Caroline Calloway and the Ethics of Influencing

Kate Veitch comments on the case study of Caroline Calloway — an Instagram influencer who is problematic in her own, unique way. 

His Holiness, Pope Francis, recently tweeted a slightly surprising message to his 17.9 million follower count. Conflating the Virgin Mary with a similarly iconic cultural figure, the Internet Influencer, @Pontifex Tweeted;

“With her “yes”, Mary became the most influential woman in history. Without social networks, she became the first “influencer”: the “influencer” of God.”

This could be seen as the ultimate testament to the collective influence of influencers themselves. The Pope leads the world’s “oldest international institution”, so the act of him referencing a recent online phenomenon is not without its irony. It is also indicative of the changing climate; a recognition from organised religion of the changing values of the 21st century.

It is fitting that the individual the Pope describes as the original influencer is a woman. The Internet influencer market is saturated with women; research has found that working with female influencers can drive 16 times the engagement. This marks a divergence from the norm, a move away from the traditional narrative of male dominance in the workplace. We are used to hearing of discrimination based on women’s potential to reproduce, of company boards being dominated by middle-aged men in suits. Surely, the emergence of a profession in which the condition of being a woman is sought after is to be applauded?

A fundamental principle of any meritocratic society is that achievement should be recognised. Success should be rewarded. But at a time where ‘likes’ are a currency, where the ability to drive traffic is often paramount, arguably, the professional parameters of success for women have changed.

Caroline Calloway is one such woman who has found herself foul of criticism within the wider discourse on influencer culture. You may not have heard of Calloway – the Instagram influencer may not be a household name in the way that Chiara Ferragni, The Blonde Salad, Luda Kattan and Huda Beauty, are. Calloway’s ~relative~ obscurity may be down to her occupying a different space online then ‘traditional’ fashion and beauty influencers. You won’t find her flogging Pretty Little thing two-pieces or weight-loss tea. Instead, through the medium of Instagram, Calloway recounts her exploits in New York and Cambridge in caption-size chunks. Not going down the typical route of pushing other brand’s products, Caroline monetised her internet following by selling access to her stories, her life. This came in the form of a $500k book deal, through annotated chapters of said book at $5 each after she pulled off the deal, and most recently, $165 creativity workshop tickets. These were sold as 4-hour seminars in which the participants would receive homemade salad, personalised notes, ‘mini garden’ mason jars, flower crowns, and of course, interaction with Calloway. The collapse of this last venture was painstakingly documented by writer Kayleigh Donaldson in a now-viral Twitter thread; Donaldson charted the unravelling of the workshop from its first event in New York in early 2019. Participants did not receive handwritten notes, nor flower crowns (‘Just a single flower to put in our hair that we didn’t keep’); the salad was too salty, and the teaching minimal – only 1.5 hours of the 4-hour event. It became evident that a lack of foresight had led to a logistical nightmare – Calloway had sold tickets for events where she had not booked spaces, including a location-less Atlanta workshop being planned for its busiest weekend: the Superbowl. The ‘international’ tour gave way to only New York based events, and eventually, following a host of online outrage, Calloway declared the workshops cancelled, and ticket owners to be refunded.

Caroline Calloway Article

Whether unknowingly, or knowingly with Calloway, internet influencers make promises to their following by putting a premium on their lifestyle. In many cases, and certainly in Calloway’s, the follower make-up of Instagram influencers is largely dominated by young women. It is undeniable that many influencers are valued for their aspirational content. The audience wants what they have – as assented to by comments from adoring fans under their posts.

The difficulty lies in that these lives cannot be purchased. Calloway wrote heart-warming, romantic tales of a Cambridge education – running around castles, falling in love with aristocratic Dutch polo players. But these experiences cannot be purchased. Just as her uncurated moments cannot. The Adderall addiction, repeated rejections from Cambridge, adultery and failed romantic relationships.

We should never applaud women whose success is contingent upon the exploitation of other women. However, influencing and following is a symbiotic relationship – influencers would not exist if not servicing a demand. Whilst we can charge internet influencers with presenting an unattainable ideal, their content creation is often directly inspired by what has tested well with their audience.

Calloway has a responsibility to not sell $165 dollar creativity workshop tickets. But alternatively, we have a responsibility not to buy them.

Illustration by Mae Farrow.


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