARED IT ONLINE TO PROVE OUR INNOCENCE.” Seems…not great.

When the Merediths revealed the kitchen to Aubry, she’d been cooking on a hot plate in a crowded guest bedroom for five months. She’d had an actual mental breakdown and broken out into hives. She’d shared evidence of all of this on Instagram. Of course she felt relief at the kitchen being finished when she saw it. She didn’t know it was all put together poorly or that the floors weren’t sealed. She didn’t know the deck they’d built in the backyard was going to cause flooding, and cost her $18k to fix. She was also being filmed. For TV. How often have I smiled for a camera when I felt like crying? Often!

I watched the Meredith response video several times. What did they hope to accomplish with it? There’s a lot of talk about intent, feelings, perception. Those things matter! But they’re context, not absolution. It’s not a video made to defend their professional ability to remodel homes. Nor did they seem keen on protecting the people they’d already harmed - obviously.

The Merediths seem to understand they’re not in the business of creating homes, they’re in the business of creating content from homes.  Why don’t we understand that?

Instead they seem to be defending and protecting their ability to create engagement and maintain influence. They offer up appearances - Aubry’s appearance in the video, the appearance of the kitchen - as evidence in their favor. They used Aubry’s home to create content. Then they used that created content as their defense. The Merediths seem to understand they’re not in the business of creating homes, they’re in the business of creating content from homes.  Why don’t we understand that?

Influencer capitalism depends on a blurring of the private and the public, the authentic and the commercial, the friend and the salesperson. I think this form of capitalism can exist in helpful forms, neutral forms, and harmful forms. But the platform influencer capitalism is built on is not helpful or neutral. Influencer capitalism only exists because social platforms depend on the repeat scrolls provided through parasocial relationships.

We come back again and again to connect with the influencers we care about. And with each scrolling return, our experiences are collected and turned into data. That data is used to nudge our behavior with algorithms that serve us more influence alongside targeted ads.

I wonder how many of us understand what we’re participating in when we tag, DM, and comment?

All those DMs I was getting? Those are all part of this economic ecosystem too. You can’t have a turbo-charged influencer capitalism without parasocial relationships. I wonder how many of us understand what we’re participating in when we tag, DM, and comment?

I didn’t just get DMs from Andy and Candis’s followers. My inboxes filled with stories, screenshots and filed lawsuits from people who’d interacted with them over the years. I don’t really know what to do with all of it. I didn’t seek any of it. And I am not going to publish it. This isn’t a home makeover wikileaks site. But deleting it all feels wrong too. What is my responsibility to those people in world built on top of social media? I don’t know. What are our responsibilities to each other in a world built on top of social media? Do we even care to know?

What are our responsibilities to each other in a world built on top of social media? Do we even care to know?

If you scroll back through the years of Candis and Andy’s home works, they get younger and younger. The photos become less staged. There’s one from 2014. Candis is kneeling on the floor of a house they’re flipping. They’ve discovered hardwood floors and she’s smiling really widely.  I’ve never met this woman but that photo gives me a quick pang.  Why can’t it be as simple and straightforward as that picture looks? A woman doing work she likes to do. The satisfaction of a revelation. A few people to witness it, in real life and online. And then back to work.

Of course, it’s not that simple. And I don’t even know if it was that simple in 2014. But it does seem like something changes in the years since then and now. As you scroll through the years, you can see the influence of Influence creeping in. It damages Andy and Candis. This whole thing has been so damaging to them!

Can we see our own damages when we scroll through our own years online?

I can.