We have all seen them in our news feeds and on our connections’ walls and profiles: the motivational quote (often accompanied by a funny image or animated GIF) that’s meant to inspire us or make us laugh. Their ubiquity almost defines the stereotypical social media post, but why do people do it?
For many, it’s an easy and harmless shorthand for communicating with friends, using the quotation as a reflection of a state of mind, or a representation of an aspiration or moral value. When people indicate that they like such a post or share it with their own friends and connections, it becomes a form of affirmation or approval: “You’re not alone; we get you!”
For me, however, it has become a perpetual and slightly dangerous irritant; famous phrases, slogans or aphorisms stripped of their original context, plastered over an overly evocative image that may not be appropriate or relevant to what is actually being said. It is an intellectual shortcut, a debasement of logical thought, an ultimately meaningless emotive spasm that neither conveys anything of substance nor imparts anything of worth. And it is everywhere, across all of the social networks.
Before I am accused of being a fusty old misery guts who won’t tolerate a bit of harmless fun, I concede that I am taking this seriously – perhaps overly so. But why shouldn’t we take communication seriously? If the majority of the online human race is now conveying its values and thoughts through some badly Photoshopped picture of a child with some cod philosophy superimposed over it, shouldn’t we start getting a little concerned?
To clarify, I’m not a Luddite who holds new technology responsible for this; I blame the people who post, perpetuate and enthuse over such content. I think the positive potential of social media and online communications is unprecedented in its power to inform, expose and empower. Yet for every Arab Spring, there are a thousand grumpy cats.
So if all these motivational quotations are so valueless and (for want of a better word) innutritious, why are they so popular? I would argue that it is down to a mixture of laziness and stupidity, with the former trumping the latter.
Why worry about your spelling or having to type something at length when someone has already plastered a half-arsed statement about positivity over a picture of a kitten, which you can share and share again? Motivational quotations and memes are readymade snippets of wisdom that will reflect well on you and provoke thought amongst your connections … or so the reasoning goes.
But by taking the laziest of shortcuts of expression to communicate with your fellow man, you are bypassing the very processes that instruct our reasoning and inform who we are. Why mull over philosophical considerations about something when someone has already come up with the conclusion in a quick, digestible form? This is a very slippery slope that will make idiots of us all if we’re not careful.
In a way, such quotations meet the need for instant gratification that permeates our culture. They provide a readymade answer without the necessary work or thought processes that would allow us to come to that conclusion. By cutting out the logical and analytical processes that would normally allow us to come to such wise, insightful conclusions ourselves, we are weakening our ability to reason and to judge statements … and that’s dangerous in a civilised society.
What concerns me the most is that the more historically orientated motivational quotes are not accredited or sourced; they’re just shared and accepted at face value without examination or further interrogation. Did Gandhi really say that? Who cares! Share it anyway; I’m sure it is the kind of thing he would have said – if Twitter was around back then. And you can swap out Gandhi for Einstein, Churchill, Obama or Homer (Simpson, that is), as it doesn’t make any real difference. After all, why let historical accuracy and context get in the way of a good aphorism?
The sad fact about motivational quotes is that they’re all reductive. You are reducing historical figures to witty or cryptic motivational figures, with nothing bad to say, goodness emanating from their every pore. All public figures are ultimately defined by their humanity (and I mean ‘humanity’ in that they’re a complicated human being, not that they’re necessarily kind or benign).
Implying Churchill was ‘a good guy’ by sharing his funny bon mots and more profound war statements glosses over an occasionally problematic, often nuanced personal and political history. Churchill, on balance, was arguably a force for good, but he did also advocate chemical warfare and made comments about the aforementioned Gandhi that are unpalatable for modern society.
Conversely, if you poured over all the public utterances of a Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, you would be sure to find a statement or phrase that, if taken in utter isolation, would look good and affirmative when pasted over an image of a happy child or some cute animals cuddling. By doing so, and sharing it repeatedly over and over again, you would not necessarily make any of those three a font of wisdom or an inspirational source of goodness. Hands covered in the blood of millions cannot be washed clean by the uncritical eye of the uninformed, unquerying ignorance of a bored Facebook user. Well, not yet anyway.
And just as personalities and figures can’t be reduced to several unconnected statements, nor can complex philosophical concepts or beliefs. If John Stuart Mill could have constructed a persuasive case for individual liberalism with a few well-judged one-off statements, why would he have bothered writing On Liberty? Why did Nietzsche believe that God is dead or that if we stare into the abyss it stares back into us? Don’t you think a few additional qualifying statements are needed to understand what he was on about? Again, I suspect that’s why Nietzsche wrote at length rather than in individual statements of no more than 140 characters.
Aside from the accuracy, relevance or context of any quotation that a social media user would care to share, let’s also look at the motivations as to why that person is sharing it in the first place. As I have already mentioned, a lot of it is to do with identification and engagement with their followers, but there’s also an element of trying to be perceived as a great wit or intellect through association. If I share an Oscar Wilde aphorism, people may think I am as witty as Oscar Wilde – and trust me, I never will be.
Quoting others used to act as a shorthand for learnedness and intellect, in an age when information was not immediately retrievable at the swipe of our fingers on a mobile phone. Citing or quoting Foucault is far more impressive when it is done so from memory and in person than it is by copying and pasting an insight of his from the web and into a Facebook status update. If we can find quotations that superficially justify our position or attitude to anything via a quick rummage on Google, it doesn’t really signify anything about ourselves or the person we’re quoting.
At its worst, sharing a quotation of a famous person on social media is an ersatz display of intellect and learning. All it demonstrates is that the person quoting can use a search engine, and that the person quoted apparently said the quotation attributed to them – according to the internet anyway.
So shall we all agree to stop doing this? Shall we cease to clog each other’s social media feeds with random cod or misunderstood philosophy? And, while we’re at it, maybe we should endeavour to take the time to expand and work through our thoughts on social media, rather than just regurgitate what others have shared or what people are supposed to have said. I suspect that if we all pledged to do this, surfing social media would become a much more informative and rewarding experience.
Nick Lewis Communications can provide training in social media marketing as well as offer professional management of social media feeds. To find out, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07970 839137.