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Want to understand every 2020 fiasco? You need to revisit Fyre Fest

There’s a little bit of what went wrong with Fyre Fest in every huge public failure of 2020. Oftentimes, more than a little.

Want to understand every 2020 fiasco? You need to revisit Fyre Fest
[Photos: Hulu (Fyre Fraud); Flickr user Gage Skidmore (Bloomberg); D. Myles Cullen/The White House/Flickr (Pence); World Travel & Tourism Council/Wikimedia Commons (Katzenberg)]

Last weekend, The Daily Beast ran a juicy political exposé—one that might come accompanied by popcorn-eating gifs were the subject matter not so serious.

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The story involves Dude Where’s My Car? co-star Ashton Kutcher joining forces with a consortium of Utah “tech bros” to provide COVID-19 testing for the Nebraska government. As the article alleges, the TestNebraska initiative ended up falling way short on its promises, with a too-low percent positive rate that suggests the tests may be faulty as well as too few and far between. Yikes!

There used to be a variety of terms to describe such situations. Trainwreck. Snafu. Flustercluck.

Of course, now there is a more precise phrase for summing up any public fiasco, and it is the one that ultimately graced the headline of the above story: ‘Fyre Fest of Coronavirus Testing’.

In just a few years, the epic scam majesty of Fyre Fest has turned into a prophetic vision of a world mired in deceit, incompetence, and constant social media distortion. The deluded spirit of “let’s just do it and be legends” has possessed every doomed project since Billy McFarland, an apex predator of tech vulturepreneurs, orchestrated a luxury music festival that descended into Lord of the Flies territory.

Although the colossal failure of Fyre Fest was already the subject of two competing documentaries in 2019, sometimes it feels as though the year 2020 itself is another very long, real-time post-mortem of the disaster. Just about everything that has gone horribly wrong this year shares one or more of the four key elements that made Fyre Fest such a black swan event.

Ill-conceived from the start

One of the less-discussed aspects of Fyre Fest is that it was a bad idea from the very beginning.

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In the Netflix documentary, FYRE, we see the business plan evolve from an app that lets users book talent for events into a luxury music festival in the Bahamas. Neither of these ideas seems particularly profitable. The key to successful tech ventures is solving problems people didn’t realize they had, but exactly whose problems boil down to “Coachella not fancy enough” or “need Ja Rule at quinceañera”?

Presumably, some people have those problems, but enough for McFarland to get rich from them? No way. Not even if the launch went perfectly.

Similarly, some viewers might see the 12-minute runtime on Adult Swim shows like Joe Pera Talks with You and scream, “This show’s way too long! What am I, made of time?”

But not enough to necessitate Quibi.

Jeffrey Katzenberg’s dream of rolling out a new streaming platform with “quick bites” of content—no, a new medium of entertainment itself, as Katzenberg outlined in the app’s CES preview—were dashed weeks after its April debut when Quibi was roundly rejected by the world, in a spew of quick barf. (QuiBa.)

As with Fyre Fest, Quibi raised a lot of eyebrows with its roster of talent, which included Kevin Hart, Anna Kendrick, Chance the Rapper, and Chrissy Teigen. Maybe the idea of a phone-only platform designed to be consumed in six-minute commute chunks sounded wack and antithetical to viewing trends, but on the other hand: Reno 911 revival!

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With Katzenberg and company dropping money in Brewster’s Millions-like fashion—the company has raised $1.8 billion to date—it seemed possible that Quibi could conceivably overcome its core deficiencies.

It could not, however, and the project is now on its way to losing half a billion dollars.

If it sounded familiar when Katzenberg recently claimed that the only reason Quibi hasn’t yet clicked is the coronavirus, it’s probably because Billy McFarland similarly claimed that Fyre Fest only failed because of inclement weather. Neither can bring themselves to claim ownership of the petard on which they’ve been hoisted.

Over-reliance on cynical social media strategy

In the Netflix documentary, McFarland is caught on camera candidly admitting, “We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser.”

The way that he accomplished this predatory goal was with a lot of money and a cynical social media strategy.

The Fyre team pumped tons of cash into creating an ad that gave the impression supermodels like Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski would be chilling in random Fyre bungalows doing keg stands with daiquiris. They paid Kylie Jenner a disgusting sum of money just for some piddling promotional Instagram posts. (And she ultimately faced a lawsuit over it.) All of this so that the average social media user could imagine themselves flaunting similarly fabulous lives if they just ponied up for Fyre Fest.

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This influencer-abetted strategy is cold and calculating . . . and it worked.

So did the digital arm of Mike Bloomberg’s presidential bid. At least until it didn’t.

Part of the media blitzkrieg of the most expensive presidential campaign in history involved non-stop TV and Facebook ads, but it also included paying some users $2,500 a month to post flattering social media posts about their new favorite presidential candidate. In addition to using “philanthropic” donations to secure endorsements from mayors, Bloomberg’s campaign made it look as though there was a groundswell of support from everyday folks.

Just as Fyre reached out to the meme-thieves at FuckJerry to pitch in on its campaign, Bloomberg recruited an outfit called Meme2020 to blast out ironic “shitposts” in a misguided appeal to 4Chan-groomed Zoomers.

While all that effort and money put some measure of wind in Bloomberg’s sails, the campaign predictably crashed and burned in humiliating fashion at start of the primaries.

Woeful bungling of logistics

Of course, the Iowa caucus ended up being its own separate nightmare.

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Remember how there was no winner declared on the night of the first—and what many consider most important—opportunity for voters to express their presidential preference? And how the eventual winner, Pete Buttigieg, was declared victorious under suspicious circumstances?

The whole debacle was a huge embarrassing failure for the Democratic National Committee, enabling Donald Trump to score easy points by pointing out his opposition’s ramshackle operation.

Why did it happen? As CNN put it: “The entire reporting process for gathering and tallying precinct voting results appears to have been mired in widespread technical and operational breakdowns.” From faulty apps to a lack of backup plans, the Iowa primary demonstrated a woeful bungling of logistics.

Sloppy execution was also one of the defining traits of Fyre Fest, embodied by those hurricane rescue tents in lieu of luxury villas, shoddy transportation arrangements, and of course, that infamous cheese sandwich. Not to mention the fact that every single band booked for Fyre pulled out, some of them citing the threadbare nature of the whole setup.

After that first primary, it was understandable if certain Iowa voters had as much faith in the DNC as Blink-182 had in the Fyre organizers.

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A failure to manage expectations

“Before we had the worst luck, we had the best luck,” McFarland says, nonsensically, at one point in the Hulu documentary, Fyre Fraud. “So many things had to go right to make it this big of a failure.”

If the CEO of Fyre, currently serving a six-year prison sentence for wire fraud, seems terrible at spin after the fact, he was exactly as terrible in the lead-up to the festival. People just didn’t notice at the time (except for the ones who did), because nobody could reasonably expect a festival organizer to brazenly misrepresent the slapdash nature of the proceedings.

That same brand of disorganization and deceitful spin has been on display all throughout 2020, in the White House’s coronavirus task force.

From the moment Trump threw Mike Pence at the problem of protecting America from the virus in late February, the White House has provided one lofty promise after another. (When it wasn’t pushing $69 million ventilator contracts toward random fraudsters tweeting at Trump, or asking eventual task force member Jared Kushner’s extended family to crowdsource response suggestions from doctors on Facebook.)

First, there was going to be drive-thru testing like South Korea implemented. That never happened.

Then we were going to get 100,000 ventilators in 100 days. That didn’t happen either.

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After that, Trump announced the country would be open and “raring to go” by Easter, because he liked the religious symbolism of that date. The country is now only just getting started re-opening, and warily at that.

Trump, speaking on behalf of the task force, has claimed again and again that we’ll have a vaccine by the end of 2020. Much of the scientific community disagrees, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who insists instead that it’s “very likely” we’ll get a vaccine within a year to 18 months.

Despite all of these messaging failures that have kept people continually disappointed, and despite the U.S. leading the world in mortality, Kushner recently declared his efforts “a great success story,” just as Trump announced he would be winding down the task force soon, its mission apparently accomplished.

Testing has indeed ramped up significantly under the task force’s watch, leading the world in sheer volume, if not in the amount of testing relative to population.

But what the coronavirus task force has mainly done, though, is sell a pipe dream to the average loser about being in good hands during a crisis.

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