I have a time limit set on my Instagram use. Some days, as I’m lying in bed, aimlessly scrolling through images of burnt-orange sunsets and golden retrievers, a notification will command my vision and fill me with guilt — but only briefly. Often, in the instant my eyes mindlessly scan over the reminder that I’ve “spent 15 minutes on Instagram today,” my right thumb lunges toward the “OK” button, and the notification disappears. I move on, only slightly deterred in my dead-eyed scrolling.
What am I looking for when I spend 15, 20, 30 minutes — maybe even an hour — on Instagram? I can’t say. In her recently released essay collection “Trick Mirror,” New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino writes that when it comes to social media, we’re like lab-rats, pressing a lever that only rarely and irregularly dispenses a reward. Most of the time we get nothing: We scroll and scroll and, unsatisfied, we continue scrolling, “pressing our lever over and over in the hopes of getting some fleeting sensation — some momentary rush of recognition, flattery or rage.”
Viewed this way, Instagram looks a lot like a scam. We give the app our last few minutes before falling asleep, our caption-producing faculties and our carefully curated self-branding. In return, we receive little to no reward (and, according to studies, a lot of anxiety), while companies profit off of us — unless, that is, we engage in the very system that scammed us, and scam back. That’s essentially the job of the social media “influencer” — a new professional breed that shapeshifts to the whims of the internet landscape and profits off of empty promises.
Popular culture offers many examples of the most disastrous and visible of these influencer scams. There was Fyre Festival in 2017, which for lofty prices promised a luxury festival experience, yet resulted in thousands of wealthy millennials stranded on a rugged Bahamian beach with nothing but rain-soaked tents and skimpy sandwiches. Then, this year, a determined journalist tweeted an elaborate takedown of Caroline Calloway, a popular Instagram lifestyle influencer and blogger. Calloway’s “speaking tour” (tickets only $165) yielded one four-hour event in Brooklyn, where the promised “orchid crowns” were individual flowers, the “mini-gardens” were near-empty mason jars and the “creativity workshop” was, according to one attendee, nothing they couldn’t have found on the internet. The drama continued when, just this month, Natalie Beach, Caroline Calloway’s former friend and ghostwriter, published an intimate — and entertaining — narrative of the influencer’s rise to fame, highlighting her lies, coercions and signs of unstable mental health.
Caroline Calloway is a particularly compelling scammer because she very nearly acknowledges the full extent of her harm. She fits it into her brand of authenticity: She’s just a woman, forging her way in the world, who happens to make some mistakes — and she’s really sorry for them! Her Instagram bio currently reads, “No, not that one. The other scam. The one you love.” She still posts multiple times a day; sometimes she’s apologizing, sometimes she’s pleading with Natalie Beach for reconciliation and sometimes, clad in a fashionable loose-fitting sweater and surrounded by vines that chaotically sprawl across the walls of her Brooklyn flat, she’s posting mirror selfies. Whatever she’s doing, it works. She gained close to 15,000 followers in the week following the supposedly image-damaging tell-all. Below her posts, commenters leave hearts and incite her to “YUP, get it gurl,” just like before.
The recent Hulu documentary “Jawline” presents a more complicated scamming narrative than Twitter take-downs. Amid pastel-pink hues and ethereal synthesizers, the camera follows aspiring “broadcaster” Austyn Tester, a 16-year-old boy living in poverty in Kingsport, Tenn. In his live videos online he repeats sweet, vague words of encouragement to his overwhelmingly tween-to-teenage female audience. “Be yourself … follow your dreams,” he seems to repeat endlessly. At the same time, as Variety writer Amy Nicholson points out in her review of the film, Tester is part of a “authenticity-industrial complex”: While he tells his fans to be true to themselves, he dons the same “shag haircuts and plastic smiles” of all the other young male internet celebrities. “Influencer culture,” Nicholson writes, “is a pyramid scheme of positivity. Boys boost their own happiness by getting likes for telling other people to be happy while masking their own depression.”
Still, what if this pyramid scheme … works? At the bizarre concerts shown in the film — in which internet celebrities mostly stand on a stage (save for a selfie here, a backflip there) in front of high-pitched screaming hordes — girls recount earnestly in interviews how internet broadcasters have made their lives better. These teenage celebrity boys are better friends than any they’ve had, even if only accessible through a screen.
It’s easy to view these spectacles of scam culture from behind the safety of our glass-protected phone screens. We may laugh at the people who fell for Fyre Fest, dismiss Instagram personalities as vapid and talentless or scorn fangirls. But the idea that we’re not mixed up in all this too — that we, as consumers of media, aren’t complicit — is a delusion. It’s nearly impossible to engage in social media and not scam people with a narrow or blatantly false version of ourselves.
When I dove into Caroline Calloway’s Instagram account, I expected to find a few quotes in a few minutes and jump back out. But instead, I scrolled and scrolled. According to my screen time statistics, it was an hour and a half later that I returned to the real world. These influencers scam us — in big and small ways, with potentially positive and disastrous consequences — just like the internet as a whole scams us, and just like we, knowingly or not, scam others online. But as long as we try to see the promised orchid crown for what it truly is — a single, wilting flower — we can navigate online scam culture with a little more self-awareness, constantly reflecting on how we contribute to the system.
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