I have never gone viral. My private Instagram has 526 followers on a good day, I don’t have a Twitter account and my writing has yet to appear in any reputable publications beyond The Stanford Daily. It makes sense.
Going viral, in general, is equatable with having a one-hit wonder in the 80s — you’re popular once for good reason but won’t ever duplicate the success. Going viral as a writer is like having a unique name that suddenly becomes mainstream because it was in the latest Netflix original, and every millennial mom in the next five years names her kid after you. You see your name in trending hashtags, in the headlines recapping your story, in the Facebook comments from your relatives and women named Karen hailing and questioning your ability to write a complex-compound sentence. You get tired of hearing it, seeing it, wishing your name could be Madison or Jessica or Amanda. Your name gets lost in the mix until you write something new with an angle nobody’s taken for a solid five minutes. Then the whole cycle starts again until you gain enough traction to earn some societal respect that may or may not last.
I want to go viral, but not like Caroline Calloway did.
Caroline became a consistent part of my day in freshman year of high school. I can’t recall how I stumbled upon her account, but I was hooked after reading just a couple of her captions on the bus ride home. Her fairytale-esque Instagram was addictive with its YA novel-style captions describing her life as an NYU-turned-Cambridge college student. She detailed meeting witty British boys and traveling around mainland Europe on a whim. All while living the high life as an art history major, Caroline was set to publish a memoir about her whirlwind adventures. The “brand” she crafted through a series of aesthetic photos and conversational captions was untouchable yet accessible. For the next few years, I lived my life vicariously through her. In fact, Caroline was my first girl crush.
Fast forward a few years and Caroline’s posts started becoming more and more infrequent, until she disappeared entirely from social media. Meanwhile, I started at Stanford and began my own version of the life I’d once envisioned myself living in an alternate dimension. I met confident, somewhat douchey Bay Area boys and traveled around California on scheduled university vacations. Even though Caroline’s invasive presence vanished permanently for two years, I never stopped following her, wondering if she’d ever return or her memoir would be published. I didn’t know her. The vast majority of her 800,000 followers didn’t know her. And yet, every so often I thought about her like you do about friends with whom you’ve lost communication. It’s nostalgia with a trace of indifference.
Instagram’s purpose, like many social media platforms, has endured several transformations since its early days. Today, I believe there is more transparency between public figures and their followers, given the positive shift towards sharing everything and anything on the internet. I felt close to Caroline because she appeared to let her followers into every corner of her life, even those less perfect. She was a human behind a screen just like me. When she disappeared from my life and the lives of her followers, I wanted to reach out like a good friend should, but I never did.
At the start of my junior year, I was recently single and spent most (if not all) of my alone time on social media. I told myself I was searching for writing inspiration. Laughing at feminist memes and reading “Bachelor in Paradise” recaps didn’t exactly help me. I hadn’t produced anything worth publishing in months. One night, after reading a hundred pages of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” I opened Instagram to mindlessly scroll and Caroline’s iconic turquoise profile picture popped up in the stories feature. I clicked on it. The next day, her face popped up again. I clicked on it. Her daily Instagram stories became part of my social media rotation. She appeared out of nowhere, ready to create new content and offer explanations as to what prompted her two-year public hiatus.
Caroline Calloway was no longer an Adderall addict. She pulled out of a $500,000 book deal and fell in love with a man named Conrad. She wanted to create honest content for herself and the loyal followers who would enjoy such content. Caroline was in the midst of rebranding herself, separating herself from the carefully curated content I’d devoured in high school. According to her Instagram profile, she was now a self-proclaimed writer, art historian and artist. In December and January, she endured her first round of going viral from organizing a “creativity workshop” tour, canceling the tour and then uncanceling it again. From there, she spent a few months making and selling art and highlighting the importance of individualized self-care. In the past month, she has experienced her second round of going viral, this time at the hands of her former best friend. For a fuller picture of what’s occurred in the last six months, visit Caroline’s Instagram or Google her name to find dozens of articles summarizing her life.
The most recent drama surrounding Caroline’s life has changed how I envision myself as a writer and an artist. I used to believe that all writers need to have a large social media following. I thought writers needed to be open books, every aspect of their lives privy to the public, and that there was a blur between a writer who mimicked an influencer and an influencer who claimed to be a writer. Caroline’s entire timeline has taught me that I can choose what I want to share through my writing. I need not be defined by what I write or the medium in which I write it. I applaud Caroline for publically grieving her father’s suicide on Instagram over the past week. Her captions describing their complicated relationship and the reality of his heartbreaking life are raw and honest and beautiful in the Caroline style I’ve known for almost eight years. She decided to open her entire self to the world, and in the process, she made mistakes that subjected her to cancel culture and hate-following. She has stood her ground in owning up to her mistakes and calling out people who harass her for things unrelated to her art or writing. I acknowledge that I am not strong enough to endure personal criticism like Caroline. She has the thick skin that I must learn to grow before I leave Stanford in June.
However, I will proudly put my writing into the world as Caroline has done and continues to do daily. She knows her style and doesn’t apologize for the typos or colloquialisms. My style is not highly academic or sophisticated. I am capable of said styles, but in its most natural form, my writing is down-to-earth, attempts to be witty and sounds like how I speak. I give permission for people to criticize and question and tear down my writing. I know my style and content are not for everyone, yet I want everyone to read my writing and form their own opinion, whether I agree with it or not.
I don’t want to go viral. I want my writing to go viral.
Contact Emily Schmidt at egs1997 ‘at’ stanford.edu.