In defence of the influencers

(This article was originally written for and published by Buzzfeed)


Every so often someone gets dragged through the mud online as the Twitter cavalry charge takes up another stand in the fight for what’s right and wrong in this world. The latest victim of this self-righteousness is writer and Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway who recently organised a series of global creativity workshops, came under fire from a journalist on Twitter whose thread went viral, subsequently cancelled all her workshops and retreated from the front lines of Instagram. That’s the story in a nutshell and for more details you can find them here, or here, or even here. Anything else you want to know, Google will provide.

Since then, I’ve read the articles, seen the tweets and considered the angles but can’t seem to rid myself of the irritation I feel at the entire debacle. Not because I’m a fan of Calloway and have enjoyed her writing for the last few years, but because this latest public berating is a symptom of a wider problem and deeper frustration than just viral twitter threads and callous posts.

We live in unstable, unsure times and if you’re a millennial, or a member of the following generations, life is hard. Not just hard in a, ‘I’m tired at the end of the day’ kind of way, but rather, ‘I’m constantly exhausted, never stop working, feel miserable, am paying thousands in therapy I can’t afford, am digitally over-saturated, can’t leave my inbox alone, meditating every day, doing what is supposed to make me feel good and yet still can’t pinpoint exactly why life feels murky, sad and unnecessarily hard’ kind of way. It’s exhausting. All you have to do is read Anne Petersen’s essay on millennial burnout to know that the way we’re living is different, has changed and there’s no going back. Now, we’re just trying to adjust to this new world we’ve found ourselves in.

For example, we enter a workforce that looks completely different to the one our parents inhabited and we already know we have to work every minute, of every day, to earn half the pay of our retired workers. We also have to be innovative and entrepreneurial because that’s the current trend and after all, we have access to tools the previous generation didn’t, so it should technically be easier for us. The pressure is enormous, the student debt staggering, the economy precarious and the constant criticism draining. We have rubble in our hands and are asked to build palaces.

So, we use what we’ve got. We harness the audiences. Build the brand. Become influencers. Engage with fans. Post consistently. Maintain presence. Use the tools. Stay online. Be on social media. Do all the bullshit influencer things that even we sometimes know are bullshit, but we’ve already accepted that this is how it works nowadays, that this is how businesses are built. Then, when it doesn’t go exactly to plan we’re promptly nailed to the nearest cross to be crucified by over-zealous Twitter users who seem incapable of dismounting from their high horses. What’s more irritating is that people were building businesses way back in the ‘good old days’ and they got it wrong all the time. They sometimes couldn’t pay customers. Had to refund money for bad products. Went bust. Filed for bankruptcy. Sent out apology letters. Lost millions. Yet because it was a different time, and didn’t happen in the public eye, it was acceptable and even forgivable.

What we’ve also seemed to forget is that we live in a society that consistently perpetuates the narrative that to try is the most important thing. To shoot for the moon because even if we fail, we’ll land amongst the stars. To try, try, and try again. To fail fast and double down. To learn from the mistakes. To keep challenging ourselves because that’s how we grow. To live with caution and not fail is a failure in itself. To never give up. That trying and failing, and consequently learning, is the honourable thing to do.

So, the influencers and the Instagrammers and the bloggers and the young millennials who stare out across a bleak careers landscape, financial instability and crushed property dreams look down at the tools they’ve now got, and the people this modern, over communicated, technologically obsessed world has crafted them into, and they use what they’ve got. They try, try and try again. They do the things we’re all supposed to, which is exactly what Caroline Calloway did. She had an idea and quickly ran with it. Tried to create something different, something separate from old-school corporate events and new to the equally new world she finds herself in. This is how it’s done is it not? You have an idea overnight and then start the business out of your bedroom the next day, get into thousands of pounds of debt, fail about four times, start four other new businesses and eventually make it onto some Forbes list and tell your story in Entrepreneur magazine, all while the world pins you up as the latest millennial entrepreneur and starts putting your quotes about failure and success on Goodreads. The only difference for Caroline is she’s yet to reach that hallowed ground of successful influencers turned entrepreneurs. She’s still in her ‘failing and learning’ stage, but she’s just done it publically while a journalist (who seems to have a vendetta and a fascination for Calloway) was kind enough to document her every mistake and miscalculation.

Which is exactly what’s wrong with call out culture online. There are no spaces to fail safely, to learn from your mistakes and positively start again. Instead of bruised knees and scraped elbows it’s a public lynching as the internet decides you are after all mortal and because you’ve showed the terrible humanness of mistakes, you’re now ridiculed for every typo, post and past sentence. Donaldson is as much an influencer as Calloway and the culture she claims to hate, the only difference is, she believes she’s got a moral high ground and can be righteous because money is involved and has made the decision that people have been scammed.  

However, you can’t take away the accountability of Calloway’s fans and the decision they made. Calloway was very open about what she would do, and people still decided that was worth $165. They were super-fans who just wanted to spend time with her and be in the same room as her, and that’s the price they were willing to pay. Even though I’m a Calloway fan, I never considered going to a Calloway workshop because I knew that it wouldn’t be for me, wouldn’t be helpful to my own career, I wouldn’t enjoy that kind of event and I definitely didn’t want to eat salad for lunch. For other fans who looked at the facts and still hit that ‘buy ticket’ button, that was their decision to make.

I’m not here to split hairs on who did what and who said this or that, and of course there’s always a hundred sides to every story and I don’t know Calloway or Donaldson personally. But what I do know is that our current society and culture demands that we young, privileged millennials try harder, at everything. That we must juggle the jobs and the inboxes and the LinkedIn content and the social profiles. That we must eat well and become vegans. Carry wooden straws in our bags and save the planet. That we must settle for less pay, stop eating brunch and get on the property ladder. That we must never, ever, stop working and above all things, keep trying. It’s contradictory and confusing and constantly emotionally draining. I still look at myself and I’m not sure I know how to do any of it and struggle with a bleak hopelessness because no matter how many emails I send to clients, and no matter how many hours I work, it’s never good enough. The work never stops and the to do list just keeps getting longer. But in the middle of all this, when we do try, with all our courage and gumption, and we do squash our hearts and souls into tiny Instagram squares, we are brutally and painfully shot down if it doesn’t come off perfectly. We’re creating an arid world in which failure and human error is no longer an option and where an army of people are waiting in the wings, always with thumbs poised, ready to document your every blemish, flaw and mistake.

That’s not a world I want to be part of and not one I will actively contribute to. I stand by everything Calloway did, and other influencers like her. If they find brand affiliations that match their morals and framework, then they absolutely should take the money off those huge corporations and use it to pay the never-ending bills. If they spend time and energy building an audience that wants to pay hundreds of dollars to show up in the same room as them, they one hundred percent should sell the tickets. If your knowledge, skill and experience has built you a following, you’re well within your rights to sell your knowledge back to them and it’s their choice whether they want to buy it or not. The mason jars may be empty, but it’s only because the generations before us left them so, and we’re doing anything we can, any way we can, to fill them back up again.  

Salma El-Wardany