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Caroline Calloway's Internet Grift Isn't Unique. It's a Symptom of a Larger Online Problem.

When Instagram star Caroline Calloway announced in December that she would charge $165 for tickets to workshops as a part of her “creativity tour,” one journalist, Kayleigh Donaldson, took note. She began cataloging Calloway’s planning for the event via aTwitter thread that went viral earlier this week. 

It’s not exactly surprising that the first of Calloway’s events didn’t go as planned. After Calloway announced that many of the things she promised to offer at the events wouldn’t be possible (flower crowns made of orchids, personalized handwritten notes, etc.), she received a ton of backlash online.

Many of us watched with schadenfreude as Calloway announced her plans to cancel the rest of the tour and refund those who already attended, only to rescind those plans the following day, citing her confidence in herself and her workshops. 

As we continue to collectively cringe at Calloway’s very public decision-making, it’s worth examining her behavior because I think it’s symptomatic of a larger epidemic: the urge to monetize an internet presence with little regard for who pays.

There is a growing number of folks online whose primary roles are as “creators.” They make content through social channels like Instagram or Youtube, and when the reach a certain peak in popularity, it seems reasonable for them to seek compensation for their efforts. 

Where these creators go wrong, ethically, is when they decide to offer workshops, coaching or events they simply are not qualified to offer. These offerings often come at high prices and take advantage of their fans’ desires to get closer to and to become more like the creators.

What often makes this worse is the choice to ask for volunteers (or in creator-speak, “interns”) to take pictures, run social media or “assist” them at these events. Their compensation? Free admission. In other words, while the creator makes money from their fans, they also benefit from unpaid labor.

Take, for instance, an online course by a popular influencer entitled “Radical Rituals: Abundance.” The course is two weeks long and promises “a series of rituals, exercises, and activities to clean up your money mindset, bust through your blocks, and manifest cold, hard cash.” It costs $88. 

Um, hold up. The creator, who has a gorgeous Instagram page and website, is not a financial planner. They’re also not a financial adviser or even someone who has expertise in the area. 

So why is this influencer — and others like them — offering courses like this, and why do they cost so much money?

I think it’s because creators like this influencer and Calloway are also falling prey to questionable messaging. They are told by self-help books and business coaches never to work for free. They’re told that their hard work should pay off and that they deserve to make money.

I get it. It’s a message I’ve gotten quite a bit as the founder of She Spends. And frankly, it’s fair to say that these people do work hard to keep up an internet appearance. 

So they want to be compensated for their work — what’s the big problem? 

The problem, I believe, is that these “creative capitalists” are focused more on making money than on how they’re making it. Instead of taking a mindful, measured approach to their fans, ensuring that they offer valuable products and experiences that they are qualified to offer, they push for growth at all costs. 

There is a better way to do things. It may take time to build a more ethical brand, but I think it’s worth doing. 

For creators: If you want to charge people money, you need to have a plan for why and how you’re doing it. And please, never demand people work for free. The services you offer in exchange for their labor often aren’t as valuable as you want them to be. 

For consumers: Don’t be afraid to ask yourself hard questions about the online creators you love. Is what they’re sharing substantive and valuable? Is the amount of work they’re putting into it worth the high price tag? Do they prioritize growth of the brand over the humans they employ?