The journalist as influencer: how we sell ourselves on social media

Caroline Calloway.

Caroline Calloway. Photograph: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Shorty Awards

This piece originally appeared in Study Hall.

Caroline Calloway likes to be identified as a writer. She makes this abundantly clear in a post directed at Grace Spelman, formerly a content producer at BuzzFeed, during one of Calloway’s many forgettable spats with media workers whose criticisms she has found chafing.

“FYI I prefer ‘writer’, like you, Grace,” Calloway noted in a parenthetical within a wall of text (Spelman had called her an “Instagram blogger”, which, for my money, is pretty apt).

Elsewhere on her Instagram, Calloway posts a picture of Trick Mirror, the lauded debut essay collection from the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino. The book makes her “insecure”, she writes, because she can’t seem to measure up to Tolentino’s pristine search results. “When you type Jia Tolentino into Google you get: Great writer! Benefit of the doubt! Kind assumptions! Media EGOT!” She contrasts this apparent luck with her own results, which yield unsparing (and, frankly, excessive) coverage of some poorly planned “creativity workshops” consisting of flower crowns, salads, and organized vulnerability.

Calloway’s writerly ambition had been to document her life in real time on a platform best known for sharing selfies, to pioneer a new genre of memoir while cultivating a loyal social media following. She had secured a book deal at one point but wasn’t able to deliver due to a worsening addiction to Adderall, so Instagram remained her literary venue of choice. And why not? Many writers – good writers – self-publish via newsletters or blogging platforms; the choice of the photo-centric Instagram merely makes the writer’s intentions of self-commodification more straightforward. There could not be any confusion about what was being sold: not just prose, but the person herself.

Writer instagram illustration
 Illustration: Josh Kramer

But to describe Calloway as a writer first and foremost would be extraordinarily generous. Her frenzied, disjointed dispatches beneath photos of her art-cluttered West Village studio floor are, in and of themselves, often myopic and uninteresting. It is the media-fueled mythos around her – the disintegrated book deal, the “scam” workshops, the sensational and damning the Cut essay from her former best friend and collaborator Natalie Beach – that have earned my attention and emotional investment. To my shame, I read every word Calloway writes.

But perhaps Calloway could be forgiven for conflating the work of writing with the work of marketing oneself as a writer. After all, to be a writer today is to make yourself a product for public consumption on the internet, to project an appealing image that contextualizes the actual writing. The women – and they are mostly women – who are most heralded in the media industry today are extremely online, starring in photoshoots and documenting their skincare routines and eating habits as much as discussing their process.

The influencer is insecure about not being the writer. But over this past summer of viral internet-fueled grifts and an equally intense barrage of high-profile book launches and interview tours, it struck me that there is functionally little difference between a lauded writer with a recognizable avatar and a prominent social-media influencer. The only difference is in the way each metabolizes the experience of influence.

Self-conscious authenticity

The most famous writers have always been public figures with their own media-fueled mythos, of course. We have the glamorous mystique of Joan Didion, whose aspirational “cool” has made her a persistent object of reverence for white women with literary ambitions; the wild lore of Hunter S Thompson with his drugs and guns, the cigarette holder and aviators instantly recognizable even to those who haven’t read him; and the literary “Brat Pack” of Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and company, who were themselves objects of fascination as extensions of their depressive, decadent, druggy fiction. Benjamin Moser’s new authorized biography of Susan Sontag painstakingly attempts to reconcile the writer’s contradictory private self with her glamorous persona as a public intellectual. The book’s many reviews grapple with the unreliability of biographical interpretation and the insertions of the biographer’s own biases and blindspots.

But the image management that once seemed incidental, or at least parallel, to the literary profession seems now one of its most necessary, integral functions. In the age of Twitter and Instagram, an online presence, which is necessarily public and necessarily consumable, seems all but mandatory for a writer who reaches (or hopes to reach) a certain level of renown, especially for anyone dealing in personal essays or cultural criticism. In the way that the influencer uses her image to sell her swag, the writer leverages her life to sell her work, to editors and audiences.

Naomi Fry, known for her sharp dissections of celebrity, social media, and meme culture at the New Yorker, is perhaps equally known for her own social media presence as a funny, astute documentarian of her personal life, though always within the context of her job at a prestige publication and with more than a whiff of irony. If celebrities who play well on social media do so by being funny and relatable but more glamorous than you, writers who play well on those same platforms do so by being funny and relatable but smarter and more successful than you.

Last year, Fry gave an interview to the Caret, a tech publication that interviews “innovators and visionaries shaping the digital landscape”, in which she took stock of her modest internet fame and connection to influencer culture. “When it comes to so-called ‘personal brand building’, even when you don’t think you’re doing it, you’re still kind of doing it,” she said. “So I’m not going to pretend it’s something I’m not totally aware of, as anyone on social media is. But I think it’s true that I have no interest in presenting my life in a way that’s idealized.”

Indeed, who in the irony-soaked world of New York media does? For all our talk of Instagram as a vehicle for curating an idealized self, we know grainy displays of self-awareness are the real ticket – filterless, sparse bathroom mirror selfies are infinitely cooler than the obviously posed and airbrushed. They denote a certain status, in fact, that comes with being in on the collective joke, with understanding the illusory nature of the medium and making use of it in a wry punchline at your own expense. You don’t have to look talented or elegant online – as long as you are, or could be.

If you aren’t already (internet-)famous, the lack of idealization, or the appearance thereof, could hurt you in the eyes of your peers or bosses. This is not a concern for the writer-influencer. On social media they joke about not writing, about their elaborate procrastination techniques, about getting high, about angsting to their therapists who don’t understand the internet. Like descendants of Carrie Bradshaw in her apartment with its designer shoe-filled oven, they are performatively, romantically messy.

I couldn’t help but wonder: if this self-consciously unadorned authenticity – the thing supposedly separating writers from the polished Instagram influencers they critique – yields status, followers, and an aspirational yearning in their fans, what’s the difference?

Intention to influence

As digital journalism has converged with influencer culture, a whole genre of coverage has sprung up to account for it, including breathless book-launch coverage around star authors that feels more like celebrity voyeurism. We want to know what and how writers eat, which skincare products they smear on their faces, and what they’re reading when they’re not writing. And so we have the debut writer’s holy trinity of New York Magazine’s Grub Street Diet, Into the Gloss’s Top Shelf, and the New York Times’s By the Book. Jia Tolentino checked all of these boxes throughout her very visible book publicity tour over the summer – a relentless whirlwind of glowing press – and made self-deprecating jokes about saturating our newsfeeds (which felt very much in keeping with her public image we had come to know through these dispatches).

I asked Tolentino in an email about this exposure, about the cultivation of a public persona online, and the degree to which she goes about doing so consciously. She responded that she had been thinking about the question a lot lately, as she’d been “strapped to the soul-crushing (if also very fortunate) machine of book promotion”. She is distressed by the imperative to commodify herself to sell her work, but it is something she recognizes as inescapable.

Writer instagram illustration
 Illustration: Josh Kramer

“A good amount of my book is about how capitalism, the internet, the monetized self are all destructive to our functioning as real humans; yet, the better I express those ideas, the better I become a marketable object myself,” Tolentino explained. “I’ve spent a lot of time, while promoting Trick Mirror, wondering if the work that brings me the most meaning in life (writing) will always necessarily bring me deeper into the clutches of the things that I hate (capitalism, and a way of being in which external incentives seem more important than internal ones).”

She tries to navigate her life online “unconsciously, instinctively”, and without losing sight of the fact that her real life is more important than what she projects to an audience. “One of the worst things that the internet does is make us value representations of a thing over the actual thing itself, and I think I just try to stay tight to that understanding – that my actual self and life are a lot more important to me than the online representation of such, that my work is more important to me than any public idea of that work.”

Tavi Gevinson, the polymathic founder of Rookie, grapples with this duality between the work and the worker’s persona in a New York Magazine cover story on how Instagram fame shaped her sense of self and her career alike. “I think I am a writer and an actor and an artist,” she writes. “But I haven’t believed the purity of my own intentions ever since I became my own salesperson, too.” The more she focuses on her own work, embracing the archetype of the writer rather than the influencer, the farther away she stays from Instagram, delegating updates to an assistant.

But when it comes to the commodification of the self, the work and the public idea of the work are often conflated, just as the internet flattens everything else. It’s harder to separate the art from the artist, or the artist’s skincare. Maybe that is the natural endpoint of the influencer’s internet. Caroline Calloway’s great project is, ultimately, making her inner life into what she calls “digital art”, her life and its representation one glorious entangled mess. She has pursued the solidification of a public idea first and foremost; the body of work she has amassed in her posts project the persona she has made for herself. She knows she is a salesperson – both of Matisse knockoffs and of her actual self – and not only bluntly admits it but confidently conflates it with her creativity.

The self-disclosure required of an influencer whose brand is vulnerability, already unsettlingly close to the work-mandated social-media shilling required of most writers, can become almost indistinguishable from the work of an essayist who deals in the personal. In this way, the influencer could simply be a digital update of the confessional writer.

Shannon Keating at BuzzFeed recently wrote an essay exploring how the Calloway phenomenon has prompted her to re-examine her choice to write first-person essays. She draws a line, as I also did, from the dusk of the “first-person industrial complex” to the dawn of the influencer, what she considers to be an “even more complicated and ethically murky digital economy of self-exposure and service content”, spawned by a desperation for a clearly defined sense of identity. “We’re looking for answers,” writes Keating. “We’re looking for relatable (or even better, aspirational) role models who are willing to open their lives up to us for inspection, and social media has spawned an endless supply of them.” (It’s an arc that can be traced back to Emily Gould in the early days of Gawker, who documented her experience in a 2008 New York Times Magazine essay.)

Jia Tolentino.
 Jia Tolentino. Photograph: Elena Mudd

The root of all this angst: Keating had recently written a viral essay for BuzzFeed about falling in love on a lesbian cruise, and the effects of that virality had rendered her a de facto influencer, which troubled her. Had she, through the act of writing, made her personal life into a public commodity? “The last thing I wanted was to turn Lynette and me into some sort of lesbian influencer couple, selling us as a desirable product … I’d much rather people check up on me to read my latest article, not to learn whether or not I’m still with my girlfriend,” she writes. “But as someone who mines her own life for content – who always has and probably always will – I know that’s a ridiculous thing to wish for.”

Calloway, for her part, does not seem conflicted about her self-exposure in the slightest; nor, really, does the journalist Lauren Duca, whose aggressive personal branding has propelled her to the level of living meme. Duca got famous for a Teen Vogue piece that, for better or worse, reintroduced the term “gaslighting” into our political and personal nomenclature, but equally for calling Tucker Carlson a “sexist pig” as her mic was cut. Then she sold T-shirts emblazoned with a catchphrase borrowed from Carlson’s sexist rant.

Still, she insists her public presence isn’t self-aggrandizing. She is furious at any comparisons between herself and Calloway, claiming they overshadow her “serious and important work”. But that work, at least after the initial Teen Vogue salvos and TV appearances, has undoubtedly been overshadowed by her own labor of peddling a persona. Like Calloway, Duca has drawn hundreds of thousands of followers not just through a body of writing but through the projection of a lifestyle that appears compelling in a not particularly radical or innovative way.

Highly paid talks, university teaching gigs, big book deals, and sassy clapback-style tweets is a pretty uncontroversial vision of success as a journalist that many of us would like to copy, whatever we think of Duca herself. But all of this external posturing has overshadowed any actual reportage: at some point, the “work” becomes the continued maintenance of the image.

The anxiety of influencing

To truly contend with a term I suppose we should define it. A social media influencer, according to the Digital Marketing Institute, is simply “a user who has established credibility in a specific industry, has access to a huge audience and can persuade others to act based on their recommendations”. This is a broad definition that could encompass everyone from Chrissy Teigen (a celebrity who effectively markets her relatability) to Shaun King (another alleged grifter).

When encountering the influencer, we must therefore determine how their credibility was established, in which specific industry, and to what end they deploy their powers of persuasion. The answers to those questions determine whether we view a person online as worthy of our reverence or our scorn. We can accept Jia Tolentino’s skincare tips because we know the work at the core of this brand is as solid as it gets, whereas Caroline Calloway becomes a punchline, because even the content that did exist was a ghostwritten illusion.

The problem comes down to the way we view work, and what we view as “work” in the first place. There is a perception that to simply exist in public space, to influence by living, is not work at all. These influencers who produce photos of themselves, who turn their wider lives into content rather than confining themselves to a byline, are thus dismissed as vapid and shallow, sources of pleasure and no more. The writer, by contrast, is viewed primarily as a purveyor of intellect and meritorious beauty. The writer gives us art, gives us insight and rigor, contextualizes the phenomena that confound us. Their labor is seen as more valid.

chill writer instagram illustratino
 Illustration: Josh Kramer

But these two imperatives are increasingly inextricable. The internet has become what Tolentino, in our exchange, called “persona-based”, which has sometimes worked to her advantage. “Having come into media outside New York, with no connections and no experience, I’ve always been aware that I owe a lot of my career to the fact that my temperament, my self, and my life all map well and easily onto the persona-based internet,” she wrote, “which has become a horrible substitute for a safety net for a lot of people, from medical GoFundMes to personal brands.”

One must have a persona on the persona-based internet, but the persona must be honest, or at least maintain the appearance of honesty. The cultural critic Sarah Nicole Prickett expressed a shrugging ambivalence on the matter of her public persona in an interview with Mask Magazine. “I very much have a public persona, even though it’s a small public, but I feel detached from it,” she told Mask’s co-founding editor Hanna Hurr, who had asked about Prickett’s Instagram presence, a cavalcade of sultry selfies, gallery installation shots, and party documentation with more conventionally famous friends. “It’s something I have, not something I am. It’s not even something I feel like I made with any intent, which is also not something I’m proud about.”

Gevinson echoed this insistence that existing online for her had never been a thing she agonized over. “I’ve always thought I could be myself in public pretty easily – by which I mean, speak without second-guessing myself too much on social media, in writing, in interviews.” Artifice was not just absent from her online persona; it was something she feared and actively avoided. “I never considered myself calculating – who does? – and when I did catch glimpses of my own ambition, I thought it was ugly, disgraceful, incongruous with my authentic self, who simply wanted to make things and connect with people and probably, one day, move to the woods.”

The great division between writers and influencers is the appearance of effort in exerting influence. It’s never cool to look like you’re trying too hard. Calloway raves about her shape-shifting acumen, her persona-building, her bottomless ambition to create herself for her own profit; Prickett professes to think very little about her persona, while posing for her own essay on structured denim in SSENSE and being featured as a “scene stealer” by Mac Cosmetics. If the end result is the same, how much does the division matter?

The writer-influencer’s identity must be quickly identifiable by the consumer, distilled to a meme-like essence in which content is the same as form. The writing is lifestyle, and vice versa. Tolentino as a cool girl who plays beer pong and smokes a lot of weed. Prickett as an aloof and modelesque bohemian socialite. Fry as a funny and enviably fun-natured lover of all things lowbrow, proclaiming her obsessions with reality shows and random celebrities. Cat Marnell as a romantically messy party girl, a blonde and waifish Bukowski. Olivia Nuzzi as a shoeleather politico, the hot girl in a boy’s club with the establishment boyfriend to match. Taffy Brodesser-Akner as likable and liked, relatable and intellectual at the same time, the woman who, right now, has it all. Taffy’s (she can only be Taffy) enthusiasm is even raised as a curious anomaly in journalism; a Punch profiler described her as “buoyant – a palpable, energetic presence that’s difficult to square with the typical image of a lurking or inconspicuous reporter”. In other words: she doesn’t even seem like a writer!

As a writer without much in the way of influence, I see these women and I feel an imperative to find the thing about me that could best be underscored, amplified, and repeated across platforms, the fragment of self that could become persona. I do not believe any of them to be calculating persona-crafters – I take them at their word that what they present is authentic – but I believe they have a very useful instinct, in addition to their talent for writing, for precisely which parts of themselves to share and how. Frankly, I fear that is an instinct that I lack but would do well to cultivate. The media industry is less stable than ever, and the one safe strategy seems to be the commodification of personality, turning your voice into followers and paid subscribers that no CEO can take away. We are all but forced to make ourselves, not just our words, the thing we sell.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
 Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Photograph: Ali Smith/The Guardian

If we’re lucky, like Tolentino said, the soul-crushing machine of self-promotion will come for us and the capitalist imperative we hate will become one with the art or work that we love. So maybe there’s something to be said for throwing oneself into it wholeheartedly, without shame, maybe even skipping the part where you fritter away underpaid labor in the hopes that someone higher up will notice you. How many women wrote revealing first-person essays and came up empty handed? If we’re not lucky, the machine doesn’t come at all.

Women as writers as influencers

I’m not immune to any of this. I am acutely aware that I lack Gevinson and Prickett and Fry’s effortless knack at existing online – that I am neurotic and prone to self-doubt in a way that stifles organic self-expression – and that makes me anxious. Then I think about what it would mean to supplant that natural instinct with an intentionally crafted persona, and that makes me hate myself. I consider being more vulnerable on Twitter, then I consider all the ways in which that could backfire; I consider posting selfies; I consider writing personal essays and then I consider how all the ways I could mine my life for content make me want to crawl into a hole. The fact that all of the above is agonizing for me to think about makes me feel I am not cut out for this industry in its current state.

I consider also how the women whose work I most admire, whose careers I most want to emulate, are also women who I want to be. Whether or not that is by design, I can’t help but feel it is no small part of what continues to drive me to click on their links and buy their books.

It does not escape me that I have been considering only women, that the question of how to optimally present oneself online feels distinctly feminine, and this feels unfair even as the skill is somewhat advantageous, but mostly it feels inevitable. We are socialized to be highly attuned to making ourselves palatable for an audience, to be pleasing to the eye and the ear. This is the case as much on Twitter and Instagram as the physical world. And so we are slotted into this category, seen as much for our apartments and outfits as our writing, left to compete on every level at once.

Meanwhile, the hard-bitten male longform journalist posting Instagram stories of unknown jungles is not treated or viewed as an influencer; he doesn’t even worry about his influence in the first place. Nor does the male blogger-turned-venture capitalist who tweets and podcasts constantly. Nor the male mid-level editor bragging about an obviously four-figure fashion purchase on social media. The age of the famous “dudeitor” – middle-aged bros casually dominating media in a laid-back, unaffected posture – is over, even though their domination no doubt remains in the background. (Anonymity is a luxury.) Instead we have the age of the woman writer-influencer, both journalist and celebrity.

I’m not sure that there’s an answer here, only that while I wring my hands over whether to press send on a tweet or make my private Instagram public, Caroline Calloway is meeting with producers interested in turning her Insta-memoir into a movie. I still do not think she is primarily a writer. I do, however, think we have entered a point of no return in the realm of media-industry success that necessarily brings us closer to her than we would perhaps like to admit.

Those who insist that the job of the writer is simply, only, to write are deluding themselves. Editors whose advice is to get off Twitter, put your head down, and do the work are missing something fundamental and indispensable about digital media. It’s that all the things that invite derision for influencers – self-promotion, fishing for likes, posting about the minutiae of your life for relatability points – are also integral to the career of a writer online. At least if you want to be visited by that holy trinity when it comes time for your book launch, you must be an influencer in all the ways that matter.

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