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Inspiration Is Everywhere. Literally.
The "We're Not Really Strangers"-ification of social media.
These are all of the objects that have recently been used as vessels for inspirational quotes posted on Instagram. Accounts like We’re Not Really Strangers, The Female Warhol, and so many more are building engaging social presences by photoshopping (and sometimes actually writing) inspirational messages on inanimate objects. How did we get here?
Posting inspirational messages on social media is nothing new. On Tumblr a popular format was images of sunsets, flower fields, or clouds overlaid with text (think: “choose people that choose you”). People like Rupi Kaur and Yung Pueblo helped popularize the text-only inspirational Instagram format. Then we moved into cakes as vessels for quotes. Next, balloon walls. It now seems we’ve reached a new frontier, with inspirational words showing up on arbitrary physical objects.
A big force behind the quotes-on-objects trend is We’re Not Really Strangers, a “purpose driven card game and movement all about empowering meaningful connections”. They have over 5.2M followers on Instagram and often post short, inspirational messages on their feed. Past formats include messages on trucks, freeway overpass signs, mattresses, and a bus seat. The style of photography is often zoomed in, a little blurry and clearly meant to look like they just happened upon these words. Comments usually say something along the lines of “thank you for this ❤️”. It’s content that takes effort, disguised as content that was simply there.
A lot of what we talk about when it comes to social media strategy right now is how people are craving realness. Yet, every day hundreds of thousands of people engage with these very clearly staged messages. The more I follow these accounts, the more I think people just like the illusion of realness. A commitment to the inspirational bit, if you will. It’s the digital version of “this is the sign I needed”—and these accounts take that quite literally.
Callia Hargrove, founder of Backstory Consulting, tells me, “In the always-on, ~main character energy~ era of society we’re living in, these posts allow a user to tap into something that feels personal even though it’s not.”
As consumers of this content, we suspend reality because it feels better to. Wouldn’t it be nice if that truck really did say “Please keep going, you’re so close”? Or there really was a balloon (?) at a concert (?) that reminded you that you’ve made a bigger impact on the world than you realize? It actually feels less manufactured when these messages show up on objects or in real life scenes rather than perfectly designed Instagram graphics. Like it’s “fate” that this message showed up, when in reality a lot of thought, editing, and fakery goes into this style of post.
When I asked Kate Lindsay, cofounder of internet culture newsletter, about this trend, she said “We know these moments are staged, but I do think authenticity is part of it, in that what the images are meant to evoke is the whimsy of spotting something like this in real life. Obviously, if you think about it for more than a second, you realize how inauthentic the image actually is, the same way some people can't get past knowing a creator had to get back into bed after setting up the camera whenever they're filming themselves ‘waking up.’”
Accounts like this are everywhere now—there’s @mirrorsreflectyou, @secondsapart, @theopeninvite, @thehappysnapshot. Most of them have engagement rates that brands would dream of. Which probably explains why brands are getting in on this format. Clothing company The Mayfair Group posts inspirational posts on objects like napkins, tea bag tags, and airport signs. Other brands have taken loose inspiration by posting messages that would have traditionally been communicated by a simple graphic and photoshopping them onto things like billboards, bumper stickers, and greeting cards. At CAVA, a client of mine, we actually created a post that played off of We’re Not Really Strangers. It was a top performer at the time.
When I teased the topic of this newsletter on Twitter, Leah Garaas, Social Media Manager at Roku replied, “I call that ‘out of home, on the internet’”. On social media right now, sometimes messages are best delivered in ways that feel real or tangible. Even if they are not.
Other brands are taking the earnest inspiration phenomenon and flipping it on its head. Emily Sundberg, creator of business newsletter, highlighted the brand Praying when I asked her about this topic. “Praying sells clothes that say things like ‘It's never too late to have a happy childhood.’ and ‘You don't matter. Give up.’ They know we're in a post-earnesty, pro-irony world.” The Guardian describes this style of shirt as “ironic, ridiculous and totally sincere all at once.” The brand OGBFF, which has been worn by people like Emma Chamberlain and Ice Spice, lives in this post-earnest world as well—selling shirts that say things like “THIS IS YOUR SIGN FROM GOD THAT I’M HOT”.
Inspiration—whether ironic or not—sells. (Yes, We’re Not Really Strangers has $50 hoodies on their site.) It’s a content theme that’s always been built for engagement—engineered to be shared to your story, optimized for tagging a friend in the comments, primed for sales. Photoshopping or writing inspirational messages on sinks and bus seats is just today’s version of those Tumblr posts you used to reblog. It’s inspiration, packaged for today’s lo-fi-favoring, authenticity-adjacent algorithms. As Sundberg puts it, “Life is hard. Inspirational quotes make us feel good and reroute thinking from doom to happiness. If you're not in on the joke, it might fill a little gap where scripture might used to lie. If you are in on the joke, you get a laugh out of it all.”
Finally, a few quick reminders!
I am hosting the first ever Link in Bio meetup in Austin next weekend! Come hang out at Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden on Sunday March 12th at 3 p.m.! This will be a laid back, chill, not-too-networky event to meet other subscribers and talk about finicky algorithms, best breakfast tacos, and whatever else is on your mind. RSVP here so I can get an idea of how many people to expect!
Second, I am hosting a panel at SXSW on Saturday March 11th at 11:30 a.m.! I will be chatting with Zaria Parvez (Global Social Media Manager at Duolingo) and Julian Gamboa (Social Media Director at Maximum Effort) about navigating calculated risk on social. You can get more details here!
Lastly, if you’re looking for a new role within social media you can find the Link in Bio job board here!