Planes, Trains, and Instagram Reels: How Authenticity and the Tube Created a Social Media Mogul

By Hisham Shami, Intern

Part One: Tube Girl

In October 2023, a new face of Gen Z pop culture was created – online, she goes by the name of “Tube Girl.” Tube Girl, real name Sabrina Bahsoon, is best known for her stylistic dancing and accompanying self-empowerment messaging on London’s public transit system, the tube – hence the name, “Tube Girl.” The idea is that Tube Girl doesn’t wait for anybody (barring the train) – instead, she dances where she wants and how she wants, regardless of who’s watching. Millions of people across the world have resonated with Sabrina. At last count, the hashtag #TubeGirl had attracted over 361 million views and the #TubeGirlEffect had over 96 million views. A month prior, Sabrina was just a commuter, feeling a little bored and maybe slightly out of place on the train. Now, she walks Paris Fashion Week runways and collaborates with international superstars like Troye Sivan and Omar Apollo. 

So what went into the creation of Tube Girl? How did this persona come to be, and what might she represent to her (as of publishing) 800,000 followers on TikTok? Tube Girl sells confidence – she expertly identified the inherently awkward nature of sitting and staring at 50 other strangers on the train, and subsequently laughed in its face. Rather than feel awkward, Tube Girl elected to feel brave, alluring, and so empowered that despite all eyes on her, she could perform. She took those stories that we all have – a stranger’s invasion of your personal space, an awkward stare at a commuter crush – and decided to make something out of it. 

In a post-COVID-19 world, many people are still relearning how to navigate a life outside of their homes. Years of decreased social interaction has created an amplifying awkward factor for many young adults faced with rejoining society, under completely new expectations from when the pandemic removed them from it. As someone who has explicitly felt those pressures herself, Tube Girl decided she would lean into them instead. The second she jumps on the tube, she’s reborn – silly, smart, and fun – regardless of what others might think. In other words, she gets to be herself again – and show the world just how unashamedly proud of that person Tube Girl is. 

Part Two: Brand Authenticity

Gone are the materialistic, Juicy-Couture adorned, Daddy’s money possessing celebrities of the 2000’s. Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton have been quickly replaced by a new kind of celebrity – the Gwyneth Paltrows, Reese Witherspoons, and Taylor Swifts. Rather than leaning into their image as an untouchable celebrity, these new era pop culture darlings have life-style brands, book-clubs, and go to football games with the family. Bright pinks and Bottegas have been replaced by cat photos on Instagram (formerly a social sin) and Instagram Lives without any makeup on. The culture yearns for realness, some scrap of authenticity in an online world of lies and FaceTune. 

As humans, we love authenticity. It’s also extremely commercially appealing. 90% of consumers report that authenticity is an important factor in deciding which brands they like. Additionally, American Millennials and Gen Z (almost 140 million people) now prefer brands that are “real and organic” as opposed to “perfect and well-packaged.” Many brands have tried to exemplify that – for example, publicly traded language learning app Duolingo regularly posts “authentic” content on TikTok. Official company accounts hop on trends, sharing self-deprecating content such as videos of interns poking fun at the company structure. These videos might feel authentic, but in reality, these videos are likely conceived in an office, with a team of 6-7 full-time social media managers plotting how to cultivate the largest amount of interaction online. What consumers see is a 15-second, relatable and “real” clip that drives them to download the app. 

Cultural perceptions of corporations are changing. Just 42% of Gen Z said that they trust companies. This was lower than Millennials (50%), though trust has fallen among both groups since 2018. Additionally, only 53% of Gen Zers said brands in general came across as authentic, much lower than the 61% of millennials who said the same. To regain customer trust, major brands from every industry have moved from large-scale strategic advertising campaigns to Twitter clapbacks and pretty pictures of Dua Lipa. The idea is to seem “hip” and “with it,” as the kids might say. These brands hope that by creating a personality, an image for themselves, they can present themselves as raw and relatable. With the release of the new Hunger Games movie, TikTok has been inundated with dozens of behind-the-scenes videos from producers at Lionsgate – each accumulating hundreds of thousands of likes. They can be anything from the cast getting camera-ready to flirty videos of Coriolanus Snow (mass-murderer/teenage-heartthrob). Movie-goers get to see the “real thing.”

Part Three: Connecting the Dots

Tube Girl is reminiscent of this cultural shift as well. She taps into the thoughts we each have as we sit on the train and wait to begin our day – “I should really start biking to work,” “I think that man is looking at me,” and “Did someone just fart?” It’s true, the metro will yield some pretty wild experiences from time to time. These can leave us bewildered, confused, or uncomfortable. But Sabrina Bahsoon refuses to feel anything but powerful in her own skin. She shows us that despite it all, we can always show up for ourselves, even if we feel a tad silly doing it. But what really resonates with consumers is her confidence. We appreciate Sabrina for giving voice to something that we were all thinking already. 

Analytics reflect that appreciation in Tube Girl’s following. Brands everywhere should be taking note of what consumers respond to, especially online. As Gen Z continues to get older, the marketing possibilities continue to expand and transmogrify into things no one could have seen coming. The best foot to put forward is authenticity. Unlocking customer trust is key to building brand equity and customer value. Sabrina Bahsoon knows this, so she’ll likely keep dancing on the Tube for the foreseeable future. Only time will tell if brands can successfully create “Tube Girls” of their own.