The Secret ‘Ghost’ Economy of Instagram Caption Writers
There are many things we, as a culture, collectively love to do: Buy seasonal flavored beverages, get irrationally angry at our WiFi providers, enthusiastically debate the merits of Jimmy Fallon. Perhaps on the top of that list is engaging in schadenfreude over the downfall of Instagram influencers — especially if they’re young, thin, blond, and female.
That’s the main takeaway from the response to a recent piece on the Cut by Natalie Beach, a writer who penned a lengthy first-person essay about her relationship with Caroline Calloway, an Instagram influencer with nearly 800,000 followers. Calloway skyrocketed to social media fame in 2013 for her lush depictions of graduate life at Cambridge University, complete with rambling, evocative captions; she is now perhaps best known for very publicly reneging on a $500,000 book deal and canceling (then uncancelling) (then canceling again) a $165-a-pop “creativity workshop.”
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This is just a reminder to keep being beautiful in your own odd way. Fuck people who don’t understand you. Love people with a kind heart and an open mind. Here are eight photos from the other day. Eight! And then: one photo from walking to therapy when the West Village lilies were in bloom and smelling so delightful. And one photo from this absolutely insane rave in Sicily that—like Nebraska—I really need to tell you about someday. The story is soooOoOo good. But this island, Pantelleria, has a truly shocking lack of flowers and cacti didn’t sound like a good match for my head so I went HAM with velvet ribbons instead. I won’t lie: I just woke up and I’m throwing random shit into this post because we’ve had a real streak of über polished, artsy captions and so I’m very okay with this lower-production value content right now. I think even at my rawest, my words still have a real sparkle to them. But that’s just me! Let’s move on! My favorite accessories are: Flowers Feathers Ribbons Leaves Shells Pearls Tiny Clips Turquoise. Anything turquoise. I feel like I’ve always known this is the Real Me when it comes to what to temporarily attach to my face. Odd! Beautiful! ODD! Lol can’t wait to be 80 and watch my quirkiness be weaponized against me because our culture fetishizes youth. Like: At 27 this flower-fairy vibe is a flirty and free-spirited, but at 78 it will be disdained as straight up crazy lady shit because my body won’t be so mainstream fuckable. UM FUCK YOU, FUCK THAT. I’M GOING TO BE WEIRD AND FUN AND FUCKABLE MY WHOLE LIFE REGARDLESS OF THE MALE GAZE. I’m beautiful and odd because I say so! And the confidence to be yourself is electrifying on everyone who wears it.
In a handful of circles, Calloway’s name has become shorthand for the fleeting nature of social media fame and the influencer grift in general, the very public combustion of her brand highlighting just how deep the chasm between reality and Instagram is. And nowhere was that more apparent than in Beach’s piece, which documents at length how Calloway, whom she depicts as a compulsively dishonest and emotionally imbalanced Adderall addict, culled together an immaculate social media presence to try to land a book deal, buying followers and hiring Beach to ghostwrite her infamously long, lurid, novelistic captions without directly crediting her.
Because Calloway’s captions were an integral part of her brand (to the degree that the New York Times actually quoted her in a story about lengthy Instagram captions), it’s this latter allegation that has perhaps gotten the most attention. It has also cemented her reputation as one of social media’s most prolific scammers, a term that has become so synonymous with Calloway’s brand that she even alludes to it in her own Instagram bio. But the truth is that Calloway is only a “scammer” if you believe that the entire social media ecosystem is a scam. In many ways, her extremely calculated trajectory toward Instagram stardom, up to and including the ghostwriting of her captions, isn’t much different from that of other aspiring influencers, who are increasingly outsourcing every aspect of their brands to professionals in their paths to stardom.
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Much like the events that led to me being in a punt with an umbrellla and orchids at 9 AM circa 2016, I’ll tell you about last night maybe never. My British lover just left and I am beyond hungover, nursing a @birchcoffee and watching Love Island and thinking: Thank God I took three years off from Instagram. I could be hungover for the next three years and still have enough backlogged content to keep up. I don’t think this pace of posting will last forever. Moons of creativity wax and wane. But I am finally getting into the swing of book-writing and words are coming sharp and quick. I mean: Just look at me. This is me making sentences with 10% emotional battery. Shit still has a ton of pep. My British lover and I are both still on England-time, so we woke up at the crack of 5 AM. I woke up almost physically ill with a white-hot, syrupy anxiety that I don’t feel like exploring here on Instagram. But I told him. We talked for 4 hours. We disagree on everything. But he’s intelligent and kind. An example: I think that love is when you understand someone’s broken parts and accept them. He thinks that love is when you like someone so much that their flaws become irrelevant to your perception of who they are. “Like organs,” was how he put it. I said: “Wow.” When we sat on my fire-escape last night he called it, adorably, a “stairwell.” When he left I felt insecure and sad. I called my friend @john_fiorentino who honestly deserves another shout out for his company @birthdatecandles because he answered my call at 9 AM (8 AM his time!) on a goddamn Saturday morn. Actually first I called @ajay.m ! But then I remembered he hates talking about sex! So John. John made me feel like July Caroline again. And I’m just feeling really grateful for all the boys who aren’t lovers, but love me so beautifully and well. John. Ajay. Ashwin. Pir—those four are the New York crew. Then there’s Oxford Nick and Cambridge Max. Francesco and Gerlando in Italy. German Victor. Sultan in the background of this pic. Thogan, who took it. Other Victor. Mendel. Charlie and Kai even though they’re young. @ajay.m don’t worry about calling me back. John and I got it under control.
For years, celebrities have been hiring copywriters, publicists, and designers specifically for what’s obliquely known as “social media personality management” — essentially, operating other people’s social media accounts. Over the past few years, however, as the influencer economy has expanded and brands have increasingly targeted microinfluencers or micro-micro-influencers, such services are increasingly being used not just by A-list celebrities or even the Caroline Calloways of the world, but also by those with only a few thousand or even a few hundred followers. It is so widespread that “at least 90%” of influencers don’t write their own captions, sometimes without approving them or even seeing the copy beforehand, says B.J. Mendelson, a longtime ghostwriter and author of the book Social Media Is Bullshit. “The bigger the influencer gets, the less involved they are with their account, with some exceptions here and there,” he tells Rolling Stone. What’s more, there’s absolutely zero transparency around this practice. Although the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires influencers to disclose whether a post has been sponsored (which they rarely do), they do not have any such requirements as to whether a caption has been ghostwritten or a photo has been significantly edited by a third party.
The fee for such services varies widely. While an independent contractor could charge a few hundred dollars per post, some high-end agencies charge upwards of six figures and assign entire teams to the task, according to Mendelsohn tells Rolling Stone. One New York City-based publicist who has managed multiple influencer social media accounts says that they charge anywhere between $3,000 and $7,000 a month to manage a client’s Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts.
The publicist, who asked to stay anonymous for fear of professional reprisal, says that maintaining a robust presence on Instagram, in particular, has become increasingly essential to people in industries all across the board (in Silicon Valley, for instance, a CEO’s Instagram is usually among the first things potential funders will look at, she says). “Everyone has to be an influencer, but not everyone has the time. That’s a lot of work,” she says. But it’s also the most difficult to master. The tone has to be “more voicey, more personable,” she says. “It has to be more human, and that’s why it gets so complicated.”
Typically, social media management teams will submit a mock Instagram grid in a Google doc about a month in advance for the client’s review, complete with mock copy for captions. Almost immediately, there will be a conflict between what the client wants and what the social media manager thinks will get the most engagement, says the publicist. One of her clients, for instance, was an influencer who had built her brand in part around posting sexy photos. “Our advice was, ‘Turn this into a broader personal brand.’ So we’d draft posts that were commentary on things happening, or celebrating other people in the industry, and she’d just say, ‘I think photos of myself will get more engagement.'” Mendelsohn said one of his former clients, a reality TV star turned cable news personality, had been paid by a company to promote one of its products on social media and on an episode of their TV show. But when it came time to promote the product on Instagram, the star would “just cross out everything I would submit to them [in the captions and] send back something really stupid and asinine,” he says.
As it turns out, hiring someone to pretend to be you on Instagram is not such a great idea if you want that person to, well, sound like you. “The hardest part is managing expectations. I always try to say, ‘Hey we’re never gonna be you. This is always gonna be an extension of you, filtered through what it needs to be for this specific platform,'” she says. “When people see themselves, their photos, and their name with a caption they didn’t post, they’re always gonna say, ‘That’s not me.'” (This at least partially explains one of the most outrageous details in the Cut essay, in which Calloway allegedly threatened suicide because she disliked Beach’s ghostwritten copy so much.)
As tough as it may be to perfectly mimic someone’s voice on social media, everyone Rolling Stone spoke with for this piece predicts that outsourcing caption-writing will only continue to gain popularity, and that most people will know nothing about who’s crafting the voices behind the scenes. But Mendelsohn also doesn’t think most people would really care. “I think some do. Those are the ones I like. They want an authentic connection in a shitty, inauthentic world,” he says. “But the majority don’t care. Their attention spans are too short.”
Of course, what primarily resonated about Beach’s piece isn’t the revelation that Calloway is not a particularly honest or competent person (not much of a revelation, since anyone who knew about the creativity workshop fiasco would have known that already), nor is it to underscore the chasm between real life and social media (because again, anyone who has ever spent a modicum of time on the platform knows that already, too). What really resonated about her essay was how it showcased a very particular female friendship dynamic that has existed forever, one that positions one young woman as a planet and the other merely a colder, smaller asteroid in her orbit; or, in the age of Valencia filters and sponsored posts, one woman in front of the camera and the other one behind it.
What the influencer economy has really done is cemented that stratification and created an economy of invisible laborers working around the clock in service of cultivating another person’s identity, whether they are paid to do so or not. “I’ve had friends like that, where I’ve helped them post their photos and helped grow their social media account and I’ve felt that way before about them. But I also feel that way about being in PR,” the NYC-based publicist says. “[I] feel like I am part of this specific part of society that is all ghost people.”
Within that context, Calloway may be a bad friend; she even may be a bad person. But contrary to what people on the internet may think, she isn’t really a scammer — more like just another large, shiny planet, continuing to draw clusters of colder, smaller rocks into her orbit.