Meet the person running the viral Instagram account perfectly memeing life in Philly

Followers of @phillyaffirmations jumped from 3k to 25k in one weekend.

phillyaffirmations2
Instagram / @phillyaffirmations
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In bright blue typeface with a tacky drop shadow set against a stock SEPTA subway image, the photo declares: “I am the hottest person on the El.”

It’s one of many posts on @phillyaffirmations, a hyperlocal Instagram account that’s turning the Philly experience into a barrage of memes.

The account was started on a whim last month by Ariel Cifala, a 22-year-old West Virginia University graduate and full-time social media manager living in South Philly. Its content riffs on the obnoxiously positive, compulsively shareable posts of @afffirmations, an 850k-follower Instagram dubbed “the spiritual guide to the sublime in shitposting.”

Instagram affirmations are designed to be irreverent. Everything about them — from the Microsoft clip art aesthetic to the unhinged declarations of perfect mental health — spoof the now-common social media infographics that spout beatific lessons on self-care and psychology.

The beauty of @phillyaffirmations is that it localizes this content to create a shared experience of living, partying, and complaining that could only be of, in, and about Philadelphia.

“Back in angle parking does not stress me out,” reads a post with over 2,000 likes from Sunday in neon pink lettering layered over a photo of a nondescript South Philly street.

“I will not take my first date to Bok Bar,” reads another from Tuesday with just shy of 5,000 likes that yet again layers a caps lock font over an image, this time the view from Bok Bar.

“It started out as a joke,” Cifala told Billy Penn. The account didn’t find traction outside her friend group until early November, when Philly lifestyle TikToker @bran__flakezz reposted one of her memes and bro brand Barstool Philly spent a day resharing her content on their Instagram story. Followers skyrocketed from just under 3,000 to over 20,000 in one weekend.

Now, @phillyaffirmations has over 25,000 followers and nets over 2 million impressions weekly, well above the city’s population of 1.6 million residents.

“It’s shocking. I never thought the account would have this many followers,” said Cifala, who manages social media accounts for two local nonprofits and a real estate agency but has never touched a project of this scale. “But when I think about it, it makes sense. Once you live in Philly for a certain amount of time, you begin to pick up on all of the city’s little quirks, and it’s fun to share content that’s personal to you but relatable to everyone.”

Cifala designs each post on PicsArt, a graphic design application, and says the whole process takes under a minute. As for who comes up with the affirmations? It’s a mix of her own jokes and ideas from followers via a Google form Cifala keeps updating to allow more storage as the suggestions roll in.

Cifala’s favorite meme on the account is the first one she ever posted, which is about how hard it is to find a parking spot in South Philly after 7 p.m.

Meanwhile, her followers love jokes about local nightlife, like paying a $40 cover at Voyeur, or idiosyncratic local news items, like the Tastykake mesh wire recall.

Though there’s plenty of universal experiences in Philadelphia, Cifala says submissions are essential because “there are niche experiences in different neighborhoods that I may know nothing about.”

Also, she isn’t a Philly native. Cifala is from West Virginia, but spent summers living in the city as a visiting student at the prestigious Rock School for Dance Education. After she graduated college in the middle of the pandemic with a degree in journalism, Cifala spent some time in Florida before landing back in Philadelphia this May.

Cifala said running @phillyaffirmations makes her feel as if she’s “finally been initiated into the city” because she can relate to most of the content she posts.

Still, running a suddenly popular account is not without its challenges. Cifala is deciding how — and if — to monetize the meme page. Dozens of local businesses have reached out to ask about advertising, she said, but she doesn’t plan on charging local businesses for getting memed, especially if they offer a good or service she’d post about anyway.

“I don’t want it to turn into a big pool of advertisements. That would ruin the fun for my followers,” said Cifala.

Brands have a history of using social media shitposters to sell products, with the content often blurring the line between advertisements and comedy. In 2019, meme giant and digital advertising agency Jerry Media, which runs the @FuckJerry and @beigecardigan Instagram handles, came under fire for using crowdsourced jokes in sponsored content without informing the original comedians, or sharing revenue.

Cifala has already felt some pushback for trying to professionalize operations. After posting an Instagram story announcing an official @phillyaffirmations email address, Cifala received direct messages expressing concern she’d “sold out.”

“So many replies were like, ‘Boo, this account is done,’ but I just wanted to be able to sort through business inquiries easier,” Cifala said. Though she has no immediate plans to monetize, her next goal is to collaborate with a local designer on merchandise, like crewneck sweatshirts printed with followers’ favorite affirmations.

Cifala feels one thing needs to be made clear: the account is staying with her.

Within the past week, two separate people sent inquiries over email about buying the @phillyaffirmations Instagram handle and following. Both prospective buyers considered the account valuable enough to say Cifala could simply name her price.

“We already have a high follower account and engagement rate. There could be a lot of different revenue streams,” Cifala said. “But I’m not interested in selling. I want to keep the account as is.”

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