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The World Record Egg Is Turning Its Spotlight on Mental Health

By Renée Batchelor

 
Jonpaul Douglass
 

If you haven’t heard of the world record egg it’s likely that Instagram that not an oft-used app on your phone. Or it’s possible that you don’t even own a smart phone in the first place. For the rest of us mired in the shame-and-reward cycle of social media, and particularly the popular photo-sharing platform, escaping the presence of the egg (IG account: @world_ record_egg) is almost an impossible feat.

The egg first appeared on Instagram on 4 January 2019 with a rallying cry — a call for users from around the world to “like” its post in order to beat the record number of likes then held by reality TV star and cosmetics mogul Kylie Jenner. And social media users responded. For some it was a way of sticking it to the man — or in this case, the perceived frivolity of social media behemoths who gained currency for essentially doing nothing but posing and posting. For others it was a wry and amusing call, simply heeded with the double tap of a button. For a third group, the egg was probably met with benign indifference. But what followed after is where the story gets interesting.

At first there was confusion about the egg’s provenance and the person behind it. There was a definite seed of intention behind its innocuous appearance. The egg could only be described as decidedly average and, well... egg-like. There was a deceptive simplicity to its ordinariness, a hidden message perhaps lurking beneath its lightly freckled shell? The egg, with its unadorned simplicity and straightforward goal, was the equivalent of Julia Robert’s character in “Notting Hill” standing in front of the world asking it to love her (or him).

Conspiracy theories abounded as to the intention behind the egg’s sudden appearance. Was this work of a particularly sardonic genius? Or a marketing ploy for some organic egg brand? It turns out the egg account was the creation of London-based Chris Godfrey, who was experiencing a slow week, immediately post-Christmas. He had chanced upon an article about Kylie Jenner topping the list of the most-liked Instagram posts in 2018 with an impressive 18 million likes. Later that evening, Godfrey posted the egg’s photo on a newly created Instagram account, in an attempt to gauge the impact and reach one post could receive on social media. He later roped in his friends Alissa Khan-Whelan and CJ Brown to help manage Eugene, a name given to the egg by an Instagram user, on its very first post. But what started as a whim has since ballooned to something much bigger and has become an allegory of sorts on the fragile state of mental health especially among the youth of today.

The trio behind the egg are all young, creative London-ites. This closeness to the egg’s core audience allows them to connect with the Egg Gang, as they’ve come to be known in authentic and meaningful ways. All three had worked on projects for big brands and names, but nothing prepared them for the storm of excitement that would soon follow. Godfrey, 30, studied graphic design in Kingston University and had worked in advertising agencies like Karmarama and The & Partnership on projects for clients such as the BBC, Lexus and Google. Khan-Whelan, 27, graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins with first class honours. She built her career as a creative producer, delivering campaigns for brands like Sainsburys and The Crown Estate. As for Brown, 30, a strategic art director who graduated in graphic design and communication from the University of West England, he has had experience in art directing campaigns for big names like Nike and Facebook.

Jonpaul Douglass
 

To the question of why an egg was chosen, Godfrey admits it was part playfulness and part strategy. “Why an egg? An egg is recognisable to millions of people across the globe, no matter what your age is. It has no race, religion, or political agenda. An egg is... an egg. You can’t hate an egg. And Kylie Jenner being dethroned by an egg? You have to admit, it would be funny,” says Godfrey. It’s no surprise that in the current climate of sensitivity surrounding historically privileged groups versus marginalised ones, choosing the right symbol for this idea was of utmost importance. The egg was as universal and inoffensive as one could get. 

As for its target, Jenner was chosen as the person to beat, again from a strategic viewpoint. They maintain that it was nothing personal. He did not want to go against someone like Beyoncé whose notoriously protective group of fans known as the Beyhive, would likely respond in an aggressive manner. “The two elements came together hand in hand, and that was when the final idea sparked; discovering that Kylie Jenner held the most-liked record was the magic ingredient — it was an anti-celebrity revolt and she was the pantomime villain. We tend to either love or hate reality stars, and the Kardashians hold that love/ hate stigma for so many people,” says Khan-Whelan.

“With this in mind we were aware that our next steps could have a huge impact, so they needed to be well considered.”

In an email correspondence with the Egg Gang it comes to light that the three of them are the only ones handling the egg account — albeit with the help of a group of freelancers. This includes managing requests from media outlets, brand collaborations and engaging with its 7.7 million Instagram followers, many of whom are young kids and teenagers (the account’s user interactions spike in the mid-afternoon once school is out in the US). When the egg first went viral, the team basically camped out in Khan-Whelan’s living room, existing on takeaway dinners and many sleepless nights. So numerous and divergent were the possible paths that lay ahead.

But for Godfrey, Khan-Whelan and Brown there was always a sense of purpose beyond what some might have at first assumed to be a mere practical joke. The egg has opened up a bigger discussion on social media and its impact on mental health, while its Instagram page serves as a community for its young followers. According to them, the core members of the Egg Gang are part of Generation Z — those aged between 14 and 25 — and the most likely to be active on social media. And in an increasingly pressurising environment, many find solace in what the egg symbolises. “The egg is a symbol of hope. An underdog in a world where everyone is winning. In an all- too-perfect digital age, it’s refreshing and funny that something as unassuming as an egg can put high-profile social media personalities in their place,” says Brown. 

The egg is also opening up the discussion on mental health in a way that feels light, but also meaningful. “Using an egg brought a sense of playfulness and humour to the entire campaign; and the idea fundamentally relied on humour to get it off the ground. For Generation Z — the audience most likely to join our campaign— humour is one of the best ways to break through and capture their attention,” says Godfrey. Very early on, the team saw an immediate connection between the egg and the idea of mental health. “We quickly decided to use this opportunity to give the online community some hope. On the day that we broke the world record, we opened an official Egg Gang store offering T-shirts with proceeds from sales going to a different mental health charity each day,” says Brown. Some of the beneficiaries like Young Minds UK saw a staggering 147,000 per cent increase in account discovery after being chosen by the Egg Gang. “With this in mind we were aware that our next steps could have a huge impact, so they needed to be well considered. And that’s when we started to crack the egg,” says Brown.

Jonpaul Douglass
 

What followed was a “cracking campaign”, that created the second viral moment for the egg. The egg in a reassuringly human moment revealed the “stress” it was under and that its platform was mental health awareness. It was at this pre-cracking stage that big brands wanted to monetise Eugene. Still, only the original trio continued to be in charge of the egg’s exploits and Instagram scheduling. “The experience was exhilarating, if not a little overwhelming. The world’s media was in our inbox and we suddenly had millions of people watching our every move. Media from all around the world were featuring the story daily. The Ellen Show invited us on, Conan O’Brien and Tom Hanks teamed up for a sketch on his show — which was a personal highlight for us all,” says Godfrey. Unsurprisingly, a slew of pretenders emerged, claiming to be responsible for the egg. The irony did not escape the exhausted trio. “There was no big agency, no machine pushing it all out. Everything from designing the merchandise to replying to thousands of fans and media requests was shared by three people. Living off no sleep and a lot of takeout food from the living room of a small flat in South London,” says Godfrey.

The experience of the egg’s lightning-quick success was part of the reason the mental health platform resonated with its creators in the first place. Even though all three members were from the advertising and marketing indus- tries and should have had a good idea of the firestorm to follow, they were still overwhelmed. “The sheer volume of what we had to do and the decisions we had to make in such a short space of time was intense. The pressure that came with the experience definitely influenced our final decision to focus on mental health in the ‘reveal’. We reflected on our personal experience, and we also thought about how the egg might be feeling if it were a human thrown into the spotlight like this. We were eager to highlight the fragility of our mental health in the digital age,”says Khan-Whelan.

And it turns out one egg could do a lot. In some ways Eugene (and the people behind it) has shamed many other social media stars by using its platform for a higher purpose. “It was an incredible opportunity to shine a light on a topic that really is a global epidemic with nearly a million people taking their life globally. Yet because it is a stigmatised topic, less people are willing to talk about their mental health, and therefore less people are diagnosed,” says Khan-Whelan. Others agreed. Paul Gionfriddo, the CEO of Mental Health America wrote, “The egg mattered be- cause it helped us reach a population in need. It elevated the conversation to an international level to reach even more people, to help more people.” Part of maintaining the Egg Gang community includes actively engaging followers and acknowledging what the team calls “good eggs of the week” — individuals who have done good — on the account’s Instagram story. Moving away from the bite-sized Instagram format, the team is also looking into creating longer-form content and expanding to new platforms like TikTok.

To the question of whether the Egg Gang themselves have experienced the social media fatigue they are fighting against, the answer is a definite yes. “Each of us [has] experienced the anxiety that comes with social media, and there has been a lot of pressure since starting the project. But we’re a thoughtful team and we ensure that each of us finds ways to ‘unplug’ if we are feeling the pressure in any way. A tactic we have found is to set intentions. For example, we will allocate a certain amount of time re- plying to direct messages and interacting with our community, rather than spending unlimited hours endlessly scrolling,” says Brown.

And while the egg’s creators grapple with being Instagram famous, they have found a deeper purpose amidst the noise. “Ultimately, we wanted to show that we all have the ability to use our platform responsibly. To express yourself. To be honest. To be brave. You don’t have to be famous, filtered or perfect to make a difference,” says Godfrey.