Foster Kamer is a writer and editor based in New York.
Caroline and Natalie. Even in our frenetic era of Instafame, it’s rare to see people to achieve First Name Only status as quickly as two young women did this week, with the publication of a viral essay about the Instagram influence industry and a friendship gone very, very wrong. But the saga of influencer Caroline Calloway and her ghostwriter, Natalie Beach, is delicious and revealing not just for the wild details but also because it illustrates just how stories such as this are the perfect “entertainment” for a polarized era. Pop culture once gave, more often than not, everyone someone to love. Now, tales of confidence artists give everyone someone to hate — including their marks.
As with a great deal of Internet-based drama, the saga of Caroline and Natalie is convoluted, but a summary goes something like this. Calloway once achieved a small measure of infamy as a small-time Instagram influencer whose self-promoted influencer workshops (exactly what they sound like) were a Fyre Fest-lite fiasco. On Tuesday night, New York Magazine’s site the Cut published a piece about Calloway, written by her former best friend, Beach, suggesting that not only was she the person actually responsible for many of Calloway’s Instagram posts but also that Calloway was an Adderall-addicted mess who took advantage of her friends, faked her follower count and, most damningly, lived a life that had no resemblance to the carefully staged posts on her feed.
If this sounds like “Francis Ha” meets “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” that’s because it kind of is, with additional doses of bad 20s sex, elite colleges, pencil stores and, of course, a dead pet rabbit. But why, exactly, has the story of these two otherwise inconsequential young women captivated so much attention, so quickly? Who in their right minds could possibly care (let alone enjoy) a story about two young women in a friendship where the highest stakes are small-time fame on Instagram and a book deal?
Everyone, that’s who. Yeah, even you.
The story is part of a long tradition that pits the person in the spotlight vs. the person in the shadows; the beautiful, vapid, cruel swan vs. the beleaguered ugly duckling with a heart of gold. But it’s also profoundly 2019, and not just because it involves Instagram, where microcelebirty is achieved at the speed of swipe, ex nihilo, and can — and has repeatedly — translated into fame and wealth beyond that. Instead, the saga of Caroline and Natalie is the latest installment in a new genre that provides readers with an absolute cornucopia of judgment to make, a buffet of self-righteous flavors to feast on.
Should we be Team Natalie? She was clearly emotionally abused by a lecherous rich-girl narcissist and was then profited off of by her. What about Team Caroline? Natalie clearly enabled a young woman in pain, benefited from her friend’s wealth and entrepreneurial streak, and is now finding her embittered vengeance in a moment of literary flame and fame, coincidentally right before Caroline told her followers that her father had died.
And it’s not merely the characters themselves who allow us to make judgments. The very act of consuming a story such as this is open for debate. Readers can tell themselves, I am empathetic and feel sad for both of them. I’ve been Caroline or Natalie before. They can read Natalie’s account and think, I am intelligent, and I would never fall for any of this, and I feel nothing for either of them. You can decline to read the piece and declare, Instagram and celebrities are useless things for useless people, and I feel contempt for every single party involved. The iterations are endless: Anybody enjoying this in any way is a BAD PERSON. Anybody who doesn’t enjoy this is a JOYLESS PERSON. Anybody who cares about this at all is likely a WHITE COSMOPOLITAN TYPE. Anybody who can’t relate to this has never had a REAL FRIENDSHIP.
By this point, this sort of story and the way it’s consumed have become an established trope. You can be appalled by fake heiress Anna “Delvey" Sorokin, and raise an eyebrow at Rachel Deloache Williams, who was only too happy to take what she thought was a $62,000 vacation from Sorokin — until she got the bill. You can mock Billy McFarland, whose Fyre Festival set the standard for Internet-generated events that overpromised and underdelivered, and question the taste and good sense of people who paid up to party with influencers and Instagram-worthy pigs. And you can feel terrible for Bruce Hay, the Harvard law professor who found himself the subject of a draining paternity scam, and also wonder about how a man whose class is called "Judgment and Decision-Making” ended up in his situation.
These hypermodern stories about the cons and their marks, or Svengalis and their targets, give a wide audience a vantage point from which one can project righteousness the same way you’ll have a great view of the Grand Canyon so long as you’re looking down. And it turns out that what we want, maybe even more than the lives influencers and Harvard law professors and heiresses have, is an opportunity to judge them.