Inspiration Porn

Yup? You heard it right blogging fans? (You may have even just heard it first too.) Inspiration Porn! I mean. Come on. We all know about REAL porn? Proper porn. But Inspiration Porn? I must confess. When guest blogger Rachel Lawes first mentioned the term, I just burst out laughing. Seriously enough however, there is a much darker side to this story. And it sort of fits in with my previous post too: Random Acts of Listening. In that. With (so many of) us being glued to our computers these days, the plethora of motivational material CAN (believe it or not) actually produce the opposite effect to that desired. In other words? Well. Don’t let me spoil the party. Over to Rachel…

Inspiration Porn.

As a user of LinkedIn & professional semiologist – someone who studies visual and verbal communications, connecting them to social trends – I’m primed to notice unusual features of communications, especially when they occur a lot or form patterns.

One of the most noticeable features of the stream of verbal messages, images and (especially) videos that crosses one’s path as a user of these social media platforms is a rhetoric or discourse of inspiration. ‘Inspiration’ is one of the most-used words in LinkedIn posts (‘influencing’ and ‘leadership’ are almost as heavily-used) and it is very frequently accompanied by videos which are presented as having an inspiring effect. These videos usually tell a story of an individual (very rarely a group or team) overcoming daunting obstacles in order to achieve their ‘goal’, which may be alternatively characterised as a ‘dream’. These goals and dreams may appear to be quite modest to the observer (paint a picture, become a radio DJ) but the important thing is that they are emotionally invested in by the hero or heroine of the story and are difficult to achieve for reasons particular to themselves.

Any one of these stories or videos, on its own, might not have aroused suspicion, but as I became exposed to large numbers of them, I began to realise that I was viewing porn:

Inspiration porn, like all porn, is manufactured and distributed with the intent to arouse. Arousal is its purpose, it has no function except to stimulate and excite the viewer to heightened emotional and sometimes physical states.

People who have very satisfying and rewarding sex lives usually (not exclusively, but usually) do not consume loads of porn. Porn is disproportionately consumed by people who are not getting something which is important to them. To follow this line of reasoning, the tsunami of inspiration porn on LinkedIn and similar platforms suggests that the business community is densely populated by people who are not only uninspired by their jobs but are in dire need of having their sense of hope ramped up so that they can keep going to work.

Just like regular porn, inspiration porn unfortunately features a lot of children who could not possibly have given informed consent. The last three IP videos that social media showed me featured children aged 10 and under, two of whom were severely disabled. Regarded from a cultural perspective, children are usually treated as beings of unspoiled innocence which makes them extra effective when cast in films which are designed to arouse and emotionally stimulate adult viewers.

There’s a lot we could conclude from this but I’m personally interested in questions of why inspiration porn is necessary and why this semiotic sign ‘inspiration’ is so closely linked to the signs ‘influencing’ (which has a pornography all of its own) and ‘leadership’. My conclusion is that Western business culture is presenting some problems to its workers. Evidently, something is missing, there’s some sort of a gap. A person who is already inspired by their career and leaps out of bed in the morning feeling that they can’t wait to get to work and set the world on fire does not need to start the day by viewing gut-wrenching videos of disabled toddlers taking their first steps. A person who is already influential doesn’t need to watch vague but colourful short films which promise that influence is within reach. As for leadership – it seems unlikely that actual leaders consume inspirational media about leadership in which their words are quoted. Something is wrong. I have to conclude that there’s an epidemic of people feeling that they aren’t in a position of leadership, they aren’t influencing anyone or anything and that their jobs are almost impossible to attend each day without the help of an emotional shot in the arm and an example to look up to. There’s a sense of underlying impotence and despair.

The problem with work is a societal problem and this is not contradicted by the fact that inspiration porn almost always shows individuals struggling (and eventually succeeding) on their own. Western business culture, like Western society generally, is profoundly individualistic. Everyone is the hero, or victim, of their own epic saga or tragedy. If you succeed, the credit is all yours. If you fail, it’s your fault. Everything is attributable to your actions. Your environment, situation and social supports (or lack thereof) count for nothing and are erased from the picture. Inspiration porn is political and ideological. It teaches individuals that they are alone and that they will be individually blamed if they do not successfully reach for that rainbow. Is this what capitalism has come to?

Social problems need social solutions. It’s hard for individuals – especially over-worked, isolated, despairing individuals – to fix problems that are built right into Western culture all by themselves. Despite this, if we are to offer some words of comfort to the despairing individual, they might be as follows: meet people in real life. Have lunch with someone. See more of your friends. Cultivate business and social relationships that involve meetings where you can look each other in the eye. When you use social media, don’t believe the hype. You already knew that Facebook is carefully-curated lifestyle porn, with unrealistic depictions of weddings, fine dining and luxury holidays. Apply the same scepticism to career and business porn. Find some real-life alternatives. Have some offline meetings. Form teams. The person who just fowarded yet another inspiring or motivational video is not having a better time than you are. Get together in real life and find out how you can help each other.

Dr Rachel Lawes. @DrRachelLawes