It’s the age of the influencer. It’s been the age of the influencer, in fact; it’s worn on long enough for most of us consumers (the influenced? The influence-ees?) to learn all the classic cons. We know that that sapphire-skied vacation was sponsored. That Coachella candid? Not so candid. This is all old hat (artfully flopped, wide-brimmed and straw). But there’s a part of the influencer game even seasoned followers don’t give much thought to: its invisible backstage staff. There’s a whole layer of people out there whose job it is to post, caption and refresh someone else’s image.
When Natalie Beach — the girl who says she quietly helped influencer Caroline Calloway rise to celebrity status — wrote an instantly viral essay about her work for The Cut last month, she pulled back the curtain on her trade. And she raised questions: Why would anyone take this on as a job? How many people are doing it right now? And what’s the impact of professionally erasing one’s own identity to prop up someone more popular?
There’s a part of the influencer game even seasoned followers don’t give much thought to: its invisible backstage staff.
When I was in ninth grade, I rewrote the love notes of a girl who sat behind me in English. (I’ll call her Crystal.) She was excellent at eyeliner and smoking and we had no friends in common. One day she leaned forward, over my shoulder, and dropped a folded square of composition paper onto my desk.
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“It’s for this guy I like,” she said, as I opened the note. “I want you to re-do it for me.”
She meant she wanted me to copy her note to the boy in my neat, Catholic-school handwriting. (Twenty years later, the idea that she thought nice penmanship might sexually sway a boy fills me with tenderness.) I thought Crystal had attained a level of sophistication that I could live a thousand years and not touch, so I said yes. But I didn’t stop at calligraphy. I proposed some minor punch-ups: inserting a flirty joke here, cutting a profanity there — or at least including the g at the end of its ing suffix. Crystal eagerly accepted. The boy asked her out. I kept rewriting her notes. I don’t know if she ever told her boyfriend. More important, I don’t remember asking for anything in return.
Nothing bad happened because of my collaboration with Crystal. It’s just something I did for an audience of two, on paper, in the early aughts. But I’ve been thinking about it since the Beach’s essay came out in The Cut a few weeks ago. I was personally glued to the piece because my debut novel, “Followers,” is about a ruthlessly ambitious influencer wannabe and the lonely girl who executes her vision. And while Beach’s essay is full of examples of Calloway’s — well — callow behavior (walking out of restaurant dinners unannounced, convincing Beach to clean her apartment), nothing in it resonated with me as much as what Beach said to The New York Times a week later: “I feel embarrassed and ashamed about how small I made myself at times in that relationship.”
Who can’t relate to that? Who hasn’t, basking in the nearness of someone confident, agreed to push aside their own dignity in exchange for further nearness? Everyone has been there; I have been there, with Crystal. But in high school. Not as a job.
That’s what haunts me about Beach’s experience. Her story might have just been a slightly embarrassing social one, if she hadn’t come up in the age of Instagram as work — in a time in which casting aside your own identity to manage someone else’s has become a viable career choice. “I submitted captions we wrote together as work samples to corporate social-media positions but never heard back,” Beach wrote in her essay. “I placed [the hashtag they frequently used] at the top of my résumé, describing myself as an editor, or if the listing called for it, the personal assistant to Ms. Calloway.”
To be clear: Beach was not Calloway’s assistant. If you are mentally lumping her in with the nameless people you have seen on the edges of paparazzi photos, holding umbrellas over the heads of the Kardashian sisters, don’t. Her job was not “The Devil Wears Prada” redux; Beach was thinking bigger. She wanted to be a writer (and is, by all accounts, a skilled one). She saw Caroline as someone to write for but also about, Beach explains in her piece, and social media as the tool for getting her writing exposure.
That’s what haunts me about Beach’s experience. Her story might have just been a slightly embarrassing social one, if she hadn’t come up in the age of Instagram as work.
This may sound silly for those who aren’t familiar with how social media works. But while Facebook and Instagram and Twitter might look vapid and random on the surface, at their core, all of these platforms function mostly on simple math. There’s a formula to using them successfully, especially on Instagram. Beauty is rewarded (conventionally, highly saturated images, selfies and soothing colors like the much-chronicled millennial pink have garnered likes — though that science may be changing). But cleverness — in caption voice, composition choices and posting timing — is also essential. That’s why people like Calloway need people like Beach — a pretty face is nothing without someone to mind its algorithms.
Entire industries — entertainment, advertising, fashion, retail — have validated these practices by burning down their old business models to focus on serving social media. For people like Calloway, follower engagement can and does conjure cash and opportunity. So it’s easy for ghostwriters like Beach — or the professionals who got sucked into working on the Fyre Festival, or the children’s book author who got threats when people learned she co-wrote YouTuber Zoella’s novel, or the sorry soul who botched Kylie Jenner’s voice in a post, arousing her public wrath and causing her to quit her own app — to forget a key truth about their Instagram-age jobs: You’re working for someone who reserves the right to blithely sell you out. And when they do, there’s no HR to see about it. At work, you hardly even have a name.
There are more Natalie Beaches out there — young people at the uncertain beginnings of their careers, creatives who, in a different time, may have started by sorting mail or taking coffee orders at an agency or a magazine. Those jobs never made anyone feel glamorous — anyone who ever had one remembers doing the crappy-job math. Could you stick it out for six months? A year? Two, tops? But people doing work like Beach’s have to factor in an added risk. Stay too long, and you may forget, when you go to pick her back up, just where you put yourself down.