The Inspiration Economy: Selling Motivation

A Lululemon reusable shopping bag tells us “friends are more important than money.” The self-help book The Secret sings of how, with the powers of positive thinking, we may harness the “natural law” of attraction to achieve our dreams. Motivational quotes in bold fonts hover over stock images of sunsets. Handwritten messages stir hearts via Post-it note, and someone on Instagram has just been to the gym (#gymlife).

Intended as fuel for sudden bursts of creativity – Oprah broadcasts it; Obama campaigned on it; TED spreads it; Deepak Chopra and Anthony Robbins codify it, package it as curricula, and sell it at a premium – it’s inspiration.

But there’s a distinction to be drawn between inspiration proper – those things that actually inspire creative bursts, things like caffeine, alcohol and deadlines – and those things that just intend to. The latter category, the genre that includes Deepak, Tony, Oprah and the musings of our obnoxious friend on Instagram, represents the fetishization, celebritizaton, commercialization and finally the crowdsourcing of user-generated inspiration.

An engine of the social web, inspiration is one of the media genres that keep users interacting – sharing and ‘liking’ each other’s media posts. The most popular social platforms, like Instagram and Pinterest, depend on this behavior. As the inspiration flows, so does the money: Pinterest – a platform whose interface makes metaphor of real-world inspiration boards – takes advantage of the user’s inspired state, as an opportunity to display ‘paid pins,’ ads disguised as content that link back to retailers.

Instagram, which had no revenue model when it was acquired by Facebook in 2012, seems to have been valuated on inspiration alone; the screen-estate that inspires the glazed eyes of over 30 million users was worth US $1 billion dollars to the social media behemoth.

Client partner at Facebook’s Global Marketing Solutions group, Daniel Habashi, said that while the sharing of inspiring content is indeed at the core of Facebook’s user experience, it comes from an authentic place. “Services like Facebook definitely make it easier for people to connect with each other and share positive messages,” he said, “it’s an outlet of expression powered by real people.”

While not every Facebook post or Instagram photo exactly fits the genre, many do. From advertising the benefits of juice cleanses (#juicelife) to throwing some arrangement of the words ‘imagination’, ‘dream’ and ‘magic’, against a pastoral backdrop and attributing them to Shakespeare, public displays of inspiration are clearly observable and pervasive across social media.

Habashi says the inspiration economy is, “a community of resources, thoughts and perspectives that organize a group to create meaningful experiences that they can share with their friends and the organizations they care about.”

Taking a cue from the success of Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, a number of startups are appealing more directly to that community, with the aim of capitalizing on the inspiration economy.

When founder of Piccsy, Daniel Eckler noticed the proliferation of inspirational “visual quotes” on Piccsy, he responded with Recite, a web application with over 50 “beautiful and dynamic” typographic templates that enable users to “turn a quote into a masterpiece.” The product has been used by some of the internet’s great motivators including LeAnn Rimes, and Sean “Diddy” Combs who’s dropped such gems as “the question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me” and “fuck anything that doesn’t make you happy.” Responding to the question: is the abundance of online positivity effective in inspiring people to get up and do something? Eckler, perhaps unsurprisingly, responded with a quotation: “Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action.” – Frank Tibolt

The irony, Eckler said, was that Tibolt was an author on success and self-help. “Inspirational quotes,” said Eckler, “can be great motivators, and they’re perfectly suited to the current 140 character media message landscape,” but “browsing Pinterest for quotes and sharing them with your friends is not a substitute for getting things done.”

As the internet confuses a state of being for a genre of media, there’s a disconnect between the things we call ‘inspirational’ and the things that actually inspire us. If all this inspirational content is empty – a tone standing in for an action – and no one is actually affecting the change they’re inspired to, then we’re in an inspiration bubble. Its impending collapse may mark the rise of the action economy – if such a thing could exist online.

the author

Martha Twidale

Martha Twidale is a brand strategist at Idea Couture. She is based in Toronto, Canada.