The birth, exploitation and death of an Instagram engagement tool
This email was perfection— thank you for writing it, though I wish you could be compensated for it!
For me, I think the letterpress boards are insufferable because they break the fourth wall of Instagram; I know that it's a performance, and they know we're an audience, but I like pretending that you're getting a glimpse into someone's life rather than having them literally address you as the viewer. Not to mention the fact that since most letterboards offer variations on the commiserating "it's tough for us moms, am I right?", their very existence feels like a contradiction: if you're so harried in the morning, how did you have time to make this sign???
First time reader here thanks to AHP as well and a nonmom, this was fascinating. The effort it must take to put the letterboards together to say something with a hint of truth and humor about a particular kid situation seems...exhausting? As someone said in the comments below, "how did you have time to make this sign??" when you are supposedly expressing exasperation about bathing/feeding your child?
Also a new subscriber here courtesy of your interview with AHP, and after this I am very much looking forward to hearing about what else is floating around in your head as you do your research.
For what it’s worth, I would also read 10,000 words on the “text all over your walls” phenomenon, even if it just answers the question of which came first “keep calm and _____” posters or “Live, Laugh, Love” signs?
I am brand new to your newsletter after reading about you in Anne Helen Peterson's newsletter. I am not a mother but fascinated by this topic and completely engaged by your dry wit and sharp writing, "I would invite you not to think of this as a lack of creativity, or laziness -- think of it as expediency."... I mean, I completely snort laughed. Carry on! Live, laugh, love!
I LOVE this post. Your theory about using wide-brimmed to become a self-styled holy Madonna is absolutely priceless.
On a (sort of) related note, I'm interested in the mamasphere subculture of 'parenting sick children' - I have a son with complex medical needs and so find myself interested in others. The ethical quandaries of influencing are taken to another level when it comes to using images of sick kids as content. Photos of kids on ventilators, with surgery scars, are bound to attract people's attention. Having said that, I find myself in murky waters being critical, as I am writing a memoir about my son's illness, which is I guess the old-school way of commodifying motherhood for content? (Although I'm not big on social media and am very circumspect about what images I share).
Anyway, your Madonna/ halo theory reminded me of this sick-kid subculture where the valorisation of maternal and child suffering is commodified by some. One example is an influencer (I won't name, but if you are interested I can let you know privately), whose three-year old died earlier this year from his complex condition. The dissonance of seeing an image of her son's grave alongside ads for a subscription razor service is just incredible.
My distaste however makes me feel like a massive hypocrite given my own writing. Maybe it's a class prejudice thing - memoir is 'ok' as the preserve of cultural elites, but the more accessible platform of social media is déclassé?
Really enjoying your articles, and look forward to more. Your work is making me grateful that I had my kids before this phase of mom culture (my youngest was born in 2006)--it is exhausting to watch younger friends and colleagues engage in the practices you describe here. I'm also grateful to see the topic getting scholarly attention. Lord knows it deserves it.
Many of the performative elements you describe in the context of momfluencers are deeply familiar--but instead of being rooted in a local community, they're playing out in a context where there are fewer guardrails and a much bigger audience. I have a vivid memory of flying home from an international business trip and heading straight to a kid's school event, where one of the PTO moms shamed me, oblivious to what it had taken for me to get there at all: "we were really hoping to make this special for the kids, which is why we asked for home-made cookies." I mention this because I think when kids are young, there's a chasm between the experiences of moms who work and moms who don't, and it would be interesting to explore that in the ways it is (or isn't!) made manifest in online portrayals of motherhood.
Lots to ponder here. I too resist this performative mothering through social media, but watch it sometimes like a car crash I can't look away from--Hilaria Baldwin is a weakness for some reason. Also, I hadn't realized why wide brimmed hats were ruined for me. :_)
This is fascinating. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
I noticed recently a mom influence talking in her stories about packing for an upcoming Disney trip, and she said she has to check over her kids' clothes before they leave because.. they need to be more 'neutral looking.' It just raised my eyebrows, because it was a fairly obvious time in which a mom was pointing out crafting an aesthetic FOR HER KIDS that she could monetize it with upcoming photos. She didn't say it explicitly but it was there
Merci bcp pour tout c'est bon conseil.....référence et truc !
This was so insightful, thank you for writing. This is my first time reading your Substack- I found you from the featured page for readers. Another thing I'd like to add- I think many people (including myself) know that the mamasphere is commerce instead of a healing and holding sacred truth space. We recognize that they keep up with the trends because that's what gains attention and a following and, as a result, earns them more money. I completely understand that- but I think my personal problem with it is a result of knowing this and also knowing that some moms do try to pass this off as honesty, some viewers additionally actually believing it's honesty. It all feels fake and built up to represent absolutely zero truth value. At the same time, I can't really blame these moms at all. I think, like you said, this requires a completely different conversation about the relationship between Instagram algorithms and payment and the backbends that any influencer at all has to do to create an entirely separate Internet life and personality so they can earn money.