Mathias Levi Toft Kristiansen takes the page 99 test

My dissertation is about how middle-class people in the United States economize their everyday life to get economic security. Ethnographically, I focus on two groups of Americans who participate in network marketing. Network marketing is a form of sales in which participants earn money by selling products to customers and recruiting new salespeople to their networks. Network marketing companies primarily attract college-educated Americans who get involved through their social ties: friends, family, co-workers, and their local communities. I found that mundane aspects of network marketers’ daily life – social encounters, routines, and modes of self-representation – became saturated with a capitalist economic logic. They financialized social relationships, imagined “smarter” ways of making money, such as income without working and told confessional life stories as a sales pitch. They did this as a response to a large-scale economic restructuring from post-war regulated capitalism to neoliberal capitalism that has created intense economic insecurity and inequality for many people in the United States. 

Page 99 of my dissertation is part of chapter 4 and is actually representative of the dissertation. On page 99, I focus on a widespread convention among the network marketers with whom I spend time. They presented personal stories to audiences of potential customers as a marketing convention called “testimonies”. These stories followed a rags-to-riches style script, in which the marketers recounted how they struggled physically, financially and emotionally before becoming network marketers. They claimed that their struggles were resolved after participating in network marketing because of the healing effects of dietary supplements they consumed and sold and the income they had earned.

I argue that such practices manifest the expansion of market activity into increased spheres of American’s everyday life so that everyday life becomes a transactional site of buying and selling goods and services. New aspects of everyday life are becoming included and even necessary for market transaction under neoliberal capitalism. Those new aspects include personal stories and traumatic experiences, so that “how I feel and felt,” “what happened to me,” “how I view the world,” and “what my upbringing and family looks like” are becoming instruments for selling.

Page 99

The network marketers’ testimonies were often very confessional and sometimes evoked strong emotional reactions as they teared up and sobbed telling them. They talked openly about their struggles, weaknesses, and tragedies. Some of the marketers’ testimonies also included recounting experiences of depression, death of family members, cancer affecting their children, and suicidal thoughts.

 At the “Sip and Freedom Parties”, Rick and Susan would sometimes video record and live-stream the testimonies on Facebook. When this happened, the stories became public material within their sales and social networks to comment on and for other marketers to share as a way to sell products or recruit new customers. The online circulation of other marketers’ testimonies (without asking for consent) in NatureRise’s chat rooms or to potential customers was a common practice among the marketers I came to know.

Furthermore, NatureRise itself produced hundreds of testimonies with marketers, which they made publicly available on a YouTube channel during my research. Some of those videos were professionally made and featured the testimonies of many of the top income earners. The videos followed Paige’s story structure, described earlier in this chapter. For example, one video featured Elizabeth, a white NatureRise top earner who had trained the San Francisco marketers I knew at the NatureRise University event in Nevada. The video was produced by NatureRise and appeared on Elizabeth’s public YouTube channel.

It began by showing Elizabeth sitting in her living room. She had long blonde hair and wore a floral dress. Her fingernails were painted maroon and matched the flowers on her dress and the curtains behind her. Elizabeth smiled, as she began speaking and looked down at her hands and said: “So, growing up on a family farm in North Dakota.” She paused, looked up, and smiled: “So, where do I start?” she said and laughed. “So many stories…”. 

The scene shifted to a rural setting: a white farm building in the middle of a vast green pasture. The sun was setting, and mellow piano music played as Elizabeth narrated: “My grandpa and grandma actually paid us to milk cows and feed calves at a young age.” A photo of Elizabeth as a child appeared. She was smiling at the camera as she stood next to a cow. “At a young age, they really wanted to instill in us that hard work ethic, you know, is what you are rewarded for,” Elizabeth went on.

Mathias Levi Toft Kristiansen. The Greatest Scam: Network Marketing and the Economization of Everyday Life in the United States. University of Gothenburg, Phd 2022.

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