Caroline CallowayCaroline Calloway

Content Note: This article contains brief mentions of suicide and drug abuse

Right now, at the touch of a screen, 675,000 people could open up Instagram and be greeted with a shared experience: a photo of Caroline Calloway wiping away a tear, a wry smile on her lips. Covid took away most forms of congregating, but Instagram’s offering of togetherness persisted and prospered.

Calloway tells me she’s found Instagram to be a place of “real connection”. Though it wasn’t always like that. “I had that reckoning of, like, how real to be with my followers two years before the pandemic hit, so I’ve just been chugging along since then!” Two years ago an essay by Caroline’s ex-best friend and ex-ghost writer went viral. It was the most read article on The Cut that year. She laughs when she talks about it, but it shifted something; “I think being publicly shamed like that is a trauma.”

Instagram is an easy platform on which to hide. You can stalk, comment, and hate anonymously. You can filter away your flaws. You can lie. And the people who garner the most followers and attention often do exactly that. They blur their pores, wear expensive gifted clothes, and lounge by vigorously blue swimming pools. They sell perfected versions of themselves.

“I think being publicly shamed like that is a trauma”

For a long time, Caroline sold something perfect. Boys, balls, a fairytale. And when that fantasy cracked, anger barrelled towards her in all directions. She’d broken the unspoken contract of being a famous woman. We are satisfied with constructed realism of fame, as long as no one admits that it’s all a construction.

“When I went viral, that first time, as a fairytale in Cambridge and I was literally addicted to Adderall, it was so fucking easy for people to see my face and see my body and say she’s the princess in this story. Even though for so many reasons I was obviously hurting.” Calloway has seen the same thread of sexism woven into each time she’s gone viral. Whether the internet was lifting her up or tearing her down, it’s all because they value “women for being these like idealised versions of what femininity is.” No one apologies. “I think hating and verbally abusing white women online is the last guilt-free bias our culture has left, like whether it’s me, or Jennifer Aniston, or fucking, I don’t know fill in any white actress, model…”

Like cult-leaders, Instagram influencers must navigate a complex symbiosis with their followers to remain popular. Unlike cult-leaders, their lives are often funded by a commercial system of sponsored posts, a practice which Caroline abstains from. Instead, in March, as the world shut down, she started making money from selling topless photos on the platform ‘Only-Fans’.

Laughing, she tells me that her Art History degree was her “gateway drug”. “Every single day I came into class there were bare-ass female titties and I was like this is something normal to see! And I only do topless photos. I feel really confident about it because I know that since the dawn of Art History topless female nudes have been a staple of human creativity.” On the day she started, Cambridge’s Instagram account unfollowed her. It hurt. “Do you know what I’d like to ask? Why are they anti-sex work?… I’m never above calling out Cambridge for their bullshit.”

The more time you spend on social media, the more existentially important it can seem. Calloway’s daily life is defined by it. In the past year, she spent months in her grandmother’s apartment alone as the world locked down. But she was never alone. She was sharing pieces of herself everyday. Streams of her being poured out to the internet in the form of selfies, essays, videos. Likes, comments, and direct messages would float back in reciprocation.

“I know that since the dawn of Art History topless female nudes have been a staple of human creativity”

The key to Instagram success is self-revelation. Nudity aside, revealing one’s inner dialogue can make you ‘relatable’, ‘authentic’, ‘realistic.’ Calloway’s craft is divulging herself. Everything? “Everything.” Her depression, her drug addiction, her heartbreak at her father’s suicide and mother’s cancer treatment.

I tell her the way she uses Instagram reminds me of how Sylvia Plath wrote poems: art as an act of confession. She grins at the comparison. But that mode of confessional art has evolved into something closer to ‘memoir’ in the modern age. Where Plath remakes the self, memoir describes it. At its best, Instagram is the democratised end-product of memoir. It lets anyone memorialise their life, construct their own historical account. If, like Calloway, you used it frequently, and with any shred of honesty, one day it might be used to remember you.


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But Calloway wants to chronicle her life more traditionally too. Her book, called Scammer, will come out next year - if she finishes it. I tell her (she is the kind of person you want to confess everything to) that I want to write about myself, but I feel like a narcissist when I try to. She tuts, “that’s so sad!” Does she ever feel the same? “No, no, no! I think British people see memoir as something so fundamentally guilt inducing, it’s something you should be shamed for, it’s just so fucking English, it’s so fucked up!”

She insists that the English “see a woman who wants to write about herself and the first word that slaps their frontal cortex is narcissism.” I’ve proven her point for her. But the accusation is thrown at Instagram Influencers as much as writers. The act of sharing yourself is easily perceived as obsessing over yourself.

Caroline thinks it’s different in the US. “Something America has that Britain doesn’t is a tradition of white male memoirists. Ernest Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast, Nabokov [who is Russian-American]…with Speak Memory, George Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London. All these famous American men left this long legacy for American women to pick up and hoist on their backs that I don’t think exists in England. But I think,” she hesitates, deliberating “I always think your own story is worth telling.”

“The compulsion to witness stories in the present is what makes reality TV, YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat feel vital”

Traditional memoir isn’t compatible with popular culture anymore. Why wait years to read someone’s “own story” when you can witness it in the here and now? The compulsion to witness stories in the present is what makes reality TV, YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat feel vital. Future historians might study Instagram posts, and literature students might study tweets (Caroline squeals at the prospect, “I fucking hope so!”) but it is immediacy that makes social media relevant.

Calloway thinks there’s more to it. She alleges there’s honesty buried at the heart of human connection on these platforms. “It’s a lot easier to be receptive to people’s kind words when you feel like what they’re responding to is the truth.”

When we look back at what we posted on Instagram, will it coincide with what we remember about the weird world we’re living in? Will we see that “truth” that Caroline glorifies? Calloway thinks I’m overthinking it. Her internet obituary won’t just be truth, it’ll be a blur of fantasy and reality. Her advice? “There’s a lot of life to get it wrong.”

This article was edited on May 8th to correct ‘Immoveable Feast’ to ‘A Moveable Feast’, and on May 9th to clarify that Vladimir Nabokov is Russian-American.