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Opinion An Instagram influencer’s obsessing meltdown

Caroline Calloway. (Noam Galai/Getty)

Who is Caroline Calloway? All she’s ever wanted is for you to ask.

For starters, the Instagram influencer who seems to be everywhere this week, from Twitter feeds to text messages to articles across the mainstream media, isn’t all that influential. She has around 800,000 followers, which might seem tremendous to picture-posting dilettantes but looks laughable up against the platform’s true Svengalis. She’s not a makeup maven, or an exercise eminence, or even a vlogging guru.

Caroline Calloway is just a girl, or woman if you prefer. The way she has transformed herself into something much more gives us a look at the underpinnings of the Internet image-making machine — and at ourselves.

Calloway claimed her initial not-quite-fame as an American at the University of Cambridge, posting pretty photos of her pretty existence with very, very long confessional captions. She marketed these as a sort of real-time memoir, an idea interesting enough to publishers, apparently, to earn her hundreds of thousands of dollars in a book advance.

Yet it isn’t Calloway’s success that has landed her in the country’s top papers. It’s her failure. The meltdown of her life was immensely more interesting than the life itself because it allowed us to congratulate ourselves on just how right we always were about the Web.

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Last spring, Calloway started advertising worldwide workshops on creativity and brand-building, which it turned out weren’t actually worldwide and weren’t actually workshops. She had promised, for $176.68 including processing fees, customized care packages, orchid crowns and Mason jar gardens in cities across the globe. She delivered (at the few events she did hold) individual flowers attendees were then forced to return, unadorned jars accompanied by packets of seeds and seating right smack on the floor.

This “scam” caught the attention of one journalist, whose attention caught the attention of several others, and suddenly Calloway was a star. She had tried to be famous for being famous; now she was infamous for being infamous.

The book deal had been a bust long before the tour because the author couldn’t deliver. She was an Adderall addict whose feigned fairy tale turned out to be a horror show. And those 1,200 Mason jars promised as miniature gardens but presented almost entirely empty gave us an unimpeachable metaphor for the narrative we wanted about Instagram and its ilk: Everyone is always pretending things are perfect, and nothing ever is.

Many must have found it gratifying to see a facade, carefully crafted as the Henri Matisse rip-offs Calloway sold as original art, so viciously rent apart — especially to those who’ve always felt our own lives don’t offer enough material to even pretend they’re splendid.

The saga of Calloway is circulating even more widely today because her one-time best buddy, Natalie Beach, wrote a tell-all essay in New York Magazine’s woman-focused vertical, the Cut, revealing herself as the Instagrammer’s longtime ghostwriter. Even Calloway’s initial followers, the piece reveals, were fake. She had purchased them as a ploy to pretend she was popular until popularity arrived.

But are we really peeking behind the curtain, or are we tangled up in it?

Calloway is still selling us something. She built her brand from the start, at least in part, by pointing out the deceptiveness of brand-building, blending Instagram’s typical aspirational posts with just enough vulnerability to make her look, well, genuine. This started with boy drama and ended darker: Calloway first admitted her addiction to Adderall by declaring that “posting about drugs is so obviously the opposite of cappuccino art and avocado toast.”

Now, Calloway is saying that even this supposedly unvarnished portrayal was varnished after all. She’s calling herself a liar by calling her ghostwriter a truth-teller, and she’s doing it to keep earning attention. She has promoted the Cut piece, relentlessly, in a series of chatty mea culpas laced with gut-wrenching guilt. Calloway is marketing reality by contrasting it with the unreality she was selling everyone before.

And it looks like we’re buying it. People remain skeptical of Calloway herself, of course. Even her announcement that her father had died this week was greeted with perplexity rather than untinged sympathy, partly because her post was written in the same style as all the posts that came before it (and partly because it doubled as promotion for an NBC News interview).

But Beach’s essay, commentators have declared, is a raw examination of female friendship, an Elena Ferrante novel for the digital age. It’s a searing display of how the commodification of the self that social media encourages is corrosive and corrupting. The millennial commentariat is bent on teasing out the authentic in a tale whose entire foundation is fakery.

The kicker? The belief that there’s a there here, and the need to engage with it — the tweeting, the writing, the asking what everyone else is talking about that has spawned so many helpful explainers — comes from the same phenomenon that Calloway proved she understood when she bought those fake followers. Influence begets influence.

Is Calloway a scammer? Her ghostwriter asks, and then she answers. Maybe, but if so, “Her first mark is always herself.”

Same goes for the rest of us.

Read more:

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Molly Roberts: The Instagram egg was always doomed

John Kelly: When it comes to social media manipulation, we’re our own worst enemy

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Catherine Rampell: Millennials need to learn to lose

Anne Boyd Rioux: Can young people be lured away from Twitter and Instagram to books?