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Shit you should care about: modern-day media moguls

4 November 2021

We speak to one-third of the popular Instagram Shit You Should Care About on their runaway success, revolutionising the media, and why they turned down The White House.

WORDS BY Sarah Murray

I don’t recognise Lucy Blakiston when I see her, but as she walks closer, I know it’s her. The Shit You Should Care About founder is dressed casually in a pair of Nike Air Force 1 Shadows and black baggy jeans with a T-shirt­­, which is the giveaway, that reads: Love yourself you piece of shit. She’s on brand, but unconsciously so. 

“This is very bougie,” she says looking around­—and it kind of is. We’ve met in the Chandelier Lounge at Auckland’s Cordis hotel under a gargantuan gold chandelier dripping with crystals. Swanky piano music rings out, interrupted only by the gentle clink of fine china as it’s served to patrons. I can’t help but feel with Blakiston here in this ornate classic environment, it’s like old world meeting new. 

Blakiston, 23, is one-third of the trio of young women who created the wildly popular Instagram account Shit You Should Care About. She runs the site with best friends Olivia Mercer and Ruby Edwards and, full disclosure, I stan. 

A global reach

At last glance they have 3 million followers, which is easily millions more than any of the Instagram accounts from our major mainstream media outlets here in New Zealand. It’s also more followers than the Instagrams of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, rugby superstar Dan Carter and director
Taika Waititi. To put that number in a global context, The New Yorker magazine—first published in 1925—has 5.9 million followers on Instagram. Their numbers are huge, ergo their reach is staggering!

When I ask for more statistics Blakiston picks up her phone, clad in a Homer Simpson case, and scrolls through nonchalantly. At the time of this interview, their impressions, meaning the total number of times their content was seen, was 46 million for the last seven days. And for the last 30 days—a whopping 192 million. 

“It’s crazy,” she says. “It’s numbers you can’t fathom. It’s like I’m still talking to an audience of a couple of hundred people.”

With co-founders Mercer finishing university and Edwards working as a social media strategist, Blakiston is currently the only one working full time on their venture.  Each day she goes by gut instinct to choose what she wants to post about. There is no time schedule or attempt to trick Instagram’s notorious algorithms—she doesn’t need to. Her Kiwi attitude combined with a mix of humour and charm has proven to be a winning formula with Americans, who make up 60% of their audience. And, yes, you better believe they have some major celebrity followers such as Bella Hadid, Ariana Grande, Blake Lively, Chrissy Teigen and Schitt’s Creek’s Daniel Levy. They’re even followed by Billie Eilish’s songwriter/producer brother Finneas, and Eilish’s mum. But not Billie, who notoriously doesn’t follow anyone.

SYSCA as Blakiston calls it, (pronounced sis-ca), started as a blog in 2018 when she frustratedly text her friends in full caps: SHOULD WE START SOMETHING WHERE WE CAN EXPLAIN THE QUESTIONS THAT EVERYONE IS THINKING? It soon pivoted from being predominately a blog to an Instagram account. What they do, and do so well, is give snippets of, you guessed it, shit you should care about, packaged and presented in a digestible way for consumers worldwide. Stories of India’s escalating Covid-19 crisis, the Derek Chauvin trial, and the protests in Colombia sit alongside appreciation posts about Harry Styles, Billie Eilish and Fleabag. 

“The mantra is about helping you give a shit, and that’s about anything,” says Blakiston. “It’s not just news or the environment. We can talk about Harry Styles, or anything and everything. But it’s all coming from a non-pedestal place. We’re just humans. It’s a human platform run by humans.” 

Sitting across from me, Blakiston sips her iced Americano coffee. Wavy blonde hair frames her face and her oversized glasses graze the tops of her cheeks when she smiles. Though she may appear meek, once she starts talking, you realise she’s anything but.

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She chats passionately about current events, the state of the world, and the media. As someone who has followed the SYSCA account for some time, her tone is very familiar. It’s warm, witty (peppered with swear words) and, maybe surprisingly for a 23 year old, wise. I feel like I’m sitting talking to an old friend— a whip-smart one at that.   The former Head Girl of Marlborough Girls’ College tackles worldwide meaty issues like a trained journalist would, all from the kitchen table of her parents’ house in Blenheim.

The more I talk to Blakiston, the more unique I find her. Although her business is heavily supported by social media, she doesn’t have a personal Instagram account. And her phone sitting right next to her on the table, receiving hundreds of thousands of likes and comments, is left unchecked. Her notifications, she says, are always turned off.

What about comments though, does she read them all?  “Oh shit no!” she says.  “I comment on some. I love a good clap back when I think people are just being mean for the sake of being mean. I also listen closely to the feedback we get. But no, to comment would be a full-time job in itself.”

It’s only then do I realise that despite the sheer magnitude of the followers she has, not only did I not recognise her earlier but no one in this roomful of people, which includes a prominent TVNZ presenter, does. Blakiston and the faces of her fellow founders are not splashed all over their posts. And that, she says, was a very conscious decision. 

“It’s not about us,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s never been about us. Some people might argue we have less credibility because our faces aren’t on it, but we’re not driven by that. I don’t want to walk down the street and have three million people recognising who I am and critiquing my opinion. I would rather help.  We’re a company not an influencer. In a world of influencers, because we’re not self-interested at all, it’s unique.”

Ever evolving

Not content with an extremely popular Instagram account, the trio have continued to expand, and now have a SYSCA Book Club as well as a podcast, aptly named The Shit Show. The podcast is recorded from her parents’ kitchen table with blankets haphazardly strung around it for sound quality. Once, they recorded it from the backseat of Blakiston’s little yellow Hyundai. “It’s all very rip, shit, and bust,” she laughs. 

More recently, in May they launched SYSCORD, which is essentially a big chat room for people to talk about subjects they’re interested in. There are channels for world events, pets, books, and celebrity fandoms. The idea, Blakiston tells me, is to provide a space, “where people can chat about subjects they’re interested in without putting themselves above anyone”. 

“It is like the future of the Internet, I think, or the creator economy at least,” she says on a podcast addressing their new enterprise. “Like getting your community all together where it’s not a top-down system.” 

It’s this very notion that sets SYSCA apart from traditional media outlets. Blakiston is quick to credit good journalism as part of the essential ecosystem helping their platform exist, however you can’t deny how they’ve completely turned the media industry on its head. In effect, they’ve almost single-handedly revolutionised how people, particularly 25 to 34 year olds, consume news.  

“We started the Instagram with the intention of cutting through that bullshit of people selling you teeth whitening and skinny tea, and start using it for information, which was not being done,” she says. “At the time I did not think it was groundbreaking. I was like ‘oh yeah, we were writing these pieces for the website why don’t we put them on Instagram too’ and then they started going gangbusters. Now everyone puts information on Insta and it’s great.”

Exponential growth

For almost two years the growth of SYSCA was slow but steady. The first time they noticed they were getting some traction was after the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks when Blakiston wrote a piece called, ‘We Are With You’, which received roughly 1000 likes. Fast-forward to 2020 when they covered the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the US election and gained approximately 800,000 followers in one month. 

“It was really scary because you can’t fathom that audience change. At the time I was frozen. I was too scared to post anything because we had this big new audience that were just coming for us. But then I just got over it and thought no, people still need the information, even more so than ever. 

So I tried to put the anxiety aside, stopped reading the DMs for awhile, and here we are—confident,” she says with a smile, before adding in a quiet voice, “Kind of…”

The challenge now is to turn what started as a passion project into a commercially viable business. Right now they receive revenue through their Shout Us A Coffee feature, which essentially asks their audience for a donation. “It’s not heaps,” says Blakiston, “but enough to live on.”

They get approached a lot for advertising, but they rarely do it. Recently, they turned down The White House. 

“We’re not aligning with governments,” she says. “Three years ago maybe I would be like ‘oh my god, we have to work with them’, but now I think that would actually be detrimental to align ourselves so closely with the US government. It’s quite telling that they’re even aware of us. And they’re understanding how young people, who are also voting, are getting their information.”

But surely, I venture, with their success, their reach and their innate understanding of their generation, someone has offered to buy them? 

“I know we could sell now if we wanted to,” says Blakiston coyly. “We’ve had interest.” She grins. She won’t tell me who when pressed—but the grin remains. 

“But we’re not in it for the money,” she says. “It’s a passion thing and it’s just amazing that one day it will be my full-time job. We don’t intend to build it to a certain size and sell it. We just intend to live a happy life running it.”

In the immediate future though, Blakiston plans to move to Auckland and upgrade her office from her parents’ kitchen table to a space of her own. She says she wants to continue what they’re doing but on a slightly bigger scale. I leave her in that grand tearoom tapping away at her laptop—a modern-day media mogul with an unattainable authenticity oozing from every post. It’s clear she’s not in it for fame or fortune. Blakiston and her co-founders want much more than that. They want to help people. And that, besties, is shit we should all care about. 

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