Letterboards: Why?

The birth, exploitation and death of an Instagram engagement tool

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Letterboards! A few years ago, they were absolutely ubiquitous in the mamasphere. Their grip on the feeds is loosening, so before they vanish forever, let’s take a moment to immortalize letterboards with the full spectrum of nuance that they deserve. 

Why did so many moms put letterboards in so many of their posts from 2017-2021? Answering this question invites us to plunge directly into the murky depths of the mamasphere, the place where trends, anxieties, and technologies converge… this newsletter’s HOME PLACE. 

ORIGINS

There is consensus among those of us who care about this topic that Maya Vorderstrasse was the first online mom to use a letterboard in a jokey way. The way she tells it, she started noticing people using letterboards as part of their home decor — maybe a little one on a mantel during wintertime with the words LET IT SNOW on it, or one near the coffee area announcing NO QUESTIONS BEFORE COFFEE -- part of the general Instagram-life trend of having text all over your walls. 

In early 2017 Vorderstrasse was going through a low period, pregnant and feeling down on herself. She decided to create a letterboard listing the symptoms of her 27th week of pregnancy. Something about the visual contrast between the cute orderliness of the felt board and plastic letters, and words like “flaring sciatica,” touched a nerve, so to speak. The post went viral. 

Vorderstrasse is naturally outgoing in front of the camera and she began posting more humorous letterboards alongside photos of herself. She had hit on a winning Instagram recipe -- her following grew quickly, and brand partnerships followed. She became a letterboard sensation and she grew herself a brand.

Momfluencers are always watching each others’ posts to figure out what to do next. When one person strikes gold, others tend to try and replicate their formula. I would invite you not to think of this as a lack of creativity, or laziness -- think of it as expediency. At work, if you’re offered an easy workaround to a challenging task, you take it. That’s what letterboards and other viral trends represent to momfluencers, and that’s why suddenly, letterboards were everywhere.

Sara Tasker, an Instagram expert who teaches classes on content creation for influencers, told me that many momfluencers feel pigeon-holed into only posting certain types of content. For many of these moms, following trends doesn’t feel like a choice; it has become their job description.

“They’re very aware of what works and what doesn’t, and they’re quite frightened of deviating from that. And that’s part of being an influencer -- your stats are everything, and you’re on that treadmill. If you’re not relevant, then you lose your brand deals, and you lose your income. So a lot of moms feel like they aren't allowed to post something that won’t perform well.” 

EXACTLY WHAT LETTERBOARDS DID

Above all, letterboards caught peoples’ eyes while they were scrolling. An influencer’s primary job is to get you to pause on their post while you’re lost in your benumbed scroll hole, and letterboards made people pause in a way that photos’ tiny image captions simply never could. Your little joke is lost in a caption, but if it’s contained within the image, surrounded by negative space, there’s no missing it. 

Letterboards created instant engagement on moms’ pages, and they’re also highly shareable, since they’re basically meme-generators. Around 2018 Instagram’s algorithm began privileging shares and saves more than likes and follows, and letterboards emerged a symptom of that shift; if something was getting moms those precious shares, moms were going to keep posting it. Moms who posted letterboards saw their engagement skyrocket and their pages appear on the Explore page — the ultimate mark of algorithmic success.

THE PEAK - 2018-2020

Right before the pandemic, I interviewed a few moms about letterboards. At the time, letterboards were doing a lot of work for a lot of moms.

Stephanie Peltier, who posts at @honestlymommy, told me, “I like words. I’ve always been really caption-heavy. I’m not fantastic at taking photos, it’s hard for me to get my message across. And I realized, when you put words in there, people stop scrolling to read… I mean, a post of a woman sitting in a pile of laundry - who cares? But you put a letterboard in front of it, and suddenly people engage.” 

Maya Vorderstrasse: “The letterboards got a lot of things off people's chests in a fun, relatable way. It was paving the way for subjects like maternal mental health and exhaustion to be talked about in the mainstream.” 

Brooke Reybould of @thesouthernishmama: “The traction with the letterboards was really good. And me being a results-oriented person, after a little while I thought, why not do it every day? People like to see something and know what you’re talking about right away. But it’s also a place to be honest. Brands want me to put them ON the board and I’m like, people won’t share that.”

Every mom I spoke to about their letterboard posts echoed Brooke’s sentiment that using a letterboard afforded them a chance to be more honest than they could get away with in a caption. Something about the wink of that visual contrast seemed to excuse moms for jokes that might otherwise have gotten some backlash from their more judgmental followers. I’ve come to see letterboards as a tool that online moms used to push against some of the norms that still govern “good mom” behaviour in the rigorous moral police-state of the mamasphere, while maintaining the safety of a joke. 

“It’s a way for us, as social media moms, to poke back at people. Everybody wants to tell me how to run my life. These posts sweeten up the messiness,” said Peltier.

OK, THAT’S ENOUGH PLEASE

During the pandemic, the same thing happened with letterboards that happens to almost anything that gets popular in a free marketplace: They were exploited for as much value as possible by as many people as could profit, until everyone was nauseated by the very thought of them. Too many people were using them, and they became, as Maya Vordertrasse put it, “a caricature.” 

It’s kind of interesting to reflect on how exactly the imagery started to get extremely annoying to a lot of people. 

Moms started hamming it up alongside the boards -- kind of acting out a role in support of the board’s joke. Some people are naturals at this, but most people aren’t. It began to feel desperate, the mining for material in the everyday, the contorted faces and bodies alongside the boards. I’m not going to link to any supporting images because honestly, I’m trying not to be an asshole. But the upshot is, what was once funny and cute had curdled into cringe. 

Letterboards became too obviously about what they were always already about: following a trend to boost engagement. As viewers expecting “honest mom” content, we didn’t love that.

There’s another reason for the end of the letterboard era, that’s at least as significant as the curdling: Instagram’s algorithms started favoring Reels and videos over static images. (I write about this in more depth in a piece that will be published sometime soon.)

 

BUT WHY DO *YOU* HATE THEM SO MUCH?

Most moms who hang out in the mamasphere don’t hate letterboards, they just got bored of them. But I know plenty of chattering-class people who have always hated them. And because this newsletter honours both facts AND vibes, let’s talk about it. 

My suspicion has always been that people are confused about what the mamasphere’s content is really about. There’s always been a part of online motherhood dedicated to honesty, catharsis, embodiment, love — which are also things we look for (and find!) in art. Art!! Music! Novels! But the mamasphere is not art. It is commerce! Maybe it was once kind of art-like, back in the blogging times, but that was a long time ago. 

Letterboards used to be associated with brick-and-mortar businesses. They were used for posting the menu, or business hours. There’s something queasily on-the-nose that might be hitting some of us subliminally about an artifact of small businesses being appropriated by moms as they try to frame their home lives within the boundaries of what’s marketable on Instagram. I mean.

It can be hard to square the fact that motherhood, which is like the biological inverse of commodification, has been fully commodified by momfluencers. But ma’am, this is an Arby’s. Instagram is a platform with massive, throbbing biases and it can make you rich if you work (extremely) hard at it. And you expect moms, in this economy, to not participate? 


A TANGENTIALLY RELATED THING I HAVE BEEN THINKING ABOUT FOR WEEKS

So today we’ve looked at what happens when a particular kind of visual effect in a photo catches peoples’ eyes while they scroll.

  1. The algorithm liked the letterboards

  2. Therefore the moms used the letterboards

  3. Then we all saw tons of them

  4. Now we all hate them. 

Which brings me to… wide brimmed hats. I was chatting with Sara Tasker about other visual tricks that influencers use to catch the scroller’s eye -- negative space is one, and of course you can’t post anything too detailed that can’t be identified in the absolute blink of an eye. I proposed my theory to Sara that wide-brimmed hats have become popular because influencers started using them to define their heads in photos, to enable them to look like be-haloed Madonnas rather than pin-headed little plebes.

Sara didn’t exactly say that I was spot-on, but she didn’t say I was way off either. She offered an additional insight: Influencer fashion must photograph well, which follows the same logic of nothing too detailed, nothing that might look muddy or vague to the eye while you’re scrolling. Hence the knee-high riding boot defining the leg, the flowing caftan, the monochrome linens, the whole “California aesthetic.” 

So, is much of high street fashion today a direct consequence of the exigencies of the attention economy? I feel like Miranda Priestly explaining cerulean to Anne Hathaway’s character in The Devil Wears Prada! Are people strolling through the fall foliage wearing not wide-brimmed hats but in fact visual funnels meant to direct a scrolling person’s eye toward an influencer’s face as it speeds past? Are letterboards and wide-brimmed hats… the same? 

Until next month! Thank you for reading. 

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