“The biggest day on the internet ever,” at least according to Jumperoo62, a commenter on the British gossip forum Tattle.life, took place last November. The rabbit hole of a site where 53,000-plus members dissect the lives of influencers with the meticulous, if selective, attention of Renaissance cartographers was consistently critical and often cruel.
The Tattle Lifers were never disinterested. They were always distant observers. Until last November, when the site went from being a lesser moon in the influencer solar system to playing a central role in a rapidly unraveling series of events one commenter dubbed Instamumistan. “Inject this shit into my veins,” wrote Swipe Up! “Better than a soap opera,” wrote Plinkplonk. It was also, quite possibly, one of the worst days of Clemmie Hooper’s life.
At the time, Hooper, a 35-year-old midwife and mother of four with blunt bangs and attractive features had around 660,000 followers on Instagram, where she posted as @mother_of_ daughters (or MOD).
Her husband, Simon, a sometimes goofy, scruffily handsome operations director for a consultancy firm, drew around a million followers to his own account, @father_ of_daughters. Clemmie also had a birth-focused podcast, a best-selling book called How to Grow a Baby and Push It Out, and a blog, Gas & Air, where she shared birth stories, promoted body positivity, and offered honest-sounding tidbits of her own life as a mom (like admitting in one vacation blog post “I’d rather be at work”).
On Gas & Air’s About page, Clemmie can still be found exuding the trademark mumfluencer blend of aspirational and approachable, seated at an uncluttered desk amid a palette of millennial pink and plants. On the wall behind her is a framed drawing of a woman with similar bangs and the scrawled words “Be Kind.”
Tattle.life, though, presented an inverse reality. On threads with titles like “Part time parents full time grifters,” commenters took issue with Clemmie’s mothering, her outfits, her weight, the decor of her home, her recipe for avocado toast, even her spelling (“Chest of draws?” wrote Breakdance Badass. “That’s not dyslexia it’s is [sic] stupidity.” “Utter laziness,” agreed Mustard). Even comments that came to Clemmie’s defense were often tempered with disdain. “I found her the most likeable she’s been in ages,” GreyWolf wrote about one video. “Almost fun. But she’s still a bloody user influencer.”
Then there was AliceinWanderlust: “I agree her passion shines through when she talks about her work,” she wrote about MOD in February of last year. “I for one found her menstrual cup post really insightful and learnt loads,” she wrote a few days later.
A commenter eventually asked outright what others had danced around: Was AliceinWanderlust Clemmie? Alice vehemently denied the accusation—the idea was so absurd she posted a ROTFL emoji. But in March of last year, a Tattle.life moderator posted to announce “Alice” had been banned, citing “suspect things logged on the back end.” A few months later, the same moderator explained that site administrators had noticed AliceinWanderlust, who’d once claimed all her family could afford was “camping in Devon,” logging in to Tattle.life from a tropical island Clemmie was also Instagramming from at the time.
The problem was that on top of creating an account to defend herself, Clemmie was using it to put down other influencers, even ones she knew personally. “Smug as fuck that #gifted ski trip made me want to stick frozen icicles in my eyes,” she wrote about a post from interior design blogger @pinkhouseliving, whom she’d previously collaborated with on a post. “Candice is often really aggressive and always brings it back to race, priveldge [sic] and class because she knows no one will argue with that,” she’d posted about Candice Brathwaite, an influencer Clemmie had invited onto her podcast to discuss the high death rate of pregnant black women.
It took a while for all this information to reach Clemmie’s fellow mumfluencers, but once it did, they took to Instagram en masse to denounce her. “Dear Alice,” wrote blogger Laura Rutherford. “You’ve looked me in the eye and asked me how I’m doing when I’ve been at my lowest. How dare you?”
This, then, was Instamumistan. Sure, the commenter who likened the endless scroll of melodramatic gossip to a protracted war was participating in a particularly internet-y form of hyperbole. But it was a virtual explosion few could look away from. The story spread from Tattle.life to Instagram to mainstream newspapers and back again. Clemmie did post a brief apology in her Instagram Story, explaining that after coming across threads about her family on Tattle.life, she’d become “extremely paranoid” and had opened an anonymous account. “When the users started to suspect it was me, I made the mistake of commenting about others,” she wrote. “I am just so sorry.”
This did nothing to stem the outrage. “It’s a classic case of someone who’s been victimized turning perpetrator,” an “insider” told Grazia Daily. “She got sucked in, but I think she started to enjoy it.” It was like a digital-age fable—Hooper, who Tattle posters had criticized repeatedly for what they saw as displays of arrogance and faux-kindness, not to mention for shilling so many products they couldn’t afford, had been amongst them all that time. The day after the news broke, two people on Tattle.life wrote that they’d dreamed about it.
The timeline Clemmie offered in her apology didn’t entirely add up. She’d joined shortly before a thread about her even existed, and her first comments were exclusively about another influencer, Cash Carraway. (In the process, she actually helped reveal a separate poster as Carraway herself. “The truth always comes out in the end, Cash,” AliceinWanderlust wrote.) But undoubtedly, as she admitted in her apology, she “got lost in this online world.” Her sock puppet account had gone so far as to describe Simon as a “class A twat, I can’t believe she puts up with his nonsense.”
Amid the chaos, Simon put up a post of his own: “I’ve seen firsthand what three years of being attacked online can do to a person and the dark places it can drive you to—I guess whereas I can happily ignore it all, she couldn’t…. This has impacted our family and it will take some time to recover.” Two days later, he returned to social media with a video titled “Hairbands: Where the Hell Do They All Go?!” Clemmie’s account has been inactive ever since.
Reading through AliceinWanderlust’s posts now feels like watching the part of the horror movie where the woman starts down the basement stairs. There aren’t any good excuses for what she did, but it’s easy to imagine how it happened. How a cloak of anonymity might seem particularly appealing to someone who’s made her “real life” public, and how attacks about your parenting could be particularly hard to slough off. How you’d scramble to slip back into invisibility after being discovered, feeling a vertiginous dread that aspects you’d rather keep hidden—your spitefulness, perhaps, or the person you are late at night after the kids are asleep, your face lit only by the blue light of your phone—might be revealed.
But I don’t actually know if this was the case for Clemmie. When I reached out to her PR person, whom she shares with her husband, I was told they weren’t doing any press. None of the other influencers involved would speak to me, either. What I did eventually learn, though, is that while the generally accepted story line has been that what happened with Clemmie was an aberration, it’s actually quite common. “In the last couple of years, I’ve given interviews regarding this exact situation,” says Crystal Abidin, PhD, a digital anthropologist and ethnographer of internet cultures at Curtin University in Australia. Alice Wright, who runs GOMI, a U.S.-based precursor to Tattle.life, told me the same thing has happened various times on her site.
The more I scrolled through Clemmie’s digital detritus, in fact, the more her story seemed to represent not only the pressures experienced by influencers, but the insecurities, incentives, and impulses all parents must navigate as they engage with platforms that have the ability to make otherwise mature adults act like teenagers. Platforms, moreover, filled with unknown risks and rewards hardly any of us can resist. Writer and influencer Jordan Reid, also known as @ramshackleglam, laughed when I asked her about this, as if it were so self-evident it hardly bore discussing. “I mean, I’m 38 years old and I put sparkle filter on my face,” she says.
By 2010, almost a quarter of children worldwide had begun their digital lives via sonograms their parents posted online, according to a survey conducted by the internet security firm AVG. By the time the average child turned five, a more recent British study found, nearly 1,500 images of them had been shared. The content we post of our kids is the kind we’d never post of a friend without asking. We show them on the floor crying or dancing by themselves, unaware they’re being photographed. We show them smiling in the bath, a peach emoji over their butts. We do this to build community, to show off, to allay boredom, to build our brand. But we also do this because our norms have been shaped by parent influencers, who post photos of their kids for the same reasons the rest of us do, along with one additional incentive: money.
“Baby pics drive clicks,” a recent New York Times opinion piece quipped. Or as Clemmie told a reporter in 2018, regarding her two youngest children and social media engagement numbers: “Anything with the twins is amazing.”
There are now 4.5 million mom influencers in the U.S. according to Mom 2.0 Summit, a professional conference for parenting influencers, and their impact is “like word of mouth on steroids,” the president and founder of a creative agency told Money magazine in 2018. Two years ago, when I posted the first photo of my then one-month-old son on Facebook, it felt almost obligatory. I’d written it on my to-do list, in between figuring out some details of my maternity leave and buying a breast pump. It got twice as many likes as anything else I’d ever put up.
But it doesn’t take much digging to discover why one might abstain. Leah Plunkett, the author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online, told me her concerns fall into three categories: The first involves putting your child at risk of criminal acts like kidnapping or identity theft. (Studies estimate that by 2030, “sharenting” will be responsible for almost two-thirds of identity fraud against today’s children.)
The second issue is potentially subjecting kids to actions that are legal but invasive. Baby role-playing, for example, involves people reposting photos of children they’ve found online and offering them up for virtual adoption, pretending to be them, or passing them off as their own kids; there are over 37,000 Instagram posts tagged #babyrp. And the third is that creating a digital presence for children before they’ve had a chance to form their own sense of self can impede their ability to figure out who they are, embarrass them, or worse.
A 2019 Microsoft survey reported that 42 percent of teens in 25 countries have been bothered by something their parents posted about them. (This includes Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter, Apple, who once commented, after Paltrow posted a snap of the two of them, “Mom, we have discussed this. You may not post anything without my consent.”) Plunkett, who works as an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law and as a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, recently heard about a mom whose child, now in middle school, was bullied via printouts of a story the mom had long ago published on her blog.
For influencers whose livelihoods are tied to the way they package their family online, even thornier issues arise. “It’s a bit chilling, but the concept of a child being a brand extension does come into play,” says Catherine Archer, PhD, a communications researcher at Australia’s Murdoch University. There are also privacy concerns, as well as ethical and financial questions. Do you pay your child? Do children have rights to images of themselves?
Legislation like California’s Coogan Law, passed in 1939, stipulated that 15 percent of a child performer’s earnings be deposited into a trust, and codified matters like schooling, work hours, and time off for young entertainers, but there’s no current analogue for child social media stars. “Even if they are performing their everyday tasks, they really are stepping into a role that’s the equivalent of Shirley Temple on a movie set, with huge money attached,” Plunkett says. “We’ve always had kids performing labor in America. What’s new is that it’s harder to draw the line between what’s labor and what’s family life. Plus, everyone can now aspire to this, and with a 24/7 surveillance aspect.”
This is a standard trope of dystopian fiction, but if the last few years have made anything clear, it’s that not everyone finds this idea alarming. When I email Shannon Bird, a Utah mother-of-five whose Instagram account, @birdalamode, has 100,000 followers, she writes back to say she has displayed her kids’ lives from the second she went into labor, adding “think Truman Show.” (During the birth of her youngest daughter, last December, she posted an Instagram Story that included imagery of herself in a hospital gown, her feet in stirrups, a sparkly clip with the word “Baby” in her hair.)
Offering this kind of access into her life is partly how she’s attracted so many followers. That she shows herself doing things like calling 911 because her breastmilk had dried up in the middle of night (her husband was out of town and a police officer delivered formula) has also led her to become a popular hate-follow. On GOMI, where her thread has over 530 pages of comments, she’s been dubbed the “Mormon Courtney Love.”
“But there’s been a ton of good as well,” Bird says, explaining that after she announced she had nothing for her new daughter’s nursery, she received so many items that she’s still giving away extra car seats. “It keeps you wanting to post,” she says.
Her 911 call ended up getting picked up by People magazine and Inside Edition, but Bird also received emails telling her to kill herself, and as a result, when we spoke last January, she was two days into an Instagram hiatus. “I don’t want any negativity because I’m barely staying afloat,” she says. “I’ve never been this outnumbered by kids and life.”
When she told her kids she wouldn’t be taking pictures of them for a little while, they cheered. But she found it strange. “I feel a little out-of-body because as a mom, all I know is posting updates,” she says. A day later, she was back.
Influencer marketing, which last year was an $8 billion industry, was in many ways formed in the early aughts by women who, in the often isolating, endlessly liminal space of motherhood, began congregating online to write about the aspects of parenthood that Hooper once described as “this grey matter… of: ‘I’m not depressed, I’m just finding today particularly boring.’” Companies were looking for ways to reach mothers, who in the U.S. alone have spending power of $2.4 trillion; and mothers, who are three times more likely to be stay-at-home parents and many of whom left the work force ambivalently, became eager entrepreneurs.
“Mom bloggers gave birth to the influencer movement,” says Laura Mayes, a co-founder, with Carrie Pacini, of the mom influencer–focused conference Mom 2.0. There is, by the way, something almost over-obviously ironic about the idea that women, in search of community, or a voice built an industry that enabled them to monetize parenting—unpaid work that they were nonetheless disproportionately expected to perform—only for it to leave them open to even more intense criticism.
The argument commenters on sites like GOMI or TL tend to make is that influencers, by sharing so much, become fair game for criticism. By this logic, so are a lot of the rest of us, too. When I ask Mayes about whether she’s fielded questions from influencers about how their digital presence might impact their kids, she says that she has, though is quick to add that “It’s not just influencers. It’s all parents. Millions of mothers put their experiences and ideas out there on a variety of platforms.”
Some parents have responded by trying to keep their children unidentifiable online. Sara Gaynes Levy, a journalist and mother of a two-year-old, rarely shares photos of her daughter; when she does, her face isn’t visible. At first, this was at her husband’s request, but she’s come to share his worries about privacy. “I probably think more than the average parent about the longevity of this stuff,” she says. “I have an alarmist brain.” (Their decision to buy a baby monitor without Wi-Fi seemed less alarmist after videos emerged last December of people hacking into Amazon’s Ring home-security cameras and taunting children.)
Another woman, a documentary filmmaker, has sworn off social media altogether for the sake of her two kids. (She asked to remain anonymous “since obviously one of the reasons I’m not on social media is that I really like privacy.”) “We have no idea of the ramifications,” she says. “Who reads the fine print when you click okay on the terms of service? Not me.”
But the impact all this might have on kids later in life is still unclear. An article in the Atlantic about kids discovering their digital presence quoted one girl who was excited to find photos of her and her friends online—“We were like, ‘Whoa, we’re real people.’ ” (Admittedly, this statement can still be kind of haunting.) It’s also not certain whether social media is causing new problems, or if we’re just seeing the same old problems playing out in new, more widespread ways. The documentary filmmaker, for example, told me she’d started avoiding social media partly because she’d noted that her brother’s family, including his two teenagers, don’t even use cell phones, and “this is a family with no kind of psychological distress.” But while growing up in the 1990s, I knew lots of families in psychological distress, and none had cell phones.
“I hate the narrative that the internet is bad for you,” says author and pundit Molly Jong-Fast. I’d reached out to her because long before the internet existed, she’d grown up with a mother, novelist Erica Jong, who was such a prototypical sharenter she’d written about the first time Molly got her period. “I hate it because it’s easy.”
It also, obviously, offers all sorts of benefits. One 2015 study found that 62 percent of parents actually said social media helped them worry less. And when Laurel Pantin, the fashion features director for InStyle magazine, experienced postpartum anxiety and depression after the birth of her son, she used the platform “like Tinder, almost,” she says. “I was reaching out to random people who’d recently had babies. It connected me to the outside world at [a point] when in reality I was very isolated and vulnerable.” Her feed broadcasts pics of her now two-year-old son, her new baby, selfies, and occasional paid posts to over 39,000 followers, but she follows a set of self-imposed rules. “I just try to not put things out there that might later be embarrassing for a child, I try not to embarrass my husband, and I try to be as honest as possible,” she says.
This approach, of assuming engagement is inevitable but trying to do so on one’s own terms, is one Abidin has observed among numerous mom influencers. “A lot of reporters who interview me have in mind this moral panic angle about how influencers are violating the privacy rights of their children,” Abidin says. “But many parenting influencers are doing their due diligence in trying to change the norms of the business to make it work for them, which I find healthy, because this is not a phenomenon that is reversible.”
An odd thing I noticed as I paid closer attention to the way I engaged with Instagram was that the closer a person’s presentation of her parenthood hewed to my own aspirations, the less I was able to recognize the artifice. One woman, an influencer with around 18,000 followers who seemed to have experienced new motherhood as a time of gauzy, earthy ease, often posted photos of herself doing things like breastfeeding while leaning against a table full of vegetables at a natural food store, or cradling her infant in a camper van while on a road trip. The latter sounded both emotionally draining and logistically confounding. Where was the car seat? How did she do laundry? Yet looking at her photos, I still believed them.
Even some influencers, intimately familiar with the curation that goes on behind the scenes, aren’t immune to such habits. Reid, aka @ramshackleglam, a mother of two, tells me that since her marriage ended in 2018, she’s started using Instagram more, and while “I’m not proud to say it,” she says, she now finds photos of happy-seeming families irritating. “It makes me think that maybe if I had just tried harder, I could have had that, too,” she says. A friend eventually pointed out that her feed likely used to make other people feel the same way. “That really struck me—that I could have created those emotions in people without meaning to, or believing I had the ability to.”
Reid, who has 100,000 Instagram followers, has never been comfortable with the platform. “I want it to die,” she says. In part, her antipathy stems from her belief that it shapes people’s interactions with their kids. Not long ago, she watched a mother notice her children doing something cute, take out her phone, and ask them to do it again, but in front of a prettier wall. “I’m sure I have done the same thing, but seeing it from the outside was a little watershed moment,” she says.
Reid recently coauthored The Big Activity Book for Digital Detox, though she admits, “I’m better at writing about it than doing it.” She lives in Malibu, “a walking, talking Kodak moment all the time,” and often takes her kids to the beach. One day last, as they arrived, Reid realized she’d forgotten her phone. She was about to turn around but changed her mind. Instead, her kids made castles out of sticks, and nobody saw them but her. She hadn’t played with them like that in a long time.
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of ELLE.