Drawing on traditional readings of irony such as Wayne C. Booth but also contemporary approaches to authenticity, mask cultures and meme culture (de Zeeuw; Tuters), this article situates depression memes specifically within neoliberal regimes of feeling, manifested both in online practices of authenticity and the subject of value (Skeggs and Yuill) and in discourses of resilience and accountability surrounding mental health (Fullagar et al.; James; McCosker). It argues that an internet depression culture based on the principles of dissimulation serves both the purpose of protection from recuperation by dominant narratives but paradoxically creates an ambiguity that generates that risk. In this way, I speak to current anxieties surrounding memes, including ambiguity, irony, and identity formation.
Internet Depression Culture
Intrinsic to their nature as memes, depression memes can be found in a variety of spaces, formats and platforms. The ones below (Figure 1) circulate on mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram through accounts dedicated to “sadposting” or the sharing of mental illness memes. They refer to overwhelming feelings of anxiety, a lack of will to live and a desire to recover. In their recent study on hashtagging depression on Instagram, McCosker and Gerrard found memes to be responsible for a wide range of content in the “depressed” hashtag on the platform. They argue that the use of the hashtag “depressed” is primarily as a “memetic device, often with a sense of irreverence, subversiveness and pathos, but in an effort to use the connective power of the popular tag to gain attention and Likes” (McCosker & Gerrard 9). Intimacy and memes as identity performance are therefore intimately intertwined, espousing the memetic logic that there is “safety in relatability” (Ask and Abidin 844), which is dependent on “connecting to common anxieties in a pleasurable, noncompromising way” (Kanai 228).
Figure 1. Depression Memes. Sources, from left to right. Top row: <https://www.instagram.com/p/Bl5p88Tg8Cw/>; <https://www.facebook.com/mentallythrillmemes/>; <https://twitter.com/animatedtext>. Bottom row: <https://lovenotlogic.tumblr.com/post/168640369069>; <https://disasterlesbian.com/post/158174792381>; <https://www.facebook.com/mentallythrillmemes>.
Indeed, meme culture depends both on the notion that certain forms of content can be relied on to “gain attention and likes” and increase a user’s social capital, but can also be interpreted as intimate and private forms of expression. The popularity of depression memes is a testament to this principle, but at the heart of this culture is a usage of irony that remains ambiguous and undefined. Whether these texts can be found to reflect genuine feelings of relatability is complex, but ultimately irrelevant. As Burton remarks on the culture of Kek, “sociologically speaking”, the sharing of these memes still constitutes a cultural engagement. Therefore, what I refer to as internet depression culture must be understood not as an attitude of self-presentation, but an inter-affective network that relies on precarious and overwhelmingly ironic objects whose authenticities as intimate texts are dependent on volatile and unstable structures of meaning.
Wayne C. Booth’s A Rhetoric of Irony tells us that for an expression to be understood as ironic, their meaning needs to be reconstructed by the reader and intended by the author. The reader must therefore draw from the cultural and historical context of the expression to reconstruct covert meaning that the author intended. The inferential process draws from the context of the expression to give meaning to irony. Online, the cultural context in which depression memes have risen to popularity is precisely that which gives them their reason for being. To understand this, we need to realise that, for the last decade, the symptoms that depression memes cultivate have been lying dormant under the tyranny of happiness era of social media (Freitas). I tie this notion to the doctrine of authenticity behind the identity imperative of social media platforms like Facebook (Van Dijck), and contrast it to the forms of subjectivisation anonymous or pseudonym-based cultures on platforms like 4chan embody. Within this dialectic, memes have arisen as the logic of the Internet, and irony as their social contract (Tuters; Burton). New forms of sociality that manifest within this culture are necessarily ambiguous and risk-filled ones, and need to be explored.
From the Happiness Effect to a New Sensibility
In The Happiness Effect, Donna Freitas investigated social media usage in young adults by surveying over 800 college students about the relationship between social media and their emotional well-being. Her results allowed her to coin the term “happiness effect”, when: “young people feel so pressured to post happy things on social media”. She writes: “most of what everyone sees on social media from their peers are happy things; as a result, they often feel inferior because they aren’t actually happy all of the time” (14). Feelings of inadequacy result when users interpret what other users post to be authentically felt, despite themselves feeling “pressured” to post a certain type of content, one they do not resonate with but fabricate for the purpose of posting. Indeed, the authenticity imperative behind identity-based social media is what defines our relationship to it.
Identity-based platforms like Facebook rely on allowing the user to create an identity on their site, but demand from users that the platform be used for “‘expressing who they are’, implying that users do not “perform” their identity on Facebook; they are the selves they portray on Facebook” (Kant 34). As always, this must be situated within the commercial logic behind the seemingly “free” and “public” service the platform offers. Multiplicity and having “multiple identities” (van Dijck) does not cooperate with Facebook’s platform logic because it does not produce valuable legible data which conforms to “normative, regulatory and commercially viable frameworks” (Kant 35). As Skeggs and Yuill note, the contemporary neo-liberal imperative to perform and authorize one’s value in public is more likely to produce a curated persona rather than the “authentic” self demanded by Facebook (380). The happiness effect manifests this. Despite not being legitimate, an identity must be curated to fit in with the other performed personas on the platforms, which are taken as authentic.
To many, the irony that makes depression memes such as those in Figure 1 work is in their subversion of the happiness effect and the authenticity imperative. The meaning to be reconstructed in a depression meme consists in peeling back the layer that demands from us to act as the best, happiest, version of ourselves online. Simply put, it unmasks the actual authentic self behind the curated one. Therefore, the self made visible by partaking, sharing or liking depression memes is not necessarily the best one, but, fundamentally, it is a more authentic one. Indeed, it seemed that, in the early phase of its life, users were enamoured with depression memes because it released them from the burden of identity management. What emerged in this phase of the depression memes movement was the perception of a new sensibility based on a more authentic intimacy than had ever been associated with memes. Press coverage of the topic continued to celebrate the emancipatory potential of depression memes, citing the movement as reflective of a new, more sentimental public made possible by the internet (Roffman).
As has been argued before by McCosker, the forms of digital intimacy that render personalised distress visible are ones entrenched in visibility and authenticity, pillars of the face culture of Facebook. Comments on memes or reviews of depression meme pages continuously cited relatability and visibility as their reason for identification with the page. Users felt that these memes allowed them to be seen online, with their mental illness, and feel intimately connected to other viewers; “it feels good to know that other people go through the same thing as me” (Figure 2). Though it is a form of public performance, the intimacy generated here feels inherently private because it relies on unravelling certain structures of meaning. This is a skill that, users imply, can only be attained by having experienced the feelings evoked in the depression memes. In these comments, intimacy is a form of identity performance, and a discourse of accountability underpins one of authenticity. Irony, though present, is quickly reconstructed and explained away into more stable structures of meaning through these discourses.
Figure 2. Reviewers of “Mentally thrill memes” on Facebook.
Irony and Masked Practices
However, the tension produced within the user’s psyche by years of subjectivisation and the “curated self” has taken its toll. The social contract of irony in digital culture has come just in time to recuperate authenticity from the burden of management it was placing on its subjects. I’ve spoken to the use of irony as generative of new forms on intimacy, but here I turn to how irony can simultaneously be adopted for the purposes of evading that stifling regime of the self and doctrine of authenticity. In terms of platform moderation in the case of sensitive or problematic issues, subversion through irony allows an alternative discursive economy to exist by evading censorship. When it rejects models through which the self can be turned into data by turning its back on commensurable ways of displaying public emotion, it is a commentary on the authenticity culture of social media. In this, it reflects practices of dissimulation.
Ideologically, anonymity and multiplicity in the “deep vernacular web” stands in antithesis to the doctrine of authenticity. Anonymised imageboard cultures such as those found on 4chan have moulded themselves as the Other to the straightforward intentionality of profile based social media (de Zeeuw, Between). Their truth is in their collectivistic rejection of authenticity, constituting an anti-personal, faceless and authorless mass, infamous for their subversion through trolling. They obey an Internet logic that can be summarised as follows; “the internet is not serious business, and anyone who thinks otherwise should be corrected and is, essentially, undeserving of pity” (Tuters). In this, the logic of dissimulation operates as their reason for being. Dissimulation entails a play with identity, one not interested in stability but more in the constant deferral of meaning and self. This negotiation is based on evading the notion of the self in order to gain further freedom through collective play. For these anonymised and anti-personal cultures, the value of dissimulation is to mediate their relationship to society at large.
Indeed, as Daniel de Zeeuw notes, mask cultures’ play with identity is not simply a reactionary movement against the subjectivisation of social media but can be understood as part of a rich carnivalesque tradition which revels in the potential of the mask. In this case, the collective culture gathers around the picture of the mask as a symbol of the “dialectic between the masked mass and the authorial, personal self” (de Zeeuw, Immunity 276). The notion that a more authentic, truer self lies under a series of masks is also one taken up by psychoanalysis and various schools of thought. In this way, irony has often been compared to “peering behind a mask” (Booth 33), leading to its valorisation as an act of dissimulation by these cultures. Taking as gospel that “there is no true Self, only an endless series of interchangeable masks” (Lovink 40), for these cultures the mask “is the work of art that best exemplifies the detachment achieved through irony” (Trilling 120). However, irony “risks disaster more aggressively than any other device” (Booth 41). The potential that mask cultures value irony for also creates risk because it trains readers to expect something but never tells us when to stop interpreting its irony. The emancipatory capacity of irony then, is a tension-filled one.
Ironic Depression Memes
Depression memes I addressed before peel back the layers of the happiness effect and social media cultures by legitimising themselves through authenticity. I turn now to ironic memes about depression memes and their tie to the principles of dissimulation as influenced by mask cultures. Meme culture’s existence across social media platforms, and structural nature as logic of ironic undermining means that, once depression memes were praised in earnest as the new sensibility of the Internet, the next step for the depression memes movement was to be deeply disingenuous and self-aware about the promise of authenticity they were offering. Memes about depression memes are meta memes that are self-reflective about the depression meme movement, referencing using memes to combat loneliness, sadness or overthinking in an ironic way.
Figure 3. Ironic memes referencing the use of depression humour. Sources, from left to right. Top row: <https://www.instagram.com/p/B3aH9cmIr1L>; <https://www.reddit.com/r/MemeEconomy/comments/8wotcn/invest/>; <https://jennyhoelzer-deactivated2016120.tumblr.com/post/153443805168/>. Bottom row: <https://twitter.com/animatedtext>; <https://www.instagram.com/p/B0ZsQAMHiAU>; <https://www.reddit.com/r/2meirl4meirl/comments/8se3l5/2meirl4meirl/>.
Ironic depression memes can be found on the same platforms other depression memes circulate in, existing as a parallel discourse to, and meta-commentary on, the celebratory, cathartic engagement in depression memes as seen on Facebook. They acknowledge the use of the mask, drawing attention to the divide between one’s chosen digital self-presentation and offline identity. Through this, they re-edify boundaries that depression memes were praised as obliterating. In the ironic memes above, presenting yourself as depressed online is okay, but actually being depressed is no laughing matter (actual suicide = no), and therefore should not be memed about. Memes are a mask that depressed millennials offer to other depressed millennials, to be used against depression, sadness, and overthinking, but mostly to hide that, though the memes are “ironic”, the depression is still very much “chronic”.
Ironic depression memes shed the burden of cultures of authenticity and accountability when they disavow the notion of a fixed self. The use of the meme as a mask evokes a privacy and anonymity found within irony that rejects the contemporary mediation of mental ill health through a set of discourses based in neoliberal personhood (Fullagar et al.; McCosker). The bonds being made here are supposedly private, revelling in the facelessness of collective irony, but both weak and risky. The value of the meme is defined by the acknowledgement of the usage of the mask to hide emotions still too taboo or painful to publicly gesture too. Though depression memes undermine that authenticity and accountability should be the pillars of mental health discourse, their use of irony creates unstable ground for a new structure of feeling to emanate from these memes. Irony is about expecting something to mean something else, therefore valuing one set of meaning over another (Booth 33). If the new set of meaning fundamentally cannot be identified, which is key in dissimulation and mask-cultural practices, then this new culture opens up ambiguity which can be recuperated by dominant narratives. In this way, I argue that dissimulation serves the purposes of protection from the mediation of depression through individualising discourse, but paradoxically creates an opening to do so.
Wholesome Memes and Resilience
I turn now to how “wholesome memes” provide non-ironic commentary on the irony of memes. I argue that, even in a logic removed from the authenticity imperative of face media, and therefore from a notion of identity and profile based interaction, narratives of accountability still recuperate the subversion of depression memes. In the case of depression memes, discourses of resilience and overcoming are promoted as the “correcting” set of values, preferential to the ambiguous multiplicity of dissimulation.
Figure 4. “Fixedyourmeme” wholesome memes making use of editing and re-writing.
The “wholesome memes” movement aims to edit and correct depression memes, such as examples from a Tumblr page entitled “fixed your meme”. These memes take on popular meme formats that are either neutral and open to remixing, or are known in popular meme culture to be predetermined. On the right, “My memes are ironic, my depression is [chronic]” is a popular motif whose grammar is predetermined (seen in Figure 3) but also an easily deciphered subtext, even if written over, if one is well-versed in meme culture and the mechanisms through which it replicates itself. The explicit editing and re-writing, crossing out the “toxic” message to make apparent the re-writing of the narrative, is purposeful here. The relation to resilience is built as much inside and outside the text. It serves to exemplify the overcoming of the mental illness and the move towards a radical attitude of self-love and recovery. Wholesomeness, positivity, wellness and self-care are the keywords. In these texts, the wellness industry serves as a counter-narrative, preaching a discourse that dictates: “it is within an individual’s power and even a moral obligation to be happy” (Garde-Hansenand Gorton 104).
When I refer to resilience, I refer to a specific kind of discourse as coined by Robin James that follows the logic of acknowledging and overcoming damage in order to be “rewarded with increased human capital, status, and other forms of recognition and recompense” (19). Overcoming brings added human capital because it demonstrates resilience which boosts society’s resilience. When depression memes render embodied suffering visible and publicly intelligible, they perform resilience through a therapeutic narrative. In these types of narratives, we see what Fullagar et al. describe as “affective work and action which is required in efforts to be ‘happy’ and achieve ‘normality’” that “commonly evokes a particular form of introspection and surveillance” (10). In this way, wholesome memes can be thought of as an affective assemblage that recuperates narratives of subversion as embodied by ironic memes and mask cultures, thereby “re-ordering ﬂows through capitalist relations that exploit the connection between desire and lack” (Holland 68).
Internet depression culture operates at the crux of meme culture and neoliberal subjectivisation by both enacting and overcoming mental health regimes of care through irony. The irony within depression memes to be reconstructed is dependent on two structures of meaning. The first is the one within which the memes are being read and interpreted, namely an online meme culture and its collective irony imperative, which I argue is also a parallel discursive area of the neoliberal subjectivisation of value on social media. The second is a product of years of increasing individualisation of mental health discourse, one that emphasises resilience and overcoming in line with values of authenticity and accountability. In different Internet cultures, the intersection of these two contexts manifests differently. Online, irony and polysemy are both tools of subversion and privacy. However, cultures of play are constantly challenged by social media and places where dominant narratives are ones of authenticity and accountability. Depression memes demonstrate that irony can be mobilised into authentic flows of intimacy in the context of certain dominant discourses.
Figure 5. “I thought it was just memes”. Source: <https://thisiselliz.com/post/152882025410>.
Ask, Kristine, and Crystal Abidin. “My Life Is a Mess: Self-Deprecating Relatability and Collective Identities in the Memification of Student Issues.” Information, Communication & Society 21.6 (2018): 834-850.
Booth, Wayne C. A Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974.
Burton, Tara. “Apocalypse Whatever.” Real Life 13 Dec. 2016. <https://reallifemag.com/apocalypse-whatever/>.
De Zeeuw, Daniël. "Immunity from the Image: The Right to Privacy as an Antidote to Anonymous Modernity." Ephemera 17.2 (2017): 259-281.
———. Between Mass and Mask: The Profane Media Logic of Anonymous Imageboard Culture. PhD Dissertation. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, 2019. <https://hdl.handle.net/11245.1/c0c21e79-4842-40ef-9690-4d578cca414b>.
Fullagar, Simone, Emma Rich, Jessica Francombe-Webb, Jessica and Antonia Maturo. “Digital Ecologies of Youth Mental Health: Apps, Therapeutic Publics and Pedagogy as Affective Arrangements” Soc. Sci. 6.135 (2017): 1-14.
Freitas, Donna. The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost. New York: Oxford UP, 2017.
Garde-Hansen, Joanne, and Kristyn Gorton. Emotion Online: Theorizing Affect on the Internet. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Holland, Kate. “Biocommunicability and the Politics of Mental Health: An Analysis of Responses to the ABC’s ‘Mental As’ Media Campaign.” Communication Research and Practice 3 (2017): 176-93.
James, Robin. Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism. John Hunt Publishing, 2015.
Kanai, Akane. “On Not Taking the Self Seriously: Resilience, Relatability and Humour in Young Women’s Tumblr Blogs.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 22.1 (2019): 60-77.
Kant, Tanya. "‘Spotify Has Added an Event to Your Past’: (Re)writing the Self through Facebook’s Autoposting Apps." Fibreculture Journal 25 (2015): 30-61.
Lovink, Geert. Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media. Cambridge: Polity, 2011.
McCosker, Anthony, and Ysabel Gerrard. “Hashtagging Depression on Instagram: Towards a More Inclusive Mental Health Research Methodology.” New Media & Society (2020). <https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444820921349>.
McCosker, Anthony. "Digital Mental Health and Visibility: Tagging Depression." In Digital Media: Transformations in Human Communication. Eds. Paul Messaris and Lee Humphreys. New York: Peter Lang, 2017.
Milner, Ryan M. “Pop Polyvocality: Internet Memes, Public Participation, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement.” International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 2357-2390.
Rottenberg, Jonathan. “Ending Stigma by All Memes Necessary.” Huffington Post, 10 Apr. 2014. <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-rottenberg/depression-stigma_b_5108140.html>.
Skeggs, Beverley, and Simon Yuill. “Capital Experimentation with Person/a Formation: How Facebook's Monetization Refigures the Relationship between Property, Personhood and Protest.” Information, Communication & Society, 19.3 (2016): 380-396.
Trilling, Lionel. Sincerity and Authenticity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP,  2009.
Tuters, Marc. "LARPing & Liberal Tears: Irony, Belief and Idiocy in the Deep Vernacular Web." In Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right. Eds. Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston. Wetzlar: Transcript, 2019. 37-48.
Van Dijck, José. "‘You Have One Identity’: Performing the Self on Facebook and LinkedIn." Media, Culture & Society 35.2 (2013): 199-215.