The best post on Instagram right now is not a picture of someone’s pet, a baby, or a celebrity doing something untoward. It’s a CGI image of a smooth and rubbery dolphin being nuzzled by its small dolphin baby. The image itself is rendered in cool pastels, with the slick sheen of a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper, bedazzled with Blingee-adjacent sparkles. It issues in large text a message from a faceless entity with a relentless Pollyanna streak: “I am the landlord of my haters. They are not living in my head rent-free.” This post is just one of many that populate @affirmations, an Instagram meme account targeted to an audience much younger than me which has nevertheless become a source of joy and solace in these trying times.
Over the last year, which was in ways more relentless than the year that preceded it, I found my friendships and channels of support were still rock solid. But airing out the same grievances over and over again even to a group of willing listeners eventually grew tiresome for all parties involved. The bizarre and surreal @affirmations account offered an unlikely solution, providing the right words to make sense of the complicated soup of feelings that comprise the human experience. Even if those words were delivered in a form that sounded as if they were the utterings of a stoned teenager who recently discovered transcendental meditation.
The aesthetic of the posts is very much of the moment, with a distinct throwback Y2K vibe. A post from October 15 featuring a Tinkerbell-adjacent avatar holding a bug, which reads “Life is not a nightmare,” reminds me a bit of the sort of straight-t0-DVD Disney offshoot cartoon my younger sisters might’ve watched in their youth. There’s a hint, too, of an older internet here in both style and content. As EJ Dickson wrote in Rolling Stone earlier this year, @affirmations shares some cultural DNA with the “identity shares” popularized by the 2010s internet, which was chock full of listicles tailored specifically to seemingly every experience under the sun. Sharing these listicles on social media was a lazy means of self-expression, the next logical evolutionary step after say, posting a GIF of a panda sliding face-first into a wall and writing “it me.” That we’ve evolved past both those forms of expression into an Instagram account run by a 20-year-old Norwegian who identifies as a “former black metal musician” makes a strange sort of sense.
The pervasive vibe of the affirmations posted by the aforementioned Norwegian, Mats Nesterov Andersen, is overwhelmingly positive, but so banal that they leave plenty of room for interpretation. Something so overwhelmingly positive can also read as both unhinged and ironic. A recent post featuring a wide-eyed Troll doll with the phrase “I will not cry daily this week” superimposed in a glowing sans-serif font, is a mantra of sorts—a way to gird the loins in optimism for another week in the Thunderdome. The message exists in a vacuum but changes shape once it’s in the hands of the poster, who imbues it with their own meaning, as well as that poster’s followers, who do their own layer of interpretive work based on what they know about the poster’s life at the time. A close read of my Instagram Story archive revealed that I didn’t share this one, but I suspect only because it would’ve felt a bit too much like a cry for help.
My personal journey with @affirmations ratcheted up to an alarming clip at some point over the summer, when I was in the grips of what I understand now was just a spot of situational depression. Detailing the nuances of my feelings to anyone, including my therapist who is paid to hear my concerns, began to feel tiresome and unproductive; the trouble was, I still felt the need to be heard. Scrolling through my feed felt passive and neutral, even pleasant at times. But ultimately, I suppose I felt a little disconnected. Posting a meme from an account that deals in bland optimism was an attempt to will myself into feeling better, but also served as a helpful barometer of my general aura for those who might interact with me. It’s not my intention to frame this habit as a public service to my small circle of friends with their own lives and personal concerns, but for me, it felt a teensy bit therapeutic. Laughing at your own internal bullshit, it turns out, works.
Understanding the necessity of vulnerability came to me late in life, but it has been a useful tool in the past two years, when everyone has been at the mercy of their own ricochetting emotions. Surely others developed healthy habits for dealing with the pandemic’s relentless uncertainty the pandemic provides daily, but for me, talking about my big feelings became both overwhelming and extremely boring. Sometimes there was no better way to express the dull soup of varying emotions other than posting a stupid affirmation and keeping it moving: a small toot of emotion, rather than anything more substantial, but satisfying enough to have processed the feeling briefly, then move on.
Truthfully, the memes on @affirmations felt like a palatable way to express the nihilism I’d previously abandoned but found myself returning to more and more. Scrolling through Instagram on my birthday this year and sharing a picture of Kim Kardashian with the phrase “I will party I will not cry” surrounding her face was a reminder to myself that I probably shouldn’t cry that day, but if I felt like I needed to, it was okay. It’s very silly to rely on an Instagram account to do the necessary emotional heavy lifting required to be a person, but sometimes the easy way out is the best way forward.