In September of 2019, the internet briefly exploded with the controversy that Instagram influencer, Caroline Calloway, suffered a string of embarrassing public exposures. First, her book “we were like” was delayed, then she was set to host a series of creativity workshops for about $160/ day in New York, and the final blow was her friend, Natalie, revealing to the press that she (Natalie) ghost wrote many of Caroline’s beloved Instagram posts. The exposure is one already forgotten by the press. However, I ruminate on it. Social media celebrity is the freak cousin of the already peculiar celebrity. “Influencer” is suddenly a job, although frowned upon. These social structures have me thinking, and I can’t stop.
What Calloway and countless other social media influencers are doing is precisely what any other person within the same age range would do. With attention and resources and a limitless community cheering you on, few young people, unsettled in their lives and likely insecure about their worth, would pass up the opportunities social media presents. I see people my age (I’m 26) marketing themselves as Life Coaches, and I can’t help but feel like we haven’t lived enough years to provide that kind of guidance. It feels like a liability to be doling out advice in a era that even the most mature of us are still lost within. I’m not the career arbiter or a life authority or, frankly, a person of any renown. I don’t say this to be self-deprecating. I say it as a fact. I say it with the belief that ordinary people decide to do extraordinary thing. I’m not an influencer. While my social media is extra as fuck, I am not trying to influence anyone in any way. My social media is a small, curated slice of my brain: feverish, colorful, verbose, confident yet seeking validation. Ideally, I’d love to leverage my platforms to write more, to creatively collaborate. Am I doing a good job of that? No, not really. My influencing game is weak.
I have a difficult relationship with social media influencers and coaches because I think very few (if any) have poor intentions. I think people are trying to help. I think that they are trying to be heard. I also think that social media can be smoke and mirrors. A surplus of online coaches exist for a myriad of health concerns. It is great and admirable that so many people are invested in helping others. At the same time, what certifies a coach (that is a question I am asking. I’m not familiar with a lot of certifying entities)? Is this seen as an accompaniment or substitute for medical assistance (IE: from a doctor, registered dietian, etc)? I am not a coach in any way so I am unsure what the strategy would be. I ask these questions because coaches may not be held to the same professional standards and practices of a health care professional. There may be less skin in the game for a coach as opposed to a doctor who could lose their license over malpractice. That does not diminish that coaching and influencing may have a positive impact, and if it’s doing something good in the world, it’s not my place to critique it.
The business component of social media is one I support wholeheartedly. I relish lending my support to friends working on an array of projects. Shouting them out, spreading the word that something they made exists is amazing. In an era of Amazon and rising monopolies, social media helps small business owners. A loyal following can keep artists, photographers, and other professionals afloat. And if that makes those people influencers, is it my place to critique these people? Does that make me a hater? I’m unsure.
Here’s the thing none of us want to admit when we hate-follow someone or joke about an influencer: we’re all probably a little envious. Envious of the lifestyle, of the attention, of the rewards this person reaps for posting a picture. I think part of the hatred for Calloway is in the quiet truth that a lot of us could have wound up in the same place.
There’s this prodigy myth that some people are born special, ordained with the “it” factor. You see it with scammers like Calloway and Fyre Fest’s Billy McFarland. But it’s not an “it” factor– it’s the intoxicating combination of youth and charisma. That also makes for self-delusion. Success before humility often leads to poor decisions because nothing is grounding those people. I’m not writing this to excuse scammers or influencer mistakes. My intention is to contextualize the bizarre age of the social media influencer and the blunders that are inevitable when so much acclaim is given to people who are mere mortals unable to live up to the hype.
At some point, Millennials and Gen Z and all the generations immersed in the social media quicksand will have to reckon with a bitter truth: social media isn’t real. It is a magic show: smoke and mirrors. We can build real communities and business through it. But likes and follows and comments are not accurate indicators of worth. And what such colossal stock is placed upon the feedback of others, we set ourselves up for decimation in the backlash. Social media itself is the scam. It raises false idols and emboldens people to say things they would not feel empowered to say otherwise. It manipulates our perception of the world– skewing our lens to perpetual comparison. It quantifies us but likes and follows and algorithms. Nobody is going to say “She had fifty thousand followers and received thousands of likes for that one thirst trap” at your funeral.
Social media platforms can be great and fun and my life is so much richer for all the memes I’ve collected. It can also be a news source and a business outlet and so many other things. But it isn’t life. It isn’t the substitute for our existence or for seeking self-worth through gritty and labor-intensive reflection.
The irony of this post is that it exists on a site that calculates views, location, popularity. Social media is how I share my writing. As soon as I post this, I’ll return to instagram to cyber stalk something or another. I contradict my own work in this way. I use my social media to promote my writing because I want to be a writer, because I’m seeking opportunities to do that.
Celebrity is a manufactured thing. Influencing is of the same persuasion. It inflates a single being’s existence into something it can never be. Often, this is the life of young people– fragile enough to buy into their self-woven myths and easily broken by the same machines that made them. I find the Caroline Calloway and Fyre Festival debacles to be peak Caucasian culture, definitive youthful hubris