The Instagram Accounts Helping Gen Z Navigate Existential Dread
In the mid-2010s, about 100 years ago in internet years, one of the cornerstones of editorial strategy on the internet was to publish “identity shares,” a term used to describe pieces that were designed to appeal to a specific reader’s identity, such as “22 Reasons Why Being Child-Free is the Best” or “17 Things Only the Middle Child Knows” or “Six Questions We Need to Stop Asking Bisexual Disney Adults.” This was in the halcyon days of new media, when publications derived the bulk of their traffic from Facebook, and although people’s posting habits got a lot more sophisticated with the advent of new and diverse social-media platforms, for a few glorious years they fucking loved posting this content on their pages. And it’s easy to see why: in a milieu that claims to prioritize authenticity — especially if it’s presented in the most milquetoast context possible — sharing a listicle like “99 Memories All Left-Handed Nineties Kids Have” is a way to telegraph your identity in a completely benign, inoffensive way.
In a way, @afffirmations, a wildly popular account on Instagram, is a throwback to the heyday of identity shares. The account is governed by a very specific and unifying aesthetic, which can best be described as Lisa Frank meets early-2000s-era Perez Hilton meets seventh-grade graphic design projects. The posts offer bland, innocuous messages targeted at the young and Extremely Online, such as a Christmas-themed meme of Crazy Frog with the caption “I do NOT fall for foolish froggery” or one of Nickelodeon star Miranda Cosgrove posing with a Minion that says “I am epic,” or Avril Lavigne on a swing with the caption “I have friends.” They’re both deeply wholesome and deeply jarring at the same time.
The account, which has garnered more than 372,000 followers in less than five months, is a spin on what has been referred to as the trend of “affirmation meme” accounts, or Instagram accounts that offer vaguely empowering messages (such as “stand in your truth” or “shrinking myself for the comfort of others is no longer an option”) against tasteful neutral-toned backdrops. Affirmation memes are relentlessly positive, aggressively inoffensive, and designed for maximum shareability; they’re basically social media’s version of Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show, pre-Ellen’s cancellation. @affirmationsss offers a sort of Gen-Z twist on that theme, proffering such blandly uplifting messages as “I am definitely one of a kind” and “I am the change society craves” against early internet digital images of dolphins and Y2K-era celebrity red carpet photos.
A similar account, @spriteismadebyfairies, features cute baby animals and saucer-eyed, curvaceous Dollz gamboling among splashes of mauve and bubblegum pink. “I call the collages ‘fairy dreamscapes,’ and I know some people use the term ‘cyberfairy’ which I think is cool,” Sprite, the 20-year-old New Zealand university student behind the account, tells me of the aesthetic. “I honestly don’t know, it is all just very… me. It is me-core.” The brightly colored etherealness of the images are offset by captions like “can you all manifest my UberEats getting picked up please.”
It’s easy to attribute the popularity of affirmation memes to a generation recovering from the trauma of the past year leaning into wholesomeness and positivity, as Elle‘s Marquia Walton does in a recent piece on the trend. Sprite says to some extent, her account falls in that category, and that she uses irony as a way to make her young, meme brain-poisoned followers become more comfortable with expressions of earnestness: “A lot of people find it difficult to be positive about things after 2020, so I think the best way for me to ease myself into the idea of affirmations and general positivity is being able to have a laugh at how silly it seems at it first, then have a few serious, more heartfelt affirmations,” she says.
In the case of @afffirmations, which is more explicitly absurdist, it’s easy to dismiss them entirely as shitposts, as Vox writer Terry Nguyen sort of does in an excellent newsletter she wrote about the trend: “The pages might leave you wondering: What is the point? Do I really relate to a stretched, saturated stock image of Paris Hilton with glowing, magenta words that read “I AM Y2K”? Who has time to post this shit?,” she writes. “My answer: It’s not that deep!” But the creator of @affirmationsss, Mats Nesterov Andersen, takes issue with that interpretation. “It irritates me when people say it is shitposting,” he says. “I don’t like this word. It’s not some boring affirmations page or a boring satirical take on positivity. It’s so much more than that.”
Andersen is a 20-year-old artist based in Norway who describes himself as a former black metal musician. (“People who knew me were very surprised when they found out I was running this account,” he says.) He started a Norwegian version of the @affirmationsss page last year, which was inspired by early internet digital imagery and old-school New Age spirituality websites; based on its popularity, he launched the English-language version in January. His time as a vocalist in a black metal band influenced him heavily in terms of “how to establish an atmosphere, and the importance of tying elements together to create a vibe” — in this case, the Y2K aesthetic that is currently popular among Zoomers on the internet (to that end, his most popular post is a paparazzi image of Britney Spears in a Juicy Couture sweatsuit, with the caption, “I am big girl boss”).
Andersen is clear about the fact that the account was intended to, as he says, “bring modernist art to Instagram,” though like most artists he is deliberately abstruse about what his intentions were and what he wanted people to take away from it. “People are convinced this account is a psy-op [psychological operation], that the U.S. government is funding it to hypnotize the youth into becoming more positive,” he says. “Some people call it pure capitalist propaganda, some people think it’s criticizing society in a way. These statements [on the memes] are so general and so neutral, yet everybody seems to know exactly what these statements are addressing.”
Some of the posts more than others are clearly intended to undercut the nature of using social media as a prism with which to project your identity. “My contribution to society is cool posts on Instagram,” says one such meme, while another collage of influencers says “Fresh content: my speciality.” And while this isn’t necessarily a particularly surprising or subversive message, it’s an especially salient one to Andersen’s audience, which is 70 percent female and between the ages of 18 and 25. However, it’s unclear how many follow @affirmationsss for that reason. “First they’ll say, ‘This is ironic, haha,’ and then it goes a week and they say, ‘This page helped me think more positively,'” he says.
In a way, the popularity of affirmation memes show how the Identity Share has come full circle; they’re a way to convey both the poster’s awareness of the silliness of using a piece of expertly algorithm-tailored content to telegraph identity, while simultaneously endorsing the underlying message therein. By adopting this type of ironic, detached voice to skewer social media tropes, zoomers are more able to achieve the unachievable on Instagram: to get one step closer to showing their true selves. “I think Gen Z might enjoy these types of pages because they are so starkly different to the regular ‘influencer’ Instagram pages,” says Sprite. “Nobody is trying to ‘out pretty’ each other, nobody is face-tuning their spots off or adjusting their waist size. Nobody is trying to be this perfect person, because we are all just being ourselves.”
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