caroline calloway retweeted me & now I'm in an existential spiral

I didn't ask for this!

I’ve been thinking about The Void a lot. Maybe “voids” plural is a better way to phrase it; everywhere I look I see different existential black holes, greeting me and luring me to peek inside. During The Year of Our Dark Lord 2020, I’ve identified several flavors of Void:

  • Intellectual Void: Performatively reading in public before realizing you haven’t absorbed a single word, pretending to understand Dark, feeling judged by the untouched issue of the New Yorker you bought at an airport gift shop eight months ago

  • Political Void: Watching DNC clips dead-eyed, clicking on articles about need-to-know news only to hit a paywall, picking between two sexual assaulters for president

  • Vanity Void: Accidentally reaching Rouge status at Sephora.com, scrolling through before-and-after plastic surgery accounts for celebrities who claim they’ve never had work done, taking a bubble bath and staring blankly at the ceiling for 45 minutes

  • Virtual Void: Creating and then deleting a finsta, realizing you get anxious if you go for a walk without listening to a podcast, needing to have an episode of Holey Moley playing in the background in order to fall asleep

In a move that is in no way unique, I have nestled myself neatly into the Virtual Void the past few months and replaced the outside world with newsfeeds. A depressing side effect of this is that I’ve toppled headfirst into the world of Caroline Calloway.

If you don’t know who that is by now, Caroline is a 28-year-old Instagram personality mostly known for documenting her time at Cambridge University with filtered pictures of castles and ridiculously long captions, failing to deliver on a book deal based on those captions, and running a series of “creativity workshops” that the media and attendees alike considered a scam. She was a much bigger topic last year, back when society was still scam-rabid and coming down off the dueling Fyre Fest documentaries. But more importantly, she’s a compulsive over-sharer on social media, leaving me with hours and hours of hate-scroll content that occasionally makes me say “what the fuck” out loud to my phone screen.

Photo collage courtesy of NYU Local

At first glance, Caroline is exactly average by influencer standards: white, young, and conventionally attractive; eager to show off her latest flower crown; leveraging her interest in writing and art as a way to set her apart from other accounts (even though the creative-turned-influencer market is equally flooded). But after a dedicated scroll through her Instagram, the cracks became clear. Her wall-of-text captions spiral into a dozen unrelated topics, and her grid is an unfocused hodge-podge of fan art, screenshots of her own tweets, and pictures of other (typically blonde) internet personalities that she idolizes. Her account has suspiciously low engagement (690k followers, with only 1,000 to 2,000 likes per post? Smells like bots!) Despite her high follower count, there isn’t a branded or sponsored post in sight, whether that’s because she’s anti-consumerist (her affinity for luxury goods says otherwise) or because no brands would touch her with a ten-foot pole. And then there are moments that are just truly unhinged, like her hocking slapdash watercolors my cat could’ve done for $200 a pop. Or filming herself open-mouth sobbing in a time-lapse video while crafting construction-paper Matisse ripoffs. Or detailing different “Caroline holidays” her followers can observe every year (including, for some reason, Easter. Just regular Easter.)

I’ve been snorting lines of her bullshit for about four months now. Does it make me feel better? Maybe, in the same way that a Real Housewives binge or demolishing a whole container of Cool Whip does. But I do want to make one thing painfully clear: I do not follow Caroline Calloway—not on Instagram, not on Twitter, not on Patreon, and not on OnlyFans (that one’s a post for a different day). To do so would be to give her too much power. Tinkerbell runs on faith, trust, and pixie dust; Caroline runs on likes, follows, and poorly advised pre-orders for her memoir that likely doesn’t exist. Because I’m more of a lurker, I hadn’t spent much time on her Twitter, so I made the mistake of thinking it was harmless to post a tweet that mentioned her name—not even a tweet about her.

Full transparency: I am not popular or important on Twitter. Eight likes on a tweet is a good day for me. So when I picked my phone back up an hour later and saw that I was in the 40 range, I knew something was up. Sure enough:

It’s not really the retweet itself that unhinged me. The despair hit home when I scrolled through her Twitter and noticed that almost all of it is 1. her retweeting herself, and 2. her retweeting posts that mention her name, presumably after compulsively plugging “Caroline Calloway” into her own search bar. I spent the next five minutes scouring her feed, just to confirm she wasn’t having an especially vain day, only to find that her account is just a recycling bin for what The Void is saying about her—echo-chamber as identity. I analyzed every regurgitated tweet, wondering how hungry for connection she must be to so endlessly assert how much people are talking about her. But in what ways do I do the same thing, or at least harbor the same dread? How does my own fear of being alone—or worse, boring—leak into my public and online personae?

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t parallels between myself and Caroline. She’s a caricature of the insufferable English major that I once was (and still kind of am). Missed deadlines, manic diatribes about art that you half-understand, watercolor-stained floors that never get cleaned, a panicky backlog of unfinished projects. Stacks of trendy books, used instead as decorative shelving. I find small joy in poking fun at her, because it deludes me into thinking I’ve outgrown the same behaviors. It’s hard to shake the egotism and obsession with aesthetics that writers are taught to harness—especially memoirists like Caroline, whose subjects are themselves. Here I am years later, buying notebooks I don’t need because the covers are pretty and posting a photo of a book I’m reading to my Stories so my followers know that I’m into Dostoyevsky. But would I claim I raised $30,000 for COVID relief (by charging $25 for access to an incomplete essay), only to allegedly never donate it? Or beg my followers to buy my art because I’m so “broke” I can’t afford to ride the subway and then use that money to drop $400 on cardigans? Would I buy a bunch of caterpillars online because I want to live in an apartment full of butterflies, only to have them die because I moved them around too much? I fucking hope not.

Like Caroline, I too sat through a bunch of literature classes in college and read books by dead men, so as an ode to our shared experience, I’ll summon Ovid. Is Caroline Calloway Narcissus, with all that shameless bravado and self-obsession that ultimately proves lethal? Or is she Echo, tacking her words onto the coattails of other people’s thoughts, and doomed to wail into The Void in hopes that someone will save her (or throw her a book deal)? Which one am I? I don’t know. I really don’t.

To pin my spiral entirely on Caroline would probably be unfair, as I’m currently in the middle of weaning off an antipsychotic that I’ve been on for two years (shout out Latuda!). As my brain tries to realign itself, I find it comforting to latch on to something wretched that has absolutely nothing to do with my own self-loathing, depression, mania, etc., etc. In that way, I feel like I should thank her. Maybe I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt the next time I see her monologuing about her mental health on her Stories. Maybe I’ll send her a nice DM and use a bunch of those orchid emojis she likes so much. Maybe I'll just call it a day entirely and stop relying on her social media for bursts of serotonin. But despite those brief moments of identifying with her mess, I'll always keep my wallet closed—and her name out of my mouth when I tweet.