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Mason jars and drama: How an Instagram influencer's event tour captivated the internet

Caroline Calloway’s tour went viral after its unraveling was documented on Twitter by Kayleigh Donaldson, a journalist in Scotland who warned it was a scam.

Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway will have a use for the 1,200 mason jars filling her apartment after all.

Life moves quickly on Instagram. Over the course of two days, Calloway, who has more than 830,000 followers on the photo-sharing app, canceled her national “creativity” tour after it was criticized as a scam, refunded the $165 tickets and, then, had a change of heart.

“I canceled my tour because I was frightened and feeling worthless because if you read enough bad things about yourself on the internet you will start to believe they’re true,” she wrote on Instagram. “But after taking some time to process, I have decided that I am confident in myself and the value my workshops provide.”

The mason jars were just one of many pieces of Calloway’s tour that turned into an internet sensation after she showed photos of them overwhelming the living space in her Manhattan apartment. Calloway said she planned to give the jars and a packet of seeds to her attendees so they could make their own gardens.

Images: Caroline Calloway attends the Shorty Awards in New York on April 15, 2018.
Caroline Calloway attends the Shorty Awards in New York on April 15, 2018.Noam Galai / Getty Images for Shorty Awards

Calloway’s tour went viral after its unraveling was documented on Twitter by Kayleigh Donaldson, a journalist in Scotland who warned it was a scam.

It all began in December, when Calloway started selling tickets to fans for stops around the U.S. where she would teach a “creativity workshop.” However, her Instagram stories showed signs that Calloway was in over her head in trying to quickly plan a national tour, even though she had already collected money from her fans. Many of the screenshots were captured and shared in Donaldson’s Twitter thread.

Calloway did not return a request for comment.

Issues for the tour piled up. Calloway didn’t have some venues booked for upcoming dates. She abruptly canceled some stops. Calloway learned that making the vegan salad she promised proved difficult when it was for 50 people. The flower crowns she talked about on the Eventbrite website, where she sold tickets, turned out to just be a flower clip each attendee placed in their hair for a photo with Calloway before giving it back, according to attendees. And those personal letters she promised each fan? They were too time consuming. Calloway did, however, manage to write an affirmation in each attendee’s journal, which was part of the gift bag they were promised.

While some fans stood by her after the experience, the workshop caused other formerly loyal followers to take a step back.

“Sitting here I began starting to question that. Am I stupid for trusting you? Are we the real punchlines who spent our hourly wages to support you and see your ‘workshop’? Is this an instance of blind faith? AM I IN A CULT?” one fan, Abigail Scott, wrote in an open letter to Calloway. Two fan accounts dedicated to Calloway also rebranded and said they wanted to distance themselves from "a brand we do not trust or believe in any longer.”

Calloway’s saga comes the same week Netflix and Hulu released competing documentaries about Fyre Festival, a 2016 event that used Instagram influencers to lure attendees to pay for a luxurious weekend at a music festival in the Bahamas that was, in reality, full of cheese sandwiches, wet tents and no musical acts.

“Influencers can absolutely make events successful, but they can trick themselves into thinking because they have the audience, that is most important to making the event successful, “ said Jen Golbeck, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies who has studied social media. “But it is not.”

While some fans have excused Calloway of being a grifter, Golbeck said she thinks Calloway simply had no clue how much work it would take to plan a tour. She even ordered 1,200 mason jars for her gift bags, which quickly overwhelmed the living space in her New York City apartment.

"Influencers can absolutely bring people into events and have it be successful," Golbeck said. "But if you want to put on an event, before you do it, you need to talk to some people who professionally put on events and figure out what it can cost."

Golbeck said PostSecret, which includes mail art, and the podcast “My Dad Wrote a Porno” are two examples of influencers who successfully planned and executed tours.

Calloway amassed a social media following by depicting her life on Instagram as an American studying at Cambridge University in England, showing the pomp and parties and sharing details about her love life in long captions below each photo.

Her Instagram account earned her a $500,000 book deal. Calloway collected the advance but ultimately opted not to write the book after she had creative differences with her publisher.

There’s no doubt that Calloway is losing fans, Golbeck said. But she said the “halo effect” will be in full force and Calloway’s most loyal fans will stick by her. It’s the people “in the middle” that she’ll have to work to win back.

“There’s this form this disillusionment that comes from when people you admire are being disingenuous about things,” she said. “For the group in the middle, it will depend on how authentic and honest she is about this. Her posts are damage control. She acts like it is forces beyond her control. I think if she can really take responsibility, I think within her brand she can authentically spin that into something.”