Things stayed like that for a little while, in the suspended animation of collective uncertainty. But looking at your own bored face during an interminable Zoom call is brutal. Once it became clear that a quick return to normal life wasn’t in the cards, many of those trying to look professional while working from home (or look presentable to their friends at a Zoom happy hour, or look enticing on a FaceTime date) began to search for help.
They found it in the tools and tactics of internet influencers. For years, YouTubers, podcasters, TikTokers, OnlyFans models, Twitch streamers, and Instagram baddies have stockpiled the best affordable, user-friendly tools to make themselves look and sound better—smartphone tripods, laptop stands, external webcams, microphones, and the like. In the first few months of the pandemic, some of these devices became as difficult to find as paper towels and Lysol.
Most crucial of all, though, has been the ring light, a glowing halo that sits atop a tripod or attaches to your phone or laptop. Ring lights are a quick-and-dirty approximation of a professional lighting setup. When positioned carefully, their glow evens skin tone, brightens eyes, and, perhaps most importantly, helps people create an aura of competence and productivity on camera while their kids or roommates wander through the background on the way to the fridge.
Online influencers have been working in the fishbowls of their own homes for years, trying to impress those peering in for a few minutes or hours at a time. The recent mad dash of those in the work-from-home class to crib influencers’ methods happened for a reason that YouTubers and TikTokers understood long before many of the people now haphazardly emulating them did: No one wants to look bad online.
Before the pandemic, if anyone could get you a ring light, it was Guy Cochran. In the early 2010s, Cochran started selling his own lines of ring lights through DVE Store, his Washington-based video-equipment company, to makeup artists with large followings on YouTube. As these beauty experts’ audiences grew, so too did curiosity about how people who seemed to be broadcasting from their spare bedroom managed to look so beautiful while methodically applying layers of eye makeup. In 2013, Cochran appeared on the beauty vlogger Judy Travis’s YouTube channel, ItsJudyTime, to explain her lighting setup to subscribers. He built some simple lighting kits that her fans could buy, and sales exploded.
This popularity with makeup influencers helped ring lights cross over to the mainstream consumer market, where they have since proliferated on Amazon, in electronics stores, and among home-decor retailers. Nothing, however, prepared Cochran for pandemic-level demand. DVE Store has been “pummeled” this year, he told me. Its stock of ring lights was wiped out by the end of April for the next six months, as people rushed to correct their pallid, shadow-distorted faces.