Lately, in the mornings, I fetch some coffee, plop myself at my desk, and let a woman I don’t know and whose face I can’t see (but whose amazing crimson claws I most certainly can) put me on blast for 51 seconds.
“YOU got your mind in the right place. YOU are going somewhere. YOU are focused. YOU are ready!” she shouts, pointing a single talon at you, pinching them all together punctuationally, then fanning them musically in a kind of signed italics. “You are placed in this year not for nothing, but to excel,” she says, “to be the best you of the [expletive] century!”
Those first syllables — those repeated YOUs — form the entrancing rhythm of a hymn or a chant; and after about 30 seconds, you start to believe what she’s selling. (Or at least, you might entertain the momentary consideration that maybe you’re not all that terrible a person.)
Three years ago, I lashed out at a scourge of inspirational quote memes that were then overwhelming every stream of social media — “somewhere between the meta-captioned landscapes of Ed Ruscha (though in far less demand) and the magnets on your gram’s fridge (though in far greater supply).”
It wasn’t just their anodyne back-pats and out-of-context Beckett quotes that irked me (though both really irked me), it was that their attempts to go against the predominantly negative current of Internet rhetoric didn’t paddle nearly hard enough. Indifferent to audience, their general fortune-cookie applicability across all possible problems (even invented ones) gave them all the flavor and punch of all-purpose flour.
But this new wave of motivational meme I’ve delighted to see rising up across social media feels inherently different.
For one thing, most, if not all of the best examples of the self-care column of memes have come from POC (in this case, posters of color).
That voice that wakes me up each morning and tells me how “[expletive] magnificent” I am probably isn’t speaking to me, but rather to an entire population of clickers who exist on an Internet and in a real world that implicitly suggest otherwise, and actively make empowering messages like these far too scarce from the mainstream. What might seem like a simple message of encouragement from the front seat of someone’s car is actually a testament to the Internet’s value not just as an amplifier, but as an agent of community.
I also hear it coming from queer quarters of the Internet. Last summer, a friend forwarded a profanity-strewn highly NSFW pep talk on individual freedom, the beauty of skinny legs, and the importance of summer fun, posted last year by YouTube star Rickey Thompson. It’s a master class in self-confidence, and a more than adequate showcase of his voguing skills. The video was tagged as a “big mood,” and its fast viral spread demonstrated just how big.
An attempt to introduce my parents to Thompson’s particular flair as a motivational speaker did not last long: Two bad words and they slowly closed the laptop. But to me, likely more than 20 years Thompson’s senior, far removed from his experience, but likely to have heard just as many (i.e. just as few) positive affirmations of living one’s big gay life — he was speaking right to my heart. (And can kick much higher than that.)
The empowering effect, I imagine, is similar for fans of Donté Colley, a Toronto-based Instagrammer whose self-shot dance videos — festooned with flying emoji and inspirational text that becomes a virtual prop in his hands — have become a genre unto themselves.
“YOU ARE NOT ALONE” he manifests from thin air to the clapping part of the “Friends” theme in one such clip. Then he tosses some hearts and galaxies around his living room before a stunning twirling sequence. It’ll start your day right and it only takes a minute.
A recent Buzzfeed feature has launched Colley into a new level of online fame (he’s gathered over half a million followers), which suggests there may be (brace yourselves) an actual audience for Internet content that isn’t fundamentally about destroying each other.
Some studies have suggested that memes themselves are the problem. “Internet memes have the potential to normalise undesirable behaviours such as trolling, body shaming and bullying, and a lack of emotion may be indicative of a larger apathy with regards to such practice,” reads one. But memes also have massive reach, and a unique potency when it comes to sending a brief — often nasty — message. What if they were used for good?
To me, it’s more compelling to consider what kind of Internet this trend could foretell — one more driven to pick up than take down? One that lifts voices rather than blocks them?
It’s unclear where this self-care substrata of the Internet really came from — though I do suspect Donna Meagle and Tom Haverford’s office tradition of “Treat Yo Self” Day from “Parks and Recreation” gave the concept a substantial push.
To me, it’s more compelling to consider what kind of Internet this trend could foretell — one more driven to pick up than take down? One that lifts voices rather than blocks them? An Internet with a positive charge?
I know it’s almost impossible to imagine, but like anything, kindness is easier to believe once you hear it from someone else.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.