Could Inspirational Quotes Be Instagram’s Biggest Invisible Cult?

Instagram's just brimming with can-do aphorisms. As the world becomes more secular, are we turning to our palms for modern-day psalms?

Instagram's Inspirational Quotes: Where Do They Come From - And What Do They Say About Us?

by Sophie Wilkinson |
Published on

‘I am thankful for all those difficult people in my life, they have shown me exactly who I do not want to be’ one rejoices. Another joshes: ‘WHY BE MOODY WHEN YOU CAN SHAKE YOUR BOOTY’ in that wobbly pseudo-handwritten font we were first introduced to in the promotional material for Where The Wild Things Are and now seen in every insurance advert pretending to be harmless.

And a third Instagrammer exclaims: ‘But it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then,’ crediting this #qotd (quote of the day) with a #lewiscarroll hashtag, perhaps not realising that Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice in Wonderland, also used to take naked photos of children.

Welcome to the world of Instagram’s inspirational quotes. Aside from the more body-oriented ‘Work hard, play hard!’ messages of the #fitspo movement, these are about inspirations for the mind and soul. One part cheesy, two parts earnest, these bon mots are laid over meaningful backgrounds (forests, sunsets, ebullient clouds) to fulfil our emotional needs. And there really is one for every emotion, with 31,900,000 #inspiration images and 5,160,000 images tagged #qotd (quote of the day).

If you’re not one to eagerly scroll through hashtags in the search for just the right quote to screengrab, crop and re-gram, let alone the sort to fiddle about on editing software to create your own one – you might welcome their decline. From a cursory glance, Insta-quotes are gradually being replaced by wry parodies, like: ‘Life is not like a fairy tale If you lose your shoe at midnight, you’re drunk.’ But as Instagram gains its 400 millionth user, quality control is set to plummet as ‘cool’ early adopters are joined by their mums, aunts and the rest. Plus, with most-followed celebrities like Cara Delevingne, Kendall Jenner and Cheryl Fernandez-Versini continuing to post these sorts of inspirational quotes - also known as aphorisms - with not a hint of irony, they’re here to stay.

But why are young people around the world posting these aphorisms on Instagram? What is this unifying appeal that pulls in contributors across continents to share their innermost feelings via something someone else has said?

‘Quotes can make me happy or can help me deal with bad things in life,’ Susanne Schot, 22, from The Netherlands tells The Debrief: ‘Like when I'm feeling nervous.. The quote “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King pops in my head and it instantly makes me feel better!’

Other inspiration comes from ‘writers like J.K. Rowling and John Green.’ And as soon as she posts their quotes: Susanne is instantly part of a community: #johngreenquotes has 22,348 posts at the time of typing, and his book #thefaultinourstars has 1,560,462.

It'd be useless to discuss the internet's inspirational quotes without talking Tumblr, where the releative anonymity of users has created a space where angst can be relayed and anxiety meticulously discussed alongside GIFs and memes. But with a relatively text-heavy format, a low level understanding of English - or a lack of time to process the more melancholy posts - can be a barrier for entry. That's why Instagram's pithier, mostly happier quotes are that much more shareable.

And like the young adult fiction so many swathes of Instagram’s young users enjoy and re-share on social media, these insta-quotes provide something beyond the thrill of ‘likes’: escapism.

‘I love posting inspirational quotes because I believe in the power of words and that a couple of sentences can change your whole life,’ says Ryham Ennceiri, an 18-year-old student from Taza, Morocco: ‘Posting quotes is the closest thing I can be to my dreams, I would love to become a writer but living where I live my parents think that it is more safe to become something other than a writer.’

The community given to Ryham via her hand-held phone is phenomenal; despite living in a city of 140,000 people, she can now feel part of a movement of shared beliefs, worries or aspirations, sharing her feelings with like-minded people. ‘Sometimes what you find on social media is marginalised groups using messages to give them the inspiration to survive,’ says Dr Marika Rose, research fellow in digital theology at Durham University’s CODEC.

And, she explains, an earnest quote on a pretty background has a long-standing precedent in our pre-digital lives. You and I might recognise the unavoidable ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ and all its variants (culminating in Amazon having to halt the sale of ‘Keep Calm And Rape’ T-shirts) or the cross-stitched psalms hanging by the toilet at religious grandparents’ bungalows. But proverbs, adages, whatever they are, have been part of our visual culture for hundreds of years.

It all started in the 1530s, Dr Rose says: ‘Around the time of the reformation [remember, Henry VIII wanted a divorce so badly that he converted the country from Catholicism to Protestantism], there was a real shift away from religious focus on images. There was an increasing discomfort with the ambiguity you get from images and so a Protestant valuing of the Bible made it a much more text-based religion.’

What’s this got to do with quotes on Instagram? Only a tiny proportion of them cite the Bible, after all. But Tracey Emin (her neon lights declaring stuff like ‘Its not me Thats Crying its my Soul [sic]’ are Insta-quotable confessionals) once said: ‘Art is like a religion that we can adhere to on a one-to-one, [something] personal that’s about human creativity, about our own minds.’ Would it be ridiculous, then, to suggest that these phrases are an extension of the religious, a modern form of spirituality in this secular age?

Although a whopping 38% of young British people say they don’t believe in a god, these trying times can push us to lean on the crutch of spirituality. The internet has made news about climate change, financial insecurity, social injustice and corruption that much more transparent. Coincidentally, young people’s mental health has become increasingly wavering - one in five young adults have cried in the past week due to stress or anxiety.

So maybe these aphorisms help to put a little ‘light’ into the world, as Australian Kylie Sherwood, 27, puts it: ‘I suffer with anxiety so sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed and I think I shouldn't share all my love, light and positivity but I do it anyways, because it helps me and it could help others.’

‘Borrowing these messages can up people’s self-esteem and they’ll feel that their self-worth has improved; they’re using language that is attributed to some celebrity who has achieved,’ Dr Arthur Cassidy, social media psychologist, tells The Debrief.

There is something very self-serving about these posts, he says: ‘Social comparison is put in the background and it’s all about me: “This is what I’m going to do”’ and this can lead to some troubling consequences because people start to define in a cocoon, without input of those who help them stay grounded: ‘There has to be cohesion, and that has to be perpetuated in the long-term so that people see as genuine and sincere, that what you see on Instagram you see in real life.’

That’s why Persia Lawson, co-founder and life coach at Addictive Daughter, a website to help young people with their quarter life crisis, tells anyone who doesn’t like her ‘positive quotes’ that they’re inspirational in two ways. The first: ‘We're all going through the same challenging experiences - in love, work and life in general. They remind us to try and see the silver lining in difficult situations.’

The second? They encourage her to practise what they preach: ‘I agree, there's no point in sharing this stuff if you're not at least attempting to practise what you preach. We are by no means perfect, but our intention is to become kinder, more compassionate and loving people in our behaviour, not just our social media posts.’

In 2013, one bright spark decided to overlay quotes from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf on photos of Taylor Swift. The quotes weren’t too overtly Nazi: ‘As in everything, nature is the best instructor’, but, starting off on Pinterest, the images soon got to Instagram and Tumblr. Re-shared by mostly young and female fans, the idea was to show up people for being so avidly concerned with sharing in whatever Taylor said than the provenance of their quotes.

But people don’t seem to care too much where they get their inspiration from, just as long as that soundbite reaches to their distinct feeling in that moment: ‘The person who said them is less important than quotes that I love or can speak for my feelings,’ says Susie.

However, Dr Rose says that in our desperate bid to say something about us with the quotes we share, we can become ‘cynical’, grasping at someone else's words (or words we think are theirs) to make us feel better about ourselves, and them.

‘There’s a quote from a self-help book that regularly gets attributed to Mandela... sometimes sharing aphorisms like this can be cheaply buying into making us feel good about ourselves. It’s a way of people making themselves feel good without ever confronting which side they’re on.’

Aphorisms - with all their hand-etched style fonts and subdued backgrounds tweaked to maximise our pangs of emotion - can do two things. They can either ‘reinforce the status quo’ and keep things as they are, or, more vitally, be used to subvert the way the world works (or falls apart, as it might seem): ‘If you take fat-activists circulating messages about body positivity, they can be very different to women who fit conventional standards of beauty circulating messages about how “everybody is beautiful”.'

Instagram and its peers have long been condemned by Luddites and old people alike for the promotion of 'selfie culture', a symbol of modern youth's narcissism. And yes, the inspirational quotes people share online are undoubtedly built on a self-serving introspection. But while seeing others self-inflate their egos might wear out your thumbs and use up all your data, it makes a difference to people seeking a little holding hand.

As Dr Rose puts it: 'It’s not the message itself, it’s who’s using it that’s really important.’

Like this? You might also be interested in:

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'Why Your Perfect Instagram Is A Big Fat Lie'

How To Deal When A Friend Is Religious And You're Not

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophwilkinson

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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