Famous for 15,000 likes

We’ve seen the future and it’s a selfie starring a mum, a dad and some screaming kids with the hashtag #parentingtheshitoutoflife.

But this is no ordinary post from one of your real-life friends (remember them?). This has 32,000 ‘likes’ from some 400,000 followers and counting. It’s A Strange Thing for our times when ordinary people turn their Instagram feeds into an ongoing reality show, starring themselves and their families. And, as is the way with Twitter, Facebook and social media in general, it’s an odd kind of bubble: an echo chamber of people looking at people who look and live like themselves. Like, like, like, like…

This curated slice of real life is cropping up everywhere, especially when it’s lifestyle-y stuff that goes down well on Instagram, like fashion, food and whatnot. It’s also probably where ‘content marketing’ is heading. Ah, ‘content marketing’. There was a bit of hoo-ha in marketing circles (yes, more echo chambers) at the end of last year about whether ‘content marketing’ is ‘proper’. But what happens when ordinary people start getting the kind of attention and interaction that brands’ ‘content marketing’ teams can only dream of?

More on that later. First, here’s a quick peek behind the curtains to introduce you to one couple, who are a good – and popular – example of an Insta-family. Meet @mother_of_daughters, aka Clemmy, midwife, author and mum of four, with her twins:

And here’s @father_of_daughters, aka Simon, Clemmy’s husband:

If you haven’t kept up with these complete strangers’ life stories, we’ll fill you in. Clemmy started her account off the back of a blog about being a midwife. Her husband Simon was (and still is) featured in her posts. But he also set up his own Instagram account and swiftly got even more followers. His shtick, that ‘real men’ love fatherhood is even more of a hit with (mostly) women followers. But it’s together they’ve become A Thing. Between them, they’ve got over half a million followers.

Their Instagram accounts mirror what most of us do on social. It’s mostly everyday stuff – the highs, lows and chaos of daily life – carefully curated. ‘Life-lite’. It’s like reading Hello! magazine about people who don’t live in palaces, but still with a slight glossy filter on top. Even the warts-n-all stuff (for most of us) is curated, no matter how self-consciously. In a lot of similar family-life feeds, there’s often a post about a broken tumble drier just to prove how REAL it all is. Except it’s different, somehow. Most of us don’t get 25,000 likes for posting a picture of some pants on a radiator.

This Instagram gang is tapping into a concocted version of what we want ‘real’ family life to be like – if ‘we’ in this particular bubble is a middle-class mum/dad with the latest UppaBaby and a flat white to go… Many of the @of_daughters duo’s posts look like those mood boards agencies put together to show who their segmentation strategy is aimed at. (They’d be ‘socially-connected-nesters’ or something.) Or a page in a brand’s identity guidelines that says photos ‘shouldn’t look staged’ next to pictures of models pretending not to be in set-up photos.

Like the models in those presentations, the @of_daughters duo is just the right side of photogenic, i.e. good looking, but in a you-could-know-them-way too. They’re not your friends, but they could be. It’s a managed and styled kind of chaos, but they’re doing all the styling themselves.

And brands want in. Why? Well, first, although the case is sometimes exaggerated, it’s harder than it used to be for traditional ads to get our attention. We’re all too busy looking at our smartphones.

As technologist, Kevin Kelly said in an interview with the Observer in June:

“The only scarcity we have in this world is human attention. Someone will have to pay me to watch their ad, to read their email. People will be paid different amounts, depending on their influence, their connections, their spending. That is where it is going and that takes out the advertising industry as it exists today. There will still be ads; in fact, I think most of these ads are going to be generated by consumers themselves, by the customers.”

(Tim Wu has just published a book along similar lines too.)

Secondly, brands simply want their stuff to be associated with these people – or as they like to call them, ‘influencers’ – and in front of all their like-minded followers lapping it up.

So how are they doing that? Mostly through product placement. It’s interesting to watch because there’s already a danger of stepping out of the realness (which is what people like) and into that scene from The Truman Show, where Truman’s mum turns to a hidden camera, holding a knife: “It’s a Chef’s Pal. It’s a dicer, grater, peeler, all in one!” The dilemma is when does selling become selling out? Like most things, it works best when people are open about it and say when they’re being paid for something. There’s already a simple convention to put #ad at the end of anything sponsored, and #notsponsored when it’s not. There’s also a third way, which is for Instagrammers to guest star in other stuff, as @dresslikeamum (a fashion blogger who is “changing the bad rep of dressing like a mum”) did when she appeared in a Mamas & Papas catalogue.

But there’s also, what the heck, let’s go Truman Show on everyone:

The week after that video was posted, Simon shaved off his beard in association with a particular shaver including the model name, and a few days after that he wore a new pair of pajamas thanks to another company. Of course, they and other similar Instagrammers want to make a few bob out of their Instagram life – they’ve got a feed and mouths to feed – but it all started to feel too staged.

It’ll be interesting to see if both brands and Instagrammers can get the balance right. It will depend whether these people can get paid for what they do without it noticeably getting in the way of the real life bits. But for all the bumps, this kind of thing makes more sense and feels a more natural fit than a lot of the ‘content marketing’ many brands themselves generate on social. If you look hard enough at those posts, you can hear social media interns scrabbling around the back of the internet, searching for anything – ANYTHING! – to fill that little square and get some likes.