DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Caroline Calloway is a 27-year-old who has a job that's peculiar to our era. She is an Instagram influencer. The lengthy captions she posted on Instagram with the photos of her fun, full life attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to her account. And then, earlier this year, she organized a series of workshops. For $165 a pop, attendees could learn to live their best lives. The workshops pretty quickly fizzled.
This week, New York Magazine published an essay by Natalie Beach, a woman who was once Calloway's best friend and her ghostwriter. This essay struck a personal chord with many readers, and it went viral. To find out why, our co-host Noel King talked to Anne Helen Petersen, a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed News.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: We had a debate in our office over this story. Some people - primarily, people in their 20s and 30s, many of them women - are infatuated with the story of Caroline Calloway. And then other people were like, why is this even interesting? What do you think that divide is about?
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Oh, I actually think that maybe the older people haven't even read the story because if they...
KING: OK (laughter).
PETERSEN: Because if they did, then they would recognize it immediately, especially women. I think it is an incredibly timeless story in terms of a toxic friendship that unravels, and then one person talks about it. Most women I know have been involved in a similar friendship or have closely observed a similar friendship. And so as I was reading it, like, yeah, it's updated to fit to the Instagram age, but every single move in it was deeply familiar.
KING: So Caroline Calloway had a ghostwriter. Why do you think, in our minds, she has become a scammer?
PETERSEN: Well, I think there's something about social media where there's an understanding of authenticity. And so if it seems like you have a window on to someone's life, then you're also expecting the narration that accompanies that window to be from the person who you are coming to understand and know and have be part of your everyday social media life. But it really has to do with events that Caroline tried to orchestrate about six months ago. Basically, you paid for tickets to go hang out with Caroline. And it fell apart...
KING: Like, spectacularly (laughter)...
PETERSEN: ...Completely and in real time - right? - because this is the thing about a social media influencer - is that they are documenting everything that they're doing. And apparently, that is when Natalie began to write this piece.
KING: And the twist is that - you assume, I assume - Natalie Beach will soon have a book deal of her own.
PETERSEN: (Laughter) Yeah, you know, that's the interesting thing - right? - is, like, Natalie - all she wanted was writerly recognition. That's what she was in the original writing class where she met Caroline. That's what she was working towards after graduation. It took narrativizing her own life for people to understand that skill. Now, one thing that I think everyone should always be wary of is that, you know, each writer has a couple of personal stories that are brilliant, right?
PETERSEN: But there's only a - really, each person only has, like, two or three, unless they're incredibly talented or have an incredibly interesting life. But, you know, if you're a white lady in the United States - you know, I already burned through my three interesting stories early in my career. But so that's the one thing that, like, people, like, oh, she's such a great writer. Yeah, of course, this is, you know, one of the most important events of the last decade of her life. She spent a lot of time thinking and processing it and six months writing the story.
KING: Anne Helen Petersen, senior culture writer at BuzzFeed News. Thank you so much, Anne.
PETERSEN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF KLIMEKS' "VENUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.