Gabby Petito’s tragic story sheds light on the grim reality of turning your life into a business

Gabby Petito on her YouTube channel Nomadic Statik
Gabby Petito speaks to the camera in her only YouTube upload
  • Before their deaths, Brian Laundrie and Gabby Petito were an aspiring #VanLife influencer couple.
  • Petito's case sheds light on the dangers involved in monetizing your life and relationships.
  • The widespread fascination with Petito hopefully indicates how the ideal of the influencer couple is changing.
  • Kelli María Korducki is a journalist, author, and contributing opinion writer for Insider.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

On October 21, after a nearly six-week manhunt, the FBI confirmed that skeletal remains found in a Florida nature preserve were those of Brian Laundrie. As the days turn to weeks since Laundrie's whereabouts were uncovered, it's become apparent that this grim resolution to one outstanding question is no match for the public's fascination in the murder of Gabby Petito.

From the moment 22-year-old Petito was reported missing by her family in early September, the aspiring "vanlife" influencer became a real-time fixture of the true crime content mill. The phenomenon was accelerated by the subsequent discovery of her body in a Wyoming campsite, which implicated Laundrie, Petito's fiance and travel companion at the time of her death, as a person of interest in the investigation. But even before an autopsy determined that Petito had died by strangulation - a common indicator of intimate partner violence - the relationship appeared central to online outpourings of concern and speculation.

There are numerous likely reasons for the public's preoccupation with the case, including the well-established facts of Petito's youth and blonde-haired whiteness. Among the scores of mostly white, mostly 20-something women on TikTok who've taken up the mantle of #justiceforgabby, Petito's purported relatability is one oft-repeated refrain. While it's tempting to dismiss these claims of personal identification with Petito as flimsy efforts to justify exploiting a woman's death for content, it seems disingenuous to presume that that's all there is to it.

In many respects, Petito's heart-wrenching story speaks to the central tension in digital age constructions of identity. What passes for "authenticity" online is, more accurately, the convincing commitment to a bit. An influencer's digital presence is effectively a character based on its creator, a work of internet autofiction. If the person's offline circumstances are at odds with their broadcasted persona, upholding the act may occur at the expense of the creator's wellbeing.

Like so many young women hoping to amass followings online, Petito had been trying to find her voice along the two parallel circuits of a young influencer's domain: as an adult making her way in the world and as an aspirational figure by trade. She was, in other words, working toward cementing the pillars that are broadly understood as prerequisites for mature adulthood: an enduring romantic partnership and a fruitful career. Tragically, Petito's path positioned her relationship to Laundrie as the vehicle for both.

The potential hazards imposed on the couple-as-influencer are self-evident. Simply, a monetized relationship discourages each partner's disentanglement. For young women, in particular, the adjacent risks can be profound. They are the combined pitfalls of coming of age at this specific moment in time, while inheriting the time-worn legacy of violence that womanhood too often entails - especially, but not exclusively, for women with additional marginalized identities.

From the beginning, the Petito case has given a face to the worst-case scenario for the widespread ideal of the influencer couple. And, perhaps, marked an inflection point in the way that this ideal is perceived.

#lifestyle as career

From the hipster Mormon housewife bloggers of the early 2010s to the van life vloggers courting corporate sponsorships today, happy couples have served as more than a recurring set piece in the influencer industrial complex. Picture-perfect partnership and, eventually, family life form the basis of a lucrative market fantasy. These idealized, archetypal personas are too #blessed to stress about unpaid bills or unmet desires, let alone anything more nefarious. They want for nothing they can't materialize into being; their apparent lack of yearning inspires yearning, in turn.

It wasn't so long ago that the bankability of relationship-centric, lifestyle creator content became understood by the general public. Writing in 2015 about the lifestyle blogger-turned-influencer Naomi Davis for The Cut, Jen Gann recalls her delayed realization that Davis' blog, Love Taza, was less a public-facing diary of contented homemaking than a savvy commercial enterprise. "I felt stupid for not realizing how successful Naomi's blog is," Gann writes. "She, not her husband, was financially supporting their lifestyle with her lifestyle blog."

Nearly seven years later, the concept of the influencer has become so embedded within the collective imagination that Gann's revelation reads like the relic of a distant era. Among my fellow millennial and Gen Z counterparts, it's now taken for granted that any social media personality with a robust follower count and the barest modicum of conventional attractiveness is likely getting some monetary kickback for their outfits of the day. The division between an aspirational life and an aspirational performance of one is more porous than ever before.

In a recent column for TechCrunch, the writer Safy-Hallan Farah argues that the ability to monetize one's social media following is no longer incidental to an influencer's appeal; it is their appeal. "Fans look up to [lifestyle influencers] not only because they want to live the same way but because they [also] want to monetize their own lives," Farah writes. Somewhere over the course of the past decade, fulfilling the criteria for a hashtaggable #lifestyle - carving out a presence within an established sphere of influence - has become as desirable as any actual lifestyle, in and of itself.

It's a feat that's easier said than done. Last month, Slate's Heather Schwedel reported on the effect of Petito's death among members of TikTok's #VanLife community. Some felt that the case underscored public misperceptions of the actual work involved in making a living as a semi-famous, sentient ad. "People think that if they live in a van now, they're just automatically going to get a following and be an influencer," said one 24-year-old woman.

The monetized relationship

Logistics notwithstanding, there's a major profit incentive for young couples to at least try figuring out the tricks of the influence trade. Early last year, the digital marketing trade publication MarTech Series declared that so-called "power pairs" stood at the forefront of "a new wave of influencer marketing." Though the article focuses primarily on influencers who pair up to form a united mega-brand, it speaks to the basic logic of any influencer couple's appeal: They embody happiness and romance, which most onlookers are content to experience even vicariously. As a result, couples have a distinct advantage in facilitating an emotional connection "to [whatever] product or service they promote."

For young couples seeking to leverage their relationships for financial gain, the potential for harm is baked right into the premise. The relationship is no longer just a relationship, but a professional endeavor. To extract oneself means surrendering a path to solvency, even if that path has not yet proved fruitful. The dynamic is ripe for exploitation by perpetrators of abuse.

In a culture whose valorization of the nuclear family is rivalled only by its fetish for dollar-quantifiable achievement, the project becomes a compounded test of stick-to-it-iveness; endurance, an arbiter of work ethic. In this light, the tragedy of Petito's death takes on an almost unbearable poignance.

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