who is lil tay and should we care about her?

Let’s take a moment to work this out.

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23 April 2018, 8:08am

The latest viral internet celebrity for us to nervously wring our hands about on Twitter is a nine-year-old girl called Lil Tay; an aggressive, foul-mouthed rapper. Lil Tay sprung into the online world on 20 February 2018, with a post of herself sitting on the bonnet of a black Mercedes jeep, fanning a stack of hundred dollar bills.

In just 14 more Insta posts, Lil Tay has grown into a bona fide, flash in the pan, viral internet celebrity, clocking up a legion of loud-mouth haters and almost a million Instagram followers.

Now she hangs out with Chief Keef and carries around big wads of cash and boasts about how many houses she has. She has a car even though she can’t drive. She has an LV bag. She was last seen at Coachella fighting with the equally infamous Bhad Bhabie and Woah Vicky.

She captions her Instagram posts with things like: “We out here wearing yo mommas rent” and “I USE BE LIVIN IN THE HOOD IN ATLANTA BROKE ASF 3 YEARS AGO AND IM GONNA TELL YALL RIGHT NOW YOU YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH YOUR DREAMS IF YOU WORK HARD!”

In fact this is all the biographical information we have about Lil Tay, and it is probably not true. What we see is obviously not 100% real. But we just can’t quite make sense of the gaps in the artifice yet.

So, some prosaic questions concerning Lil Tay. Who is she? Where did she get that money? Why is she hanging out with Chief Keef? Is she cool? Is she cute? Is this horrid? A weird stunt? A satire? Exploitation? How does she have almost a million followers? Is that really her car? Where are her parents? How did we, as a civilisation, get here? Has the internet gone too far this time?

To ask these questions, though, is to miss the point, because with Lil Tay, the most interesting questions circle around our idea of online reality. What we perceive of the lives lived on Instagram, how we process them, how we develop attachment to them. It is not so much a window onto the soul, but a magnifying glass amplifying light into a burning beam setting things on fire. The question is not so much, ‘Who is Lil Tay?’ but, ‘Why is Lil Tay?’ And why do we find this kind of internet culture so fascinating.

It is more interesting to consider Lil Tay -- if we consider her anything at all beyond an exploitative stunt or a cultural nadir -- as representative of the terrifying, foreseeable natural conclusion to our socially networked existences; the meme-ification of everyday life.

She is various strands of our online existences all rolled into one small figure. Life for the benefit of the camera. Online life as a performance. The horror of other people’s lives. Our fascination with them. Our distaste at rapidly lowering barriers of entry to the shallow world of celebrity. Our grim moralistic engrossment with the tastes of the working class. The hip-hop aspirational. Trap realism. The internet's tendency to refine everything into a cute/gross dichotomy. All this combines in Lil Tay. We now have a scrappy and shocking -- if kinda adorable -- nine-year-old girl performing a hip-hop pastiche live for us on our phones.

To this extent it’s hard to know exactly what to make of her. Should we be dismayed or captivated? Lil Tay is a cipher for our wider feelings. We could start an obnoxious: “Where are the parents?” sermon. Or instead we could look at ourselves. Look to internet culture to understand how we got here? Where are we going? Are we all to blame?

It’s almost as if we are witnessing the birth of a new form of reality TV. Self-broadcasted pro bono exploitation. It is not clear who is cashing the cheques, or who is writing them, or even if there actually are any cheques. The things reality TV relied on -- constant broadcast, big personalities, desire for easy fame, the ability to degrade yourself -- are made even more accessible with social media. This is how Bhad Bhabie, Woah Vicky, Lil Tay all exist.

No one really gives much of a fuck if Bhad Bhabie or Woah Vicky make spectacles of themselves online. This kind of behaviour is not news. It is the youth of Lil Tay that causes such consternation and outrage. Maybe we should have a moment of quiet reflection? A little existential crisis of our social worlds. There’s some soul searching needed. The gamification of life on Instagram -- accumulation of likes and followers -- leads to us all exploiting ourselves to certain extents. Lil Tay throws that exploitation into new light. Or at least should.