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'Jawline' Brings Us Into the Race for Internet Fame
August 23, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Ever since the Lord invented small towns, some percentage of young folks born in those towns have had a hankering to get out. 

That was one of the poignant subtexts of Marlon Brando's classic 1954 film The Wild One. It was a major point of Bruce Springsteen's 1975 classic song Thunder Road ("It's a town fulla losers / I'm pulling outta here to win").

My guess is that Austyn Tester doesn't know or care much about Brando and Bruce. If he's lucky, at some point in his life, he'll catch up with them.

But right now, at 16, Austyn already shares that dream – a burning urge, really – to get out of his small town, which happens to be Kingsport, Tennessee.

He also knows precisely how he's gonna do it. He's going to become famous on social media. That will be his ticket, and he's going to ride the train, for starters, to L.A., where social media stars have created their own incarnation of the old Hollywood. 

Since social media fame starts with putting your face on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok and whatever other hot new platform pops up, it's not surprising that Austyn is now the center of a documentary film, Jawline, which debuted at Sundance and becomes available Friday on Hulu. 

Jawline follows Austyn for several months as he sweats out the perfect post, gets his brother to take the perfect branding picture, and tells his followers to pursue their dreams. 

Don't let life get you down. Don't let bullies get you down. Don't stop believing in yourself. Austyn is a "you got this" kind of guy, and that message, not hindered by his boy-band looks, has made him a must-follow for thousands of teen and tween girls. 

He's their fantasy boyfriend, the one who listens and understands, the one who a generation or two ago would have been a poster on their walls. He's today's Ricky Nelson, David Cassidy, Ricky Martin and a long list of past teen idols who mean nothing to Austyn Tester's followers but comprise his direct ancestral DNA. 

The difference is twofold today for Austyn and thousands of other social media practitioners.

First, measuring teen idol fame used to be anecdotal. We gauged popularity by magazine covers, TV ratings, or some amorphous sense of how recognizable a name had become. 

Today we have quantification. The currency of social media is likes, clicks, and followers, all of which are recorded in hard cold numbers. If you have a couple of million followers, it doesn't matter that no one over 18 knows your name. You are famous. 

Second, social media offers to people of all genders, from all over the world, the tantalizing appearance of personal connection. Austyn and his followers are on the same platform at the same time. They're posting in real time, and they can see other's posts and faces. 

Whether that's promise or illusion, it's seductive, and not just because almost everyone involved is an insecure teenager. 

It's seductive because, for most people, face-to-face human interaction is hard and uncertain. It takes work. Interaction on your phone is far easier. Fewer unknowns, less risk, easier to cut it off. When you're "talking with" Austyn, who seems like a great guy and aw-shucks nice, it's a relaxing, reassuring way to kill a few minutes or an afternoon.  

Directed by Liza Mandelup, Jawline understands this. It doesn't condescend to Austyn or his followers. It doesn't treat their pastime or their insecurity as trivial and silly. 

It does, however, gradually put Austyn's aspirations in perspective. 

He's got devoted followers. He says he'll be at the local mall and young girls show up telling him they love him and clamoring to get pictures of and with him. 

He's also got thousands of competitors, other social media stars who in some cases have multimillions of followers. For him to soar above them and reach the top level, where the stars can monetize their success through product endorsements and personal appearances, will require a leap and maybe a break.

Heeding his own message of positivity, Austyn declares that "if I work hard and post every day, I guarantee I will become famous." 

Well, maybe. His other obstacles, Jawline notes, include the one that makes most grownups roll their eyes and shake their heads.

Like most social media stars, he has no discernible traditional entertainment talent. 

Social media stars make good-natured, well-edited goofy videos. They think up sharp one-liners on pop culture. They say funny and relatable things about their parents, friends, classmates or teachers. 

What they're not doing, for the most part, is writing songs or essays or showing off a breathtaking pirouette. They're famous for being famous, as we say, and that seems to be enough. 

It's not that being funny and clever and personable aren't skills. It's just that those have traditionally been qualities people looked for in real life friends, the kinds with whom they come into physical contact. 

Now they've become Internet marketing currency.

And then, Jawline notes, there's one other major obstacle for all the Austyns: They have a short window of time. 

Because the competition for followers is so intense, and because teenagers tend to have the attention span of mayflies, someone like Austyn has to rack up his big score fast. 

Two years from now, most of his followers will have moved on, and the incoming audience will want their own social media stars, not hand-me-downs from their big brothers and sisters. 

We see signs of that harsh natural selection process just over the several months Jawline follows Austyn.

In the end, we don't know whether Austyn will be that rare poster who can leverage social media into a life beyond Kingsport, or whether he's going to have to find a more traditional path out of town. 

Either way, he's going to figure it out for himself. Back in 1970, when country singer Roy Drusky tackled the same subject in Long Long Texas Road, he finished up by admitting, "If I'd known then what I know now / It would have messed it up somehow." 

A learning experience is never bad, even if your first lesson is that fame doesn't always mean fortune. 

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