It almost certainly isn’t a single word, but it could also be as many as you can fit into a tweet. It could be an image or a GIF. It’s social media slang, which is to say it could be anything; it could be everything. Some might even say it means nothing.
For example: as I write this, I’m hungry, cranky, and stressed out, but I am also Meryl Streep’s scream in Big Little Lies, a glass of wine on the beach, an obese Golden Retriever, a yawning hippo, Detective Pikachu drinking tea, Elmo shrugging, pink hair, a guy giving the finger, the weather, and a cat in a watermelon.
All of these are moods. Some are even big moods or mood AF, depending on how intensely you’re feeling it.
The term is so liberally applied that while browsing Twitter in the name of research, I came across everything from porn to puppies. When I checked a minute ago, #mood had clocked over 77 million uses on Instagram—not including instances where the term is used without the hashtag.
Broadly speaking, mood, as currently employed in social media parlance, is used in three main ways. There’s the literal sense, as in I’m feeling this way, and as an expression of want, as in I’m in the mood for this.
Most frequently, it’s used as an expression of like-mindedness or sympathy. Say you’re scrolling through Twitter on Monday morning and see that your friend has posted a photo of Spongebob being buried alive. You get it immediately. Mood AF, right there.
With Internet culture moving at the pace it does—new memes emerge virtually every week, if not every day—it’s hard to pinpoint when mood and its siblings, the reaction GIF and memes like TFW (‘that feeling when’), first made an appearance. The Daily Dot suggests this was around 2015, but the origin story of mood goes much further back.
To understand how we got here, with one innocuous word becoming shorthand for everything, we need to take a quick look at the history of feelings on the Internet.
If you, like me, grew up with the Internet through the 90s and early 2000s, this early blogging-slash-social-networking platform should ring some bells. For non-users, one of LiveJournal’s USPs, unlike competitor sites like Blogspot, was its ‘mood’ function. This allowed users to choose from a fairly comprehensive drop-down menu of moods—accompanied by matching icon—when making posts. There were moods from ‘bitchy’ to ‘geeky’ to ‘restless’ to ‘rejuvenated’.
Social networks—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr in particular—took this limitation and threw it out the window.
Consider their prompts and the open-ended way they’re phrased: ‘What’s on your mind?’ or ‘What’s happening?’ Being freed from the constraints of fixed mood options, or even a direct question, means being free to answer in whatever way you bloody well choose.
Want to tell the world you’re going crazy? Sure. But why stop there, when you can explain you’re going crazy due to the very specific reason of having Mr. Brightside stuck on loop in your head while trying to get work done?
The floodgates had been nudged open, and we didn’t even realise. Once we got over thinking of moods as states of mind, or ones that needed to be expressed as adjectives, they went from being a closed set to one with an infinite number of members.
But the second Big Bang of digital expression was soon to come, once users were given the option to add images to posts and databases like GIPHY waded into the fray. With the power of the visual to communicate piercingly specific, all-too-real sentiments, there was no turning back.
The first is that talking about yourself on the Internet—pre-mood, even pre-social media—has always involved a degree of self-consciousness.
Take MSN Messenger’s status function (remember that?). It was an invitation to express yourself, but that didn’t mean you spilled your feelings for the world to see. If you were feeling a certain way and wanted people to know about it, without needing to be asked, said feelings still had to be couched with a certain amount of obliqueness.
If you were sad, for example, you said it with a carefully chosen My Chemical Romance lyric, and prayed that someone would get the hint.
In the age of mood, this coyness has only increased. Life is far more complicated and messy than we ever communicate on social media, and what makes it there is often simplified or carefully reframed.
For instance, let’s say someone posts a photo of a fishbowl of wine, with the caption mood AF. Ostensibly, this says: I had a bad day. But what does this mean? They could be drained or exhausted or frustrated or bitter or blue or vulnerable, or some combination of all of these.
Yet the photo of wine doesn’t really capture this at all. In fact, it’s arguably less about saying ‘I’m feeling down’ than ‘Wine is the best coping mechanism lol, haven’t we all been there?’
Images, GIFs, and expanded character counts should have given us endless options, but paradoxically, moods only exist at extremes. The possibilities are at once infinite and more limited than when we only had words to draw on.
The key is to be ironic, self-deprecating, and above all, funny. In other words, all moods are feelings, but not all feelings get to be moods.
Mood, like everything else on the Internet, is performative. It’s a means of broadcasting one’s cultural cred, a way to flex your pop culture muscle; it’s why so many mood posts involve celebrities or TV characters, from Beyonce to Arya Stark. Mood is a way of signalling that you’re in step with the zeitgeist, and you know how to wield this to maximise your cultural capital.
Within this, it’s interesting to consider the second variety of ‘mood’ posts—mood as I-could-use-some-of-that (or, to borrow other Internetspeak, #goals). Media under this branch of mood are aspirational, like a beach in Hawaii or a bottle of champagne or a photo of yourself on a good day.
But as such, both this and the more literal use of ‘mood’ have less to do with who you are and how you feel, and more with the vibe you want to create, or the person you want to be online. And more often than not, this person is you—but better, funnier, wittier, sharper.
The irony, of course, is that all this happened just as social media started to champion ‘authenticity’. This isn’t to say that mood, as a concept, is dishonest or insincere; after all, if a mood post goes viral, it’s because it’s rooted in something that people identify with.
But the element of deliberation—and more specifically, curation—lurking behind mood makes the swamp of online identity even murkier. It’s no longer just about saying what you think, but doing so in a way that draws maximum likes.
To that end, mood often isn’t about saying what you think, but repeating what somebody else already said. Having cannibalised someone else’s thought process and leveraged off their ingenuity, their mood is now yours too.
Or maybe you always felt that way from the start and they just said it first. Who knows? Does it even matter?
Which is all to say: mood might have started out in the literal sense. But as it grew with the Internet, it became less about personal expression, or even actual feelings—and more about feeding the relatable content beast.
Let’s take a step back for a moment and recall what Internet historians call Web 1.0: the early days of the Internet, characterised by websites that were primarily static in nature. Back then, users’ relationship to the net was one-way, passive; you visited websites to gather information and then moved on.
The arrival of Web 2.0 in 1999 changed everything. Bit by bit, the Internet became less about the relationship between a website and its users, and more about participation by and between the users themselves. One does not simply visit a website, much as one does not simply walk into Mordor. You upload media, leave comments, send messages, write reviews, and, to borrow Zuck’s favourite phrase, ‘create connections’.
A lot might have changed since the days of Neopets, Myspace, and Friendster, but the thread that connects them to still-thriving juggernauts like Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is interactivity. Engagement was, and still is, the lifeblood of the modern web, helped along by websites that encourage the uploading and sharing of content as quickly and easily as possible. And the natural currency of such an economy is, of course, likes and shares.
Which brings us to the million-dollar question haunting every business engaged in content creation, this website and this writer included: what makes a perfect post in this age of social media? Is it standing out from the crowd through sheer ingenuity, or creating something that 300,000 people will identify with? Or is it about doing both: trying to be unique by being exceptionally relatable?
When examined against such a backdrop, the rise (and rise) of mood makes more sense. It’s the perfect vehicle of rebloggability, hitting all the targets in one go: maximum relatability, creativity of expression, and minimal personal investment. Given how it’s no longer clear what social media is really for—sharing how you feel, or sharing in how everyone else feels—mood’s got all your bases covered: real but aspirational, sincere but ironic, precise but general.
Confused? Unimpressed? Thoughtful? That’s all cool. Whatever you’re feeling, it’s a mood.