Back in the 1970s, we only had about seven possible moods. Mood rings containing thermotropic liquid crystals were one of the decade’s biggest fads, even though they squeezed the entire possible range of human emotion into a spectrum of stone colors that went from violet (happy, passionate) to black (tense, overworked). Cut to 40-odd years later, and we have the opposite situation: Mood rings are so kitschy that there’s a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn, named after them, while our vocabulary for moods has become too vast for any system of descriptors, stones, or groovy colors to contain it.
It’s no longer adjectives like happy, sad, or nervous that adequately describe a mood.
As if a mood should be reduced to a word! Today, if you want to explain your mood, what you really need is an evocative image, like, say, Dennis Quaid smoking on a hotel balcony while wearing a sheet mask, or Charlton Heston pounding his fists and yelling, “Damn you all to hell!,” or a blond Cher lowering her sunglasses in the trailer to the new Mamma Mia sequel. Why be a ho-hum feeling like excited when you can be blond Cher lowering her sunglasses?
In order to moodsplain on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or elsewhere, all you have to do is type “mood” or “Mood:” or “#mood” (a hashtag that’s been used more than 42 million times on Instagram) and pair it with a picture meant to convey some highly specific sentiment. This has been going on for years, a grassroots meme with no known originator. For a demonstration of its pervasiveness, look no further than Post Malone’s 2015 song about the internet, “#mood.” Ahem, mood:
How, you may ask, does a picture of Dennis Quaid smoking on a hotel balcony while wearing a sheet mask convey someone’s mood? To which I say, God, do I really have to spell everything out for you, Mom?/ ugh ok fine: He’s doing something everyone knows is bad for him (smoking) while also doing something slightly ridiculous, pampering his skin with a sheet mask. By claiming this photo as your mood, you indicate that you, too, might possess some Hollywood star power as well as a certain dadishness, that you’re a little bit self-destructive and fabulous at the same time, too. It also, of course, means you’re fascinated enough by celebrities to have found and pondered this photo in the first place. You’re isolating a random moment, and maybe in so doing showing off your talent for remembering random moments, and wrapping it all into a single, signifying package: your #mood. Yes, it’s a lot, but if it were easy to explain, we wouldn’t need the mood meme in the first place.
A mood is a lot like a reaction GIF, but it isn’t usually reacting to anything. Instead, it’s an opening salvo, a declaration of intent, like Babe Ruth calling a shot. It’s another way we outsource our emotions to the internet, letting pictures say what words can’t, especially when you only have 280 characters and/or the time it takes someone to scroll to the next photo. This is not to say words can’t be a mood, because they can, if they’re precise enough. Just about anything can constitute a mood, even images of oneself or, like, owning a particular bowl.
One rule of #moods is that most of the time, some number of people will look at such a tweet or ’gram and say, “How is that picture of a tired dog a mood?” That’s because the goal of the mood meme isn’t actually to explain your mood. In part it’s to broadcast your tribe, taste, cultural allegiances, or personal quirks. Having others actually understand your precise mood is a fringe benefit. If your mood is a still from the old Law & Order credits, the point of the mood isn’t merely that you share an occasionally conflicted sense of purpose with early-’90s Chris Noth, which perhaps you do, but that early-’90s Chris Noth is one of your reference points, and you’d like your followers to know it. A #mood, above all else, communicates something about your ideal you.
According to the Daily Dot, the mood meme is part of the internet’s endless thirst for “relatable” content, the same lineage that spawned memes like “that feeling when,” “it me,” “me IRL,” and “same.” But #moods are more aspirational than those particular social media tropes, a bit more concerned with setting the tone of a user’s overall social media existence. Even though a mood might seem to say This is how I feel, in practice it’s actually This is what I’m going for. One puts cloths over lampshades to create some mood lighting, just as one posts a mood online in an effort to set and maintain one’s internet vibe. On a continuum that runs from “that feeling when” to #goals, a mood sits somewhere in the middle.
The internet’s tendency toward hyperbole has lately resulted in the abandonment of the plain old mood in favor of the “big mood.” If a mood is an affirmative “I feel that,” calling something a big mood says, in all caps, “WOW I REALLY FEEL THAT!” It doesn’t stop at big: Moods can be huge, gargantuan even. There’s no real difference between declaring something your mood and proclaiming it a big, giant, or enormous mood other than emphasis, and in the same way digital text seems to push us toward exclamation points and overstatements, some mood inflation is simply inevitable.
In its explanation of the “big mood,” the Daily Dot credited Black Twitter with popularizing mood posts, but mood updates also have roots in early social media platforms like Myspace and LiveJournal, where users could select their moods from drop-down menus and post them along with updates. On LiveJournal, what began as a straightforward menu of moods could eventually be customized and personalized in a way not unlike how we announce moods on social media today, with different pictures from, say, the Harry Potter movies going along with each emotion. (Mood: Harry when he catches his first Snitch. Mood: Harry when he gets all emo in the fifth one.) From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a “me AF” to realizing that you didn’t have to limit your moods to one character or series. Welcome to the Extended Mood Universe, where anything that ever happened and can be screenshotted, GIFed, or crammed into 280 characters is fair game.
Well, not anything: The one thing a mood is not allowed to be is boring. And this can be a challenge when so much of the internet, and how we access it, can feel so samey. No matter what you’re doing or feeling when you stare at your computer or phone, your face probably isn’t moving. Your device is identical to millions of others, all mass-produced somewhere on the other side of the world. When people declare a mood on the internet, they’re borrowing someone else’s face and intellectual property, yes, but they’re also asserting individuality, striking a small blow to the uniformity of so much of online life. In the same way teenagers used to decorate their school binders or lockers (do they still?), today social media functions as a kind of virtual bedroom wall. When we all have the same white phones and physical media like books and music collections that telegraph our taste are becoming increasingly rare, what we post online is what distinguishes us. Yesterday’s zine is today’s #mood.
Social media is where we sometimes perform our lives rather than live them, but it’s also where we summon up what our lives could be. At a time when so much of the news is bad—toxic, even—the mood we’ve been dealt in 2018 sucks. So of course people have found a way to use social media to manifest something better. Mood:
If you think Slate’s election coverage matters…
Support our work: become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus