While Zaid Khan has spent most of his life online and considers himself optimistic by nature, surfing the news and being bombarded with fatalistic content online can make it difficult to maintain that natural positivity. “I think it’s a rabbit hole where it’s so easy to feel like, ‘Oh my God, everything sucks, we’re all screwed’ when using the internet,” said Khan, 25.
But towards the end of 2022, he noticed a new trend emerging in TikTok, accompanied by hashtags like #hopecore and #antihilism that offered a different perspective and encouraged a kind of radical optimism.
The trend takes many forms: a series of inspiring sports clips or video game scenes stitched together; a slide show of quotes, tweets, or web comics; or front-facing camera videos expressing some promising ideas. Like the key trend before it, the format uses images or videos to evoke an emotional response in the viewer that ranges from deeply emotional.
In one video, a user responds to “I hate living” with the caption “All my bros rejoice in the day God created”. In another, a man looks into the camera and has the words of the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus on it: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that inside me there is an invincible summer.” Appreciative comments on the videos show that the message is frustrating. “This trend has been helping me a lot, as it’s been really challenging lately,” wrote one commenter on the Camus video. “We will all make it,” wrote another.
In November, Khan decided to create his own video in this new genre and released a fourteen-second slide show with uplifting messages overlaid on video footage of him playing one of his original piano compositions. It headlined “resist fear” and became the first in a series of “anti-nihilistic” TikToks that has since garnered tens of thousands of views.
Today, the hashtag hopecore has more than 700 million views on TikTok and overlaps with other hashtags like #hopeposting and #optimisticnihilism, and newer trends like #webweaving and #positiveslideshows.
Part of the trend’s success comes from its ability to accept challenges while still encouraging viewers to persevere. Carolyn Fan, creator of another anti-nihilism series on TikTok, said it’s important to her that her content doesn’t advocate a kind of “toxic positivity” mentality that refuses to acknowledge real pain.
Fan, I don’t want to fall into the trope of “Everything is great and everything will be fine”. shape these spaces.”
Fan said that part of the charm of pessimism lies in its perceived intellectual credibility. “I think most of the time, negativity or negative things are seen as more serious or more legitimate because if you know what’s going on, why not be terrified and sad and hopeless? But it’s this kind of approach that recognizes these negative things and also the positive forces in our lives. If you embrace it, you’ll feel a little less lonely, a little less hopeless.”
In the latest trend, this tension between optimism and pessimism online has been made clear. Earlier binaries, like memes about “deadly” pessimists and “weak” optimists, only pointed to these philosophical differences. Now, one of the most popular memes of this genre to come out centers on the tension between despair and hope, in the form of an epic battle in which the “indomitable human spirit” triumphs over the “indifferent tyranny”. universe” as “Viva La Vida” Coldplay’s composition plays in the background.
Whitney Goodman, a therapist with more than half a million followers on Instagram and author of the book, said balancing optimism and pessimism is a healthier approach. Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Happiness.
Instead of focusing on our feelings of powerlessness and doom, Goodman asks, “What is my individual power or responsibility in this situation to help make this situation better?”
This conflict is not new. Optimism and pessimism often acquired important political and cultural dimensions, with the pendulum swinging between them over time. In the 19th century, debates between nihilists and anti-nihilists appeared on the pages of many Russian novels, including by Ivan Turgenev. Fathers and Sonsthat young nihilists defy the standards of liberalism and traditionalism represented by their parents’ generation.
When it comes to internet nihilism, Don Caldwell, editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, said that online sentiment shifted sometime during the election of former President Donald Trump. When Caldwell joined the website more than twelve years ago, “healthy memes” were ubiquitous, and viral videos like “David After Dentist” and “Zombie Kid Likes Turtle” were often more silly than sarcastic.
Caldwell said Trump’s rise marked 2016 as “a crucial year for internet culture to get a little darker.” The term “healthy memes” has grown in popularity as a way to distinguish optimistic content from a new default language of memes characterized by irony and sharpness.
For 18-year-old Mia Cole, the trend of online despair continued through much of her adolescence. Cole creates video articles on his YouTube channel that discuss cultural trends, including a video on social media and nihilism where he examines the pros and cons of posting online.
Cole said he felt “basically a sense of doom” among his colleagues, especially on the internet. A recent CDC report echoes her experience: Between 2017 and 2021, high school girls reported a 16 percent increase in “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” compared with an 8 percent increase in boys. Other reports showed increased screen time for most age groups and greater loneliness among teens during the pandemic.
Psychologist and director of the SOAR Psychotherapy Program, which works with young people, Dr. Jaclyn Halpern said that teens are “more sensitive to the strong emotions of social media, positive or negative.” Positive interactions can boost self-esteem, Halpern said, but negative content can also elicit a strong emotional response, especially in young people whose brains are still developing.
“As a result, they may find themselves staring longer, spending more time in rabbit holes, which can lead them to positively connect with people who share their backgrounds and belief systems and create a positive environment for them, or on the other hand, that is very damaging to their health. Attract to more negative content that can give,” said Dr. halpern
Although Khan has been a victim of doom scrolling in the past, his time on TikTok has helped him “by removing many of the sluggishness and negativity that he typically encounters on the internet”. He also said it helped him find a voice online and connect with like-minded users.
Cole believes there is still room for hope, despite many legitimate reasons for young people to despair. “The outside looks bad for us and the problem is, there’s not much you can do about it when you’re young,” he said. “But I think that’s the ‘indomitable human spirit’, isn’t it? No matter what challenge is presented to us, we always have to accept it and overcome it.”
For Matt Hershberger, freelance writer and creator of a reading list series against despair on TikTok, being a father and seeing the world through the eyes of his young children has helped him finally change the way he surfs the web and embraces optimism.
“In my early years of adulthood, I was extremely pessimistic about the direction of our civilization. Then I had children and began to realize that I no longer had the luxury of giving in and being cynical about the future,” she said. Surfing on social media often left her feeling depressed, and at least one recent study found that showed that doomsday scrolling or obsessively searching for negative information online were linked to psychological distress and lower life satisfaction.
Hershberger’s new reading list has replaced the gloomy stories she enjoyed in the past with titles such as: Hope in the Dark By Rebecca Solnit, So What Should We Do? by Gar Alperovitz and Why Does Civil Resistance Work? By Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.
Sliding towards hope can be difficult, but it can also give a jumpstart to new ideas and directions. For the fan, the series of anti-nihilism influenced his doctoral studies. encourages the public health student to focus on the “strengths and assets” of the marginalized communities he is working on in his research project, rather than just looking at their difficulties and challenges.
For Khan, who left his tech job in January after suffering burnout, this trend has encouraged him to imagine new possibilities in his career and life, including recording a studio album of alt-pop music. “I’ve definitely had an awakening or revelation over the past few months that life is too short, and I feel we owe it to ourselves, if we can, to explore more of our passions and the things we truly care about,” she said.
Internet spaces like life are what you make them understand, and Khan said he’s grateful for the stream of promising videos that helped shape his new perspective. In recent months, he has also seen the trend develop, exploring not only hope but other concepts such as grief, friendship, and loneliness from a similarly sensitive, existential perspective.
“I’m pretty optimistic overall,” Khan said, “and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that being attracted to and exposed to this type of content really impacts your mood out there, in the real world.”