words and art by Kiri Marker
Big data knows you better than anyone. Think about it. Your closest friends know only the versions of yourself you feel comfortable showing them. They may know you well, but the ‘you’ that they know is subject to all kinds of censorship. You have as many faces as you have people in your life. But when we are online, we are alone. Big Data knows the ‘you’ beneath the mask. He knows everything you’ve ever searched and every place you’ve ever been. He knows all about the items you’ve purchased, the videos you’ve watched and the songs you’ve played. There’s no keeping secrets from Big Data. But instead of feeling anxious or violated, shouldn’t we be flattered that someone out there cares enough to keep tabs? Cheers, Zuckerberg.
I often wonder about what targeted online content can tell you about a person. Take the Instagram explore feed, for example. This collection of photos and videos is tailored only to you, reflecting the posts you’ve interacted with in the past. Together, they form a vision board of who Big Data thinks you are. When I look at my friends’ explore feeds, I’m charmed by how different they all are. Exhibit A: fashion, fine art, and weddings. Exhibit B: football, and women in bikinis. Exhibit C (and we all have that friend): doggos, puppers and big ol woofers. Over the years I’ve watched my own explore feed evolve along with my changing interests. Straight after high school, it was pornstars, marijuana and Miley Cyrus. One year later, it dialled down a notch with some watercolour illustrations and acro-yoga. This year it’s been mainly gym videos, vegan recipes and Adelaide-based female entrepreneurs that are having some kind of candle sale.
But I’ve recently noticed an insidious theme creeping into this previously wholesome space: mental illness memes.
You’re probably familiar with memes about depression and wanting to die. They’ve been around ever since tumblr made it trendy to have a mental illness back in 2010; but their popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. Depression is mainstream, and wanting to die is just ‘on brand’. Often, these memes aren’t meant to be taken literally. The classic ‘I wanna die’ trope has a tongue-in-cheek vibe about it — sometimes enhanced with a Shutterstock photo and some Comic Sans font. But as I look through my Instagram explore feed today, I’m noticing that the mental illness memes are getting more and more sincere. There are memes about your anxiety keeping you up at night. Memes about drug and alcohol usage to numb emotional pain. Memes about social isolation and losing the will to participate with life.
Why am I seeing this, Zuckerberg? It started innocently enough. I started liking a few memes about wanting to die, you know, because they’re funny. A few memes here and there about social anxiety and fears of abandonment. The Instagram algorithm churned away. It gave me memes about using escapist behaviours to cope with rejection. Memes that referenced my lack of self-respect in interpersonal relationships. This content was not only relatable, but also funny, in a dark, self-deprecating kind of way. It made light of the gloomiest parts of my experience. The more posts I liked, the more specific they became. And the more specific they became, the more posts I liked. Thus began the negative cycle — the echo chamber of self-sabotage.
While some people are scared of living in a surveillance society, I find that living in an echo chamber is much scarier. The more we engage with relatable, but negative, content, the more we perpetuate those negative beliefs and behaviours.
On the one hand, mental illness memes can help people to feel validated. ‘’, they think. But on the other hand, being spoon-fed the same negative messages over and over again doesn’t help you when you’re trying to improve your headspace.
But I also think that targeted content has the potential to have a more positive impact. I see it all the time on Facebook. I get targeted ads from websites offering online counselling, with messages like ‘Break the Negative Cycle’ and ‘No Therapist? No Problem’. These ads are broadly targeted at anyone aged 18 to 24, but what if they were targeted more specifically at people with depression? Big Data knows you better than anyone. And sure, that can seem scary.
Most people don’t want some anonymous figure knowing every little detail about them. But maybe that’s exactly what people with mental illness need. These are the people who may feel isolated and unable to communicate their issues with anyone in the real world. If Instagram can know when these people are depressed, why not give them content that breaks the cycle? Like tips on emotional regulation, or on how to handle distress. We could undo the damage of 2010, and make mental health trendy again.
Though my brief stint with mental illness memes was fun for a little while, I’m beginning to crave more wholesome content. The road to mental health is paved with small decisions. I’ve started clicking ‘see fewer posts like this’ whenever I see memes about depression. I’m spending less time on my phone, and more time with my friends. When I do go online, I try to only interact with content that makes me feel happy or inspired. My explore feed is morphing once again. And if I can convince Big Data that I’m okay, then maybe one day I will be.