This is the eighteenth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
Silicon Valley ran on blood, sweat, and bullshit.
It ran on charisma and drunken handshakes and the so-called authority of twenty-three-year-olds who went straight from the lecture hall to the C-suite. Entry-level whomst?! Confidence was the only skill necessary — you just needed enough belief in whatever you were doing to convince rich white (or east Asian) dudes with lots of money to write you a check for a few million.
“Fake it ‘til you make it,” went the industry aphorism. “Move fast and break things.” Why spend precious engineering time on stabilizing existing code when you could build a hacky demo for a new feature? Why foster a great company culture when you could hire fifty acting students for fifteen dollars an hour, each? Why sit at a desk and crunch numbers when you could be giving yet another interview?
Okay, okay, I’m generalizing here. Just like how not all men were creepy, chauvinistic predators driven solely by animal instincts, not all startups peddled lofty ideals and vaporware. As far as I know, NipNop Stories actually worked. But the period after the launch, marked by near-instantaneous user adoption and enough media attention to exhaust a Kardashian, made me think that keeping up appearances was the real job of any founder. NipNop’s Chief Marketing Officer Turns Focus to Product Design, headlines announced. The 1337 photographed me in the San Francisco Public Library, silhouetted against the gridlike windows with an open book in my hand, for a piece titled Influencer to Inventor: Helena Holloway Wants Us to Tell More Stories.
The media hailed me as some kind of visionary genius, a Steve Jobs in the making. Clearly, I’d seen the writing on the wall regarding curated perfection, and managed to offer an alternative. Stories deleted themselves after twenty-four hours; on NipNop, looking pretty and presentable mattered less than being interesting and fun. Likes, too, mattered less than views from the right people: at any time, you could swipe up and check whether your frenemy, crush, or frienemy’s crush had seen your story. God View, for the people, who ate it up like the authenticity-starved beasts they were. The Instagram Aesthetic Is Over, declared The Atlantic. Irony at its finest.
Secretly, I felt like the little homunculus I’d lovingly grown in a petri dish had broken free after expanding a hundred times its size and mutating into something alien. I couldn’t exactly tell people that, so I owned it all, pretending that I knew exactly what I was doing — that I’d meant to start a cultural shift. I beamed from the covers of industry magazines and tossed back my shiny hair as I gave speeches to crowds of rich white (and east Asian) dudes with lots of money. In interviews, I parroted Joan Didion’s line about how we told ourselves stories in order to live and let everyone think that I’d come up with it. I went to parties and played the successful young founder, smiling and shooting the shit.
On and on it went, until I started to believe that I actually was as charming and wonderful as my admirers made me out to be, that anything I said would automatically become truth — or, better yet, gospel. I knew that I could, say, convince the product team at NipNop to make a dick-measuring tool or write a self-help book highlighting my steps to success. But what was magic in Silicon Valley was just shit in other places, and the people not wearing rose-tinted shades could see right through the illusion I was trying to create.
C-lick. C—lick. C——lick, went the red-inked gel pen in my agent’s hand. His gaze moved from one to the next, sometimes nodding slightly, but never lingering too long on a single one.
Our agreed-upon May deadline had arrived, and I had nothing to show for it save some pictures I wanted to include as inserts in the book. The Walgreens cardboard holder sat to the left of Wren’s dark wood desk; the thirty or so photos I’d selected to represent my Stanford and NipNop days were arranged, grid-like, in front of him.
“So.” My voice sounded rusty and unused, out of place in Wren’s playground-like office. “What do you think?”
His nostrils flared as he breathed out. “Are you planning to publish a coffee-table book of Instagram printouts for your fans? Print it on glossy paper? Maybe throw in some stories about your shoots?”
I shook my head.
“You want to write a book with words?”
“Yes, and chapters.” I sat up a little straighter in the orange beanbag chair. “I want to begin each chapter with a photo, so that my readers can better picture the scene.”
“Then pray tell, Helena —” C-lick — “where are the words? Why am I looking at printouts of your Instagram pictures when you promised me a full proposal six months ago?”
The room was getting hot. I sat up straighter and crossed one white-sandaled ankle over the other, keeping my facial expression neutral. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I dropped out of college to become the Chief Marketing Officer at NipNop — you know, the one that does the disappearing videos — and we’re all crunching so hard at that place, it’s ridiculous.”
Wren looked directly at me, unsmiling. I shrank down in my seat. This must’ve been how little kids felt when they got sent to the principal’s office.
“Helena,” he said softly, “you know I can’t do anything without a proposal, right?” His voice was kind, but I sensed that I’d dropped down a rung or two on his ladder of respect. “Books are published by the season, and I wanted to get yours out in the late spring of next year. We aren’t going to be able to do that, now. The earliest we can get it through will be late summer, or fall.”
I nodded. “I didn’t know that so many things would come up.”
“Life is full of things that come up. It’s only a matter of your priorities.” C-lick. “Most of my clients hold full-time jobs. It’s not only about finding time to write, but about making time to write.”
My gaze flitted over to the glass case. Marnie Tucker’s book had gotten a new cover since the last time I’d been to Falcon Ibis — the newest version of I Hope They Serve Fireball in Hell featured her sitting on a dimly lit mahogany bar top in a tight white tank top and bright red Daisy Dukes, a row of fancy liquors behind her as she poured the cinnamon whiskey into a tiny red cup.
Wren followed my gaze. “Marnie’s a good example,” he said. “The lifestyle she portrays in that book is authentic, but she didn’t treat her book as a frivolous project. She put the time and effort in, and now she’s a published author.” He tapped one of the pictures on his desk, leaving a fingerprint behind on the glossy sheen. “These are good, and I like the idea of including pictures. Sounds like it’ll make for a good experience, or feel like a natural extension of your Instagram account. But it’s not enough. I need words. New pictures. Content that your audience has never seen before. They’re paying for this. Do them proud.”
“Okay,” I said to the window behind Wren. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to manage my time better.”
“Do you want to be a bestselling author?”
I stiffened. “Of course.”
“Because to me right now —” Wren turned to face his window — “it seems that you’re more interested in enabling the smartphone addictions of children a few years younger than yourself.”
“I want to do both!”
“And yet you don’t.” He swung around slowly and put both palms on his desk, careful to avoid smearing any more of my pictures. “People often say they want things, but only the serious ones take action.”
I gritted my teeth. It was easy for him to talk — Wren had no idea how hard it was to run a startup, how I had to keep up with almost a million people a day, how I had to keep the media happy and pretend to love Oliver and try and get Nevaeh out of my head. He was a crusty white dude. What did he know about my life and how hard it was? C—lick. “November tenth.” Wren gathered the prints into one neat pile and slid them back into the cardboard holder. “Get me the full thing by November tenth, or I’ll unfortunately have to terminate our contract.”
— Me in a red dress and white cardigan, mid-stride Beatles-style on a New York City crosswalk, skyscrapers rising up on either side: “I want to wake up in a city / That doesn’t sleep / And find that I’m number one / Top of the list / Head of the heap / King of the hill …” Hell yeah, Adventure Fam. I am writing to tell you the good news: AND WE WEREN’T LIKE IS COMING OUT NEXT SUMMER!!!! All of those days dreaming, scheming, grinding … all I can say is that if your dream depends on it, you have to do it. Even 3 full-time jobs. Anything! Being a writer is my dream job (besides running a company, of course). I can’t believe grown-ups are paying me to MAKE BOOKS. And not just any book! OUR BOOK!! The exact book I have always wanted to write. And the best news? All jokes aside? This book will help girls. Help them so much (not because they need help. Not like that).
Of course, I had no idea when the book was going to come out. I’d only written “next summer” to light a fire under my own ass. Wren would be livid if he found out, but it wasn’t like he had time to monitor me on Instagram or anything.
The audacity of that man to suggest that I didn’t want to write my book! I stomped my feet down, hard, as I climbed the stairs to my hotel doorway. I’d wanted to be a writer for as long as I could remember. I wanted to make that book in my mind a reality more than anything else, but that was a long-term goal of mine. In the short term, I was the brains behind NipNop Stories, and I had to make sure that everything was running smoothly. Oliver could woo a crowd as well as I could, but I couldn’t let anyone think that this new feature had been his idea.
Back in my hotel room, I pulled out my work computer and flopped onto the big downy bed. I’d chosen a more modest room on purpose — I was going to spend a week here, in New York, doing nothing but writing my book. This time, the only mirrors were in the bathroom. I didn’t want to get distracted.
The Google Doc titled And We Weren’t Like: DRAFT was pristine, save for the bold CHAPTER ONE written in forty-point Georgia. This document had sat on my Chrome browser for weeks, neglected over and over again in lieu of yet another pitch deck, email, or spec approval.
I breathed in, out. What was a good first sentence? The first sentence was everything, right?
When the curtain comes up, I typed, everything is a mess.
Ugh, no. Delete. So cliche. I didn’t want to throw my readers in the middle of a scene in the first chapter of a book.
The thing about becoming famous, like falling asleep or falling in love, is that you can never pinpoint the moment from when you slide from one state of being into the next.
But wasn’t that already a line from somewhere? Hemingway, probably, who’d said something along these lines about going bankrupt. I could fool tech people into thinking that all of these famous quotes had come from my head, but I couldn’t do that with readers. Delete.
Scatter my ashes over the Golden Gate Bridge.
No. That one reeked of effort.
San Francisco has Blue Dawn, and LA has Pink Dusk.
Did I really want to open up my first book with a horrible anecdote from LA?
I could go with the absolute, bare-bones truth. I wasn’t always Helena Holloway. Like many famous people, I changed my name …
I sighed. Perhaps I wasn’t portraying myself correctly. I was Helena Holloway, Instagram influencer, aspirational yet relatable. Or was I Helena Holloway, founder with all the good ideas? Helena Holloway the book nerd? The marketer?
Maybe the news could tell me. I went to my email and pulled up the latest article about me that had come out, a piece in The New York Times titled NipNop’s Secret Weapon. A week ago, I’d FaceTimed Tata Lozenge, the Times’ resident tech-culture writer, from the Condeaux and had given her a tour of the company’s rapidly improving office: the new scooter racetrack that went through the entire office, the new vending machine that dropped ice cream and Popsicles, free of charge, the single turquoise carnation every desk. I could see the stars in Tata’s eyes as I ended the tour, and it made me feel smug somehow. I hadn’t expected her to be so young, or so responsive to quirky offices. Even I’d gotten jaded from spending so much time there.
Halfway through our interview, a small grey Siamese kitten jumps on the table. As I read, the stillness of the hotel room melted away. I found myself back in the office, perched at the head of the meeting-room table, the whiteboard with all of its complicated-looking math in the background. “That’s Kitty,” Holloway explains, scooping the cat into her arms. “She lives here … although she still has to get used to people somewhat.” Right on cue, Kitty wriggles free, jumps to the ground, and does not make another appearance for the rest of the night.
Holloway, who joined the company in February, is the latest twenty-something to drop out of Stanford to pursue entrepreneurial dreams. Her ascent has not been all smooth — “There was a really dark time in my life when everyone basically thought I was a dumb bitch who’d gotten here by way of nepotism,” she shares, twirling a lock of golden hair around her finger. “I was afraid that I would get ostracized or overshadowed by joining the team.”
She no longer has to worry. Since the release of NipNop Stories, she has proven herself over and over. As of right now, Helena Holloway is NipNop’s most-followed influencer, followed by dancer Delilah D’Ambrosio and political commentator Carmen Christiansen. When I ask if there’s a reason why the top three creators are all young white women with alliterate names, Holloway winks at the camera. “The secret to NipNop is that there is no secret.”
“The secret is that there is no secret,” I repeated, liking how all the Ss and Ts made it a tongue twister. But as I navigated back to the Google doc, I felt no more inspired than I had before I’d read. And it wasn’t writer’s block either, not exactly. I knew what I wanted to say, could faintly make out the sentences in the book in my head. It was just a pain to extract them and get them on the page.
This was a book about feminism, right? That had been the goal when I’d first signed on with Wren.
I am a person first, a girl second, a girlfriend last, if at all.
I refuse to be defined by anyone other than myself.
I am writing this to be in control of my narrative.
I winced. No, it sounded too contrived. Maybe I could talk about Stanford instead.
You could say that I’m a Stanford-educated Instagram personality.
The night I found out I got into Stanford, I saw a shooting star.
Before I was coming up with new features for apps, I was pioneering long-form captions on Instagram.
Some people call me the first Instagram influencer.
Wrong, wrong, wrong! I wiped my sweaty fingertips on the fluffy white duvet. Why was this so hard?! Had I drunk so much Silicon Valley Kool-Aid that I couldn’t write anymore?
There is a funnel of winners for everything worthwhile in the world. This is how I fell into mine.
Not gonna lie, I’ve always wanted to be rich, famous, and powerful.
I’m very pretty, and it makes people think I’m dumb. Who knew that my drive to prove myself would make me come so far?
With a groan, I slammed my MacBook shut and swung my legs over the edge of the bed. I was clearly writing myself into a hole. Maybe a change of pace — like getting a drink down at the bar, or scrolling through Twitter for more mentions of my name — would clear up the fog in my head. I would go do something else for an hour, then come back and try again.