Multi-Level Marketing: How To Lose Friends And Alienate People
Sam, The Proud Boys Whisperer
In 2020, after leaving the nonprofit sector, I started my own independent consulting business. I’m happy to announce that my first research contracts have been able to support my community-building efforts with my group, Glitterpill, while my patrons’ contributions have supported OSINT Tracking and public scholarship. It is how I have been able to remain a public academic and talk about the issues that matter without limiting the range of topics I can discuss. I don’t shy away from the mistakes I’ve made, and I see them all as an opportunity to learn.
This is likely one of them.
My first experience with multi-level marketing was being contacted after a Facebook post a few years ago. I stated how miserable my cold was making me feel. I remember pining for fresh ginger tea, too sick to stand up and make it. A woman in my dance community reached out in a private message and said, “I saw you were sick! I hope you get well soon!” I hadn’t interacted with her much, so I thanked her for her surprisingly kind concern. I was immediately met with, “I have these essential oils for sale that could help!” I felt incredibly turned off by that approach and what I felt, represented a complete absence of authenticity.
Now about how I got into this whole thing. I social dance. Not lately, but it’s hard. We’re social people. We’ve all be missing our dance community and our teams. I recognize how different we all are, but I’ve always been grateful that we have this shared group activity that brings us joy. We don’t have that right now. In an effort to re-connect with my teammates, I signed up for a hair product line within a multi-level marketing company. It was one of those instances where taking my researcher hat off could have better connected me to my teammates, but my sense of moral obligation and/or self-righteousness did not let me. I wore it as a sign of pride, and later, become convinced that I could “help” my teammates recognize that they were involved in a pyramid scheme.
It would not be this simple.
I also wanted to entertain the possibility that I could remain authentic, even in the context of a multi-level marketing structure.
And boy did I ever.
I lost friends in the most authentic way possible. Being myself.
Despite my best intentions, my plan to “De-[insert hair product]” my teammates horribly backfired. The determining factor of my failed mission was the cockiness in my approach.
Now, before going forward, you have to understand a few things about me.
I am in an area of research that sometimes involves offering opposing viewpoints to dissuade people from embracing an ideology that is contingent on the dehumanization of others. I also have two pretty salient triggers rooted in my dysfunctional upbringing: I hate seeing people be exploited and manipulated. I have also found myself in countless situations where I was expected to fix or volunteered to fix situations for the wellbeing of my family and others.
One more additional note going forward: Taking ownership of other people’s problems is a trauma response. It is a residual effect of surviving a dysfunctional upbringing and it takes considerable effort to break away from,
It should in no way be considered an asset, like empathy.
Before we move on, I’d like to share one thing I’ve learned from therapy: When you take ownership of other’s problems regularly, you fail at allowing them to learn and do right by and for themselves. You also set yourself up for being in codependent relationships and becoming what I call “predator bait.” It’s not good for relationships. It’s not good for friendships, and it’s not good for life.
So, with all that in mind…I wanted to belong and share an activity with my teammates that didn’t require us to meet in person. I saw their social media posts, reached out to one of my favorite people in the community, and signed up.
When I became a market partner or (MP) I was met with suspicion from my brother who said, “Sam, you are a brilliant researcher. When you share hair products, it’s going to confuse people.” This dovetailed my roommate’s research on the company where he said “What kind of Amway shit is this?” I didn’t give their concerns much attention. At this point, I still thought I could make it my own thing. I would later on.
When the hair product came I was very excited, even jokingly pushing back at my roommate’s opinion. I held my box, grinned excitedly, and said, “Look…my pyramid scheme!”
I thought back to my reaction to my brother’s words, which he reiterated again. First, there was defensiveness, “I just want people to feel confident about their hair!” Followed by bargaining, “Maybe I will just passively showcase the products I like and see who responds,” followed by acceptance, after watching John Oliver video on Multi-Level Marketing that my roommate put on.
Now, at the time I saw this LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER video, I was in the hair product line private group chats. Hundreds of messages flooded in daily. Siren emojis met with other siren emojis announcing new sales or sales goals, people sharing screenshots of new members they signed up as market partners, links to zoom meetings, etc. A mixture of toxic positivity, with little glimmers of desperation and uncertainty about “reranking” for the month.
The first meeting I attended was on lawsuits, specifically theirs. Something did not quite gel with me. In the comments section of the video chat, I emphasized the importance of transparency in describing the product ingredients that people may be allergic to (some of the claims within the lawsuit centered around a chemical that makes the product foam up and could relate to hair loss).
Now, I noticed something that my teammates may have been inclined to overlook. Within the numerous messages were pre-packaged statements on to respond to accusations of the company being a pyramid scheme.
I could not take off my researcher hat here.
This pre-emptive framing was too familiar to me. It is how some of my far-right research participants were primed to dismiss their detractors. It is how far-right leaders broke potential recruit’s trust in their existing social networks. “They’re going to tell you it’s bad to be white,” “Hold your own and know what you stand for.” Or the ever-present… “[x] happened because…all women are like this.”
That was the connection I made when I saw these messages (and their all too familiar framing), which solidified my intent to explain it to them.
Now, my teammates are not research participants, and I was not forthcoming in my plan to break through the insular messaging of the multi-level marketing group structure. From my perspective, as someone who gets paid to know things, I knew I could not simply introduce John Oliver’s video into this space. It would be dismissed immediately. I had to frame it in a way that made people, particularly my teammates, receptive to watching it.
And if this was to be done right, I could not tell them until after.
As you might be able to tell, this was problematic for several reasons. My solution was to frame it as a way to empower themselves in their business by being able to develop the skill of tolerating opposing viewpoints. This was a sincere goal. This was also where I decided I to not be tied to any outcome and if it did help strengthen their business I would have been happy for them. I also entertained the possibility that as they grappled with the evidence presented by John Oliver about Multi-Level Marketing, they might be less inclined to continue with the company. I was not tied to an outcome, and looking back, I can see how that made me a chaos agent of sorts.
Additionally, I thought, who was I, as a fash fatigued teammate, to suggest to them how they live their lives or earn their money? I think back to my conversation with my roommate the first time we watched “Wild Wild Country.” Having been raised by a parent who subscribed to the ideology of the Rajneesh/Osho, he said, “Even if the leaders at the top were corrupt and terrible, that didn’t mean that the people invested in the community were awful and terrible.”
On the contrary.
His understanding was that the group did something for them, and that joy it brought them could have been pure, even if the larger organizational structure they existed in was corrupt and predatory, something mocked expertly and relentlessly here.
And if these products brought them joy, then who was I to essentially rob them of that by presenting a perspective that could disillusion them?
This was a perspective I developed later, before our first and last “strategy call.” I was still somewhat arrogant and cocky and convinced I was doing the right thing, a reflection of my inability to demarcate a boundary between my research and my personal life.
My friend and teammate, someone I confided in shared our private conversation when I was at my most arrogant. This became the image they associated with me going into our call.
Right before the strategy call, one of the upper-level leaders reached out to me. In a few short conversations, she said she was “not about” people spreading negativity. Then, without my prompting, she brought up lawsuits, saying the volume of lawsuits against the company was a sign of how successful they were, and evidence of how much people hated their success. I was unaware of multiple lawsuits at the time. Going through other Reddit threads of people sharing their experiences with the products, I came to the following conclusion: If your hair begins to fall out, that has little to do with hate and more about wanting compensation for damages.
We had the strategy call where I encountered everyone’s perspective. The person who said yes to the call, the girl who signed me up as an MP, was not able to attend. I thought it ended on a hopeful note and I was willing to remain with the company as long as there were no adverse side effects that had been mentioned.
Around this time, I had noticed other posts on Facebook from members in my community vaguely referencing negativity about the business, about not making a spectacle of things, about the difference between constructive criticism and sensationalism. I did not yet know the people who were posting were referring to me.
The call went…well and after, I spoke with the girl who invited me to be a part of the company. She said she felt betrayed and did not like childish games, and that she would keep a distance from me. I tried to tell her about multi-level marketing companies predominately targeting Hispanic communities. There are case studies to support this.
I also brought up the added harms of including selling tips like “If your friends have excessive credit card debt, this company could be a perfect business investment for them!” When I presented her with this information, it was interpreted as me accusing her of engaging in this predatory behavior, which I know she and none of my teammates would ever do.
Looking back with a few weeks of distance, I can see my earnest desire to help. I can also see the intrusiveness of wanting to help and how my arrogance was the sole factor that ultimately eroded the trust of my teammates.
As the nation is on the verge of another lockdown, I fear the resurgence of multi-level marketing, exploiting the great qualities of others, pressuring vulnerable people looking for community and support, and encouraging the monetization of friendships to meet personal and company sales goals. I say this recognizing this is not the intent of many who join, but it is built into the structure of these organizations that prioritize that model to sustain themselves.
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So as a researcher, the intended effect occurred, and a few teammates watched, but at the cost of my friendships to them, at least in the immediate future.
Samantha is an independent research consultant and a research fellow at Khalifa Ihler Institute. She is the author of Swiping Right: The Allure of Hyper Masculinity and Cryptofascism for Men Who Join the Proud Boys. Samantha provides threat assessment presentations based on her ethnographic field research with Proud Boys and Antifascists and has consulted law enforcement, media, and universities. Her most recent research insights have appeared in KNPR, Truth or Fiction, and Yah Na Pasaran. Reach out to her on Twitter @ashkenaz89 and soon, here.