Television

The Kardashians Broke the Internet. Then It Swallowed Them Whole.

Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ final season has shown them looking ancient beside a new generation of influencers.

Kim Kardashian and Addison Rae
Kim Kardashian and Addison Rae in the new season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. E!

After 14 years and 20 seasons, Keeping Up with the Kardashians is ending, but that doesn’t mean the Kardashians are going away. On Saturday’s episode of ICYMI, Slate’s podcast about internet culture, Rachelle Hampton was joined by the show’s producer, Daniel Schroeder, to chart the evolution of the show’s relationship with social media and consider the family’s future. In this transcript, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, they consider what really lies at the heart of the show, and how its narratives are all migrating online.

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Rachelle Hampton: Compared to the first season, where the storylines are all external, in the final season, the storylines are largely just problems that only affect the Kardashians and that fully come from the fact that they are Online.

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Daniel Schroeder: The thinking is always, “How is this affecting my online brand?” That’s why, honestly, I think Kourtney is an interesting case in this most recent season because of her friendship with a former subject of this show, Addison Rae.

Hampton: Yes, when Addison Rae showed up, it’s this cross-generational influencer moment. They are of such different times. When you’re looking at the way the Kardashians came up, you cannot imagine Addison Rae’s trajectory later on, which is a completely different format, a completely different app. But also very much the same mold: This person who is aggressively average in many ways besides being rich and white, just creating this massive platform for herself off of these apps.

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Schroeder: And off of the Black people’s creations on those apps.

Hampton: Yes, yes.

Schroeder: In an episode from a few months ago, we interviewed TikTok dance creators, Black children, whose dances Addison gained fame from by doing them herself.

Hampton: Yes, exactly. In so many ways, they seem so different, but they are ultimately the same. I wonder if that’s why they get along so well, but it’s so wild watching them interact. Because the way Addison Rae is introduced is that I believe Kourtney knows yet another former subject of this show, David Dobrik.

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Schroeder: I think it’s so funny that it seems like Kourtney is indulging so much in the YouTuber influencer economy to stay connected to her children.

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Hampton: In some ways it’s like, “Are you actually divorced from this specific set of the influencer economy that you have partially pioneered?” To hear Kim just be like, “Who is that?” It’s like “Oh, you don’t actually have to be up on any of this stuff anymore.” I mean, it makes me wonder who’s gaining more out of each interaction. Addison doesn’t need them and they don’t need her. Is this genuine or is this a business relationship? I think maybe three or four years ago, it would have been unthinkable to have an influencer in the room with the Kardashians and think the Kardashians are not obviously helping their brand. I do wonder how much of the show ending has to do with the fact that in terms of influencer stardom, the show isn’t actually helping much.

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Schroeder: Though I really enjoyed this most recent season, I think that the amount of social media plotlines shows how much less they actually have to work with than they did in the past. Everything feels too tied up in what’s already played out online. Take them messaging about quitting the show. They have this whole conversation about, “Should we keep doing it? Should we not?” That then turns into “How do we message together on our social media pages about this decision?” The plotline of the episode that we were watching is about how they are announcing this thing that we already experienced them announce five, six months ago.

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Hampton: Pretty much for the last decade of the show’s run, because of the inherent filming delay, the show has just become a way to respond to the social media headlines we’ve already seen. It has this built-in hype because something like the Jordyn Woods scandal would have happened, or Kim’s kidnapping, or the Kylie Pepsi commercial, or the announcement of the show ending. We would see it play out online and then you would know it’d be addressed as a plotline on the show.

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The show ended up becoming just a way for them to address what was already happening on social media. In many ways, the show was not actually about them, or it wasn’t about what was happening in that moment. It was just a way to respond or be an extension of their social media, rather than the first half of the show where it was the other way around. The fact that the show has managed to continue with the level of access we have to their lives through Instagram, and TikTok, and Twitter, and still be this access that people want? Wild.

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Schroeder: Watching the show during the quarantine season, I finally understood it in a way I hadn’t before. Even though there are all of the accoutrements of extra plotlines that are clearly fabricated—like the Spartan Race they do (which we’re not going to get into) or Khloe and Kim going to a underground bunker (another thing we don’t need to get into)—the show is not really about that. It’s actually about these very intimate, relatable familial conversations. Even though they have distanced themselves so much from the modern American family in their level of wealth and fame, what this show really comes down to is the intimacy of family.

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Hampton: I think that’s very much a new direction of the show. Having not watched it for about a decade, I was really struck by how nice they were to each other compared to the earlier seasons. I think the first few seasons of the show––before their social media fame really started to pick up––were a way to self-mythologize, but Instagram and Twitter then became the way that they showed their influence rather than this flashy, bitchy diva behavior on the show. Because they now have this other platform through which to show and demonstrate their influence, the actual TV show became a lot softer, a lot more humanizing and intimate.

Schroeder: It’s so much easier to self-mythologize in these social media-curated ways than it is on camera. They didn’t have to be “on” in the way that they used to have to be on. Their on-ness is on social media, so then they can turn off and actually be people.

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Hampton: Also, I feel like so much of that turn comes from the fact that they also have so much creative control over the show now versus the first few seasons. You can see how much creative control the family has over the show just in the way they talk about Kanye during this season.

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Schroeder: Or not talk about Kanye.

Hampton: Yeah, I believe the announcement of the divorce hadn’t happened during the filming of this season, but Kanye comes up at one point, and Kim mentions flying out to see him. But there’s also this point at which someone brings up Kanye, and Kim’s like, “I’m not going to have this conversation on camera,” which, I don’t think they would have had the ability to do that in the early seasons.

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Also, it goes to show that even though it seems softer and more intimate than in the earliest seasons, it’s still very much an extension of their social media brand. This is, again, a giant PR machine that is incredibly effective. I am not a Kardashian sympathizer, but watching the show, I was like, “Oh, I remember why I used to watch this and why I thought y’all were OK for the first however many seasons that I watched.” I’m really interested to see what’s going to happen to their social media presence once they no longer have access to this really humanizing PR apparatus.

To hear the rest of this episode—including a look at how Keeping Up With the Kardashians first season plays now—subscribe to ICYMI.

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