Big Moods, Little Moods


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Today I want to talk about big moods, a phrase you may have seen on twitter, and also a related concept I made up called little moods.

1/ You may have seen the phrase “big mood” on twitter over the last few years, especially used when expressing resonance with a mood someone else has expressed. But it’s gone well beyond social media now, and things that look like big-mood dynamics are now showing up in corporate America as well.

2/ The basic memetic pattern is: someone might post a gif of a cat hissing saying “how I feel about recent events” and somebody else might quote tweet that with the phrase “big mood.” That’s typical usage today on social media. The corporate equivalent is something like employees signing a letter to the CEO around some cause.

3/ I also want to talk about the complementary idea of a little mood, which I don’t think is a thing yet, so maybe I’m coining the term here. But let’s start with big moods.

4/ The phrase itself indicates two things: a degree of individually felt intensity and a recognition of broader social resonance. The subtle thing to note is that a big mood is not due to emotional contagion but shared causes in a shared environment.

5/ In other words, a big mood is not when I’m sad because you’re sad and you’re my friend. A big mood is when, for example, we’re both reacting with sadness to some headline news we hear at roughly the same time, and I am agreeing with your expression of that sadness.

6/ That is oversimplifying it a bit though, because big moods don’t generally map to generic emotion words like sad or happy. A big mood is a unique type of shared mood that usually doesn’t have a word for it.

7/ This is why it is usually not communicated with emotion words, but things like reaction gifs or music clips. Or sometimes people might make a joke saying “what’s the German word for this feeling?” which they then describe with an awkward long phrase.

8/ So when you say big mood, you’re not just using a commonplace word for a vaguely similar stat as someone else, you’re indicating a very precise kind of atunement and emotional harmony that is beyond the reach of conventional emotional vocabulary.

9/ Here’s another lens on it. Big moods are the emotional equivalent of a concept in logic called common knowledge. Common knowledge is something that I know, you know, I know you know, you know I know you know, and so on ad infinitum. It’s a piece of knowledge that is as collective as it gets in some group of people.

10/ A big mood is something like that for an emotional state, it forms what I’ve previously called a sentiment superstate in a specific group.

11/ Normally, big moods are limited to local social groups and subcultures, and relatively transient, lasting maybe days to weeks. But sometimes they can be more broadly shared and last a really long time.

12/ So for example, the pandemic blues we’re all in right now are a really big global mood that has now lasted several months. And before that the election of Donald Trump in 2016 sparked two big moods — there was redemptive jubilation among his supporters, and despair among his detractors.

13/ Sometimes a big, long-lived big mood can be so persistent that it can define an entire culture. An example is blues music. It’s an entire genre of music that has roots in the big mood of being enslaved, and it can be inherited across generations.

14/ Another that I grew up around is the big mood of Punjabi culture, which was deeply traumatized by the India-Pakistan partition. The Punjabi big mood manifests through overcompensation in the form of a boisterous drinking and partying culture, to the point that it’s now become a stereotype of the community.

15/ A third example is what Koreans call Han which is this idea of a deep trauma felt by Koreans since the Japanese occupation in World War 2. You’ll see people attributing the stereotypical Korean hot temper to this really big, 80-year old national mood of Han, which might even have an epigenetic component at this point.

16/ A final example, which I recently learned about from my friend Sagar Dubey, is the tradition of Iranian lamentation music called Noha, relating to the martyrdom of Husayn Ali at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD, which is the founding event of the Shia sect. This is definitely a really powerful big mood that has lasted about 1300 years at this point, and is the mood of an entire religion.

17/ My point with this list of increasingly bigger and longer-lasting big moods is that there is a conceptual continuity between big moods and culture in general. Even if the big mood you’re feeling right now is a transient one that’s restricted to your twitter subculture of a few hundred people, and might be gone next week, there is a potential for a kind of scale and longevity that you may not appreciate.

18/ Beyond a point of course, it’s more than a mood, big or otherwise, and has turned into a persistent cultural background state, or even the mood of an entire religion like in the Shia example. But I think there’s a genuine organic connection there between big moods and culture.

19/ So there’s a space of big moods here from big to large, transient to long lived, and in the foreground of culture to the background. And remember, big moods are directly induced by the shared environment rather than spread through social contagion. What spreads is the recognition of it being a shared state.

20/ And perhaps most importantly, big moods cannot be easily resisted. So trying to unfeel a big mood is like trying to unsee something or unknow something. You have to be living under a rock or in some sort of oblivious state to be immune to a big mood.

21/ In the short term, ignoring a big mood might be healthy, because you can be happy even if people around you are not, but in the long term if you don’t develop a sensitivity to big moods, both local or global, and transient or enduring, you’ll get left behind. Which is of course a big mood in itself, so you can’t really ignore big moods, because that is itself a mood.

22/ But even though you can’t avoid big moods, when they are less intense, there is room to experience the complementary state, which is what I call a little mood. A little moods is a mood that is widespread, but is not yet widely understood to be widespread, and may never get there. So they are not emotional common knowledge.

23/ An example is the mood of an early stage startup scene that has not yet become overheated, like the years between the dotcom bust and the iPhone, especially around 2002-2007. The big mood was that tech was dead. But the little mood was that it was thriving.

24/ Or the mood around crypto between around 2013-16, when it was no longer a tiny subculture, but not yet a mainstream big mood that everybody in entire regions was participating in and resonating with, which happened around 2017.

25/ So to repeat, it’s important to note that a little mood is not a mood that is unique to you, or an exceptional individual mood. It is one that is widespread, but you are not aware is shared by other people. It can even be global, in which case it is what is called globally local.

26/ A little mood is the emotional equivalent of what in logic is sometimes called mutual knowledge. When you and I both know something but don’t know that the other person knows it too. A little mood is like that. Widespread sentiment that is not yet understood to be widespread. If a big mood is a common sentiment superstate, a little mood is a mutual sentiment microstate.

27/ This means that it comes as something of a surprise to learn that other people are feeling the same way. When you find out that somebody shares a little mood with you, a special bond based on being initiates into an esoteric state of knowledge or sentiment can be the result, and this is pretty exciting.

28/ You might have experienced this. You are really excited about something, but nobody else around you feels the excitement. But the first time you meet someone who is excited in the same way, it feels really special. I remember feeling this way about the internet in 1994, about social media around 2007, and about crypto around 2013. Now I feel it around VR.

29/ In all these examples of little moods, a lot of people are experiencing a kind of individual hypomania, often from being individually exposed to some novel environmental circumstance that is not yet commonly or collectively experienced.

30/ So that experience divides people into those who have had the experience and are still connecting with each other over their mutual knowledge and mutual sentiment, and those who are unaware that this experience even exists.

31/ This should be obvious, but little moods are naturally much more diverse than big moods. Until people experiencing a little mood connect over mutual sentiment, which then grows into collective sentiment, they can’t form big, homogenizing resonance modes around it. There’s not yet a sentiment superstate. And definitely there’s no persistent cultural mood yet.

32/ The thing about little moods is that they can only exist in the shadow of sufficiently laissez-faire big moods. When big moods are too powerful, little moods wither and die. It doesn’t matter what the big mood is, and whether it is positive or negative. Intense big moods kill little moods.

33/ For example, if you have a triumphalist big mood in a political group that has just won an election, or an economic sector that has just experienced a big boom and created a lot of wealth, it kills little moods as surely as a negative big mood, like the pandemic.

34/ Speaking of negative and positive, let’s talk about how those valences connect to big and little moods. Here’s my hypothesis: even though both big and little moods can be positive or negative, I suspect most big moods skew negative, even if they don’t look like it. For example, I think MAGA is a negative big mood even among supporters of Trump. It is a mood of revengefulness and redemption for past wrongs.

35/ On the other hand, most little moods tend to be positive, for the simple reason that they depend on individual contact with novelty, and if that novelty is negative, it’s either a problem that gets solved quickly, or bad news that spreads really fast and turns into a big mood overnight.

36/ Negative little moods simply don’t stay little for long. They turn into big moods even if they don’t make the news, or they get solved as problems. But something like a first experience with a new technology can only spread slowly as more people have the experience and connect around it. There’s a natural rate limit.

37/ The final conceptual point I want to touch upon is how cultures differ in processing big moods, which becomes especially interesting if you think of culture itself as the outcome of historical big moods that have turned into tradition and institutions. So culture is like a long blockchain of past big moods.

38/ Cultures obviously differ in how they process big moods. For example, in individualist cultures like the United States, the suspicion of anything collective and negative tends to be translated into individual medicalization of collective problems.

39/ This leads to, among other things, a tendency towards drug abuse, and a hyperactive psychological imagination. You’ll notice that on American twitter, if you express resonance with a big mood, a certain type of person will immediately jump in to inquire about your mental health, saying something like “are you okay?”

40/ This is a somewhat contrarian position but I don’t think there is a mental health crisis in the United States. What we attribute to epidemics of depression or anxiety, I think, are a kind of referred pain. Because American society is bad at processing big moods at the collective level, it shows up as apparent depression or anxiety.

41/ Other countries have other biases. A friend from Argentina told me that there, almost everybody has a therapist, which doesn’t strike me as particularly healthy, but it does harmonize with the overall more sociable nature of Latin American countries. It also explains their dysfunction on other fronts, requiring non-sentimental forms of sociability, like managing the economy.

42/ Another example is India, which is a highly religious country, with a tendency to process big moods in religious ways. So on WhatsApp there is a lot of sharing of prayers, and emergent rituals around collective prayer. Nobody will ever admit they are depressed or anxious. They’ll just share some sort of religious thing, and with hundreds of gods, there’s a god for every big mood.

43/ So let’s summarize our theory. There are big moods that are collective sentiment superstates, and little moods, that are mutual sentiment microstates. There’s a yin-yang relationship between them. Little moods are generally positive, and big moods are generally negative. Big moods can spread and persist and turn into culture.

44/ To tie it to recent events, you could say that globally we’re in a big mood for big moods. Change is in the air, deep cultural change driven by big moods turning into new cultures that displace old cultures. So you should be paying attention to this stuff, or you’ll get stuck with the worst sort of big mood, which is the left-behind mood.

45/ To close this, I want to connect this to the business world. Normally, stuff I’m tracking on social media doesn’t line up with stuff I’m tracking in corporate culture and management, but in this case they line up. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, if you work in corporate America, you’ll have noticed that there’s a big mood for big moods. It’s not usual the usual flavor-of-the-month or fad-driven condition that management is usually in.

45/ One personal bit of evidence I’ve noticed is that in my consulting work, I’m increasingly helping people with what I call big mood navigation problems rather than typical organizational or process problems. There is a level of ungoverned emotional intensity that you don’t normally see in the corporate world. And I’m going to bet it’s going to end with management and leadership textbooks getting rewritten. We’re going to be talking about mood-based management and leadership in a few years.

So that’s it for this week. Big moods and little moods. Pay attention to them both in the broader zeitgeist and in places where they don’t usually matter, like inside businesses. This stuff is important and is driving big changes that we’ll be living with for the rest of our lives.

So that’s it for this episode of breaking smart. For those of you new to this list, Breaking Smart is my weekly subscription newsletter on technology and culture, where I serialize some of my my longer writing projects like my book-in-progress, The Clockless Clock, and an essay series, The Great Weirding. Most issues are essays, and the free issues are usually podcast episodes like this one. So sign up and subscribe if you liked this episode. I’ll see you next week with another episode, on something else.

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