Thousands know her for her Instagram handle, @yung_nihilist, and much of the online community has felt the impact of her meme content in some form. Bianca Perez — the face behind the account — spoke Monday night at the McCormack Family Theater, describing her journey to content creation as well as the double-edged sword of empowerment and toxicity that comes with her digital presence.
Sponsored by the Department of Literary Arts, the event gave attendees insight into the potential of social media to snowball into a full-time career. Perez, a writer, comic and social media content creator, began using social media as an artistic outlet and escape.
After an eviction notice in 2013 put Perez and her mother at risk of homelessness, Perez dropped out of college to found “Mi Casa No Es Su Casa,” an arts-based activist group resisting gentrification and displacement in New York City. Further political art projects led her to become a social media fellow at both Mayday Space, a grassroots organization in New York City, and Democracy Now, an independent news program. Beyond her work in activism, Perez has worked behind the scenes for TV shows like Saturday Night Live.
On her personal Instagram account, Perez is known for her activism, humor and meme content. One of her earliest memes was reposted by actress Willow Smith and led to a steady stream of followers afterwards. She currently has around 34,600 followers on Instagram. This formative experience in collaging original text with found image was “one of the first times (she) realized the power of consolidating all of this information,” and it established her preference for memes as a unique form of communication.
As Perez began to invest more time in creating content for her growing base of followers, she began searching for answers to questions like this one she posed to the audience at the McCormack Family Theater: “How do you know when you have clout? That’s the question everyone wants to know. How does it smell like? What does it feel like?”
Her answer lies somewhere between influence and monetary empowerment. Perez described crowdfunding online for personal necessities and receiving payments from followers. “These are real people who have actually developed an emotional connection to me,” she recounted.
Perez also mentioned other digital creators and friends whose social media presences have risen meteorically, garnering the attention of celebrities who repost their content or wear their merchandise.
This online community has allowed creators to help each other navigate a new digital space that still lacks clear methods of monetization, Perez said. “It’s the Dada of today, so people really don’t give it the credit it deserves,” she added. Through group chats, collaborative content-making and in-person socials, the tight-knit community connects over a field of work where the labor involved is often underestimated.
Perez ended her talk by underscoring that, in her and other digital creators’ experiences, using social media as a personal outlet is unsustainable over the long term. She expressed the emotional toll of creating content as the “need to constantly perform my own pathology.” She saw herself as rising to fame because of her relatable depression-tinged content. Now, Perez fears that in not being depressed, she also stops being relatable. She pointed out how 2019’s “stan culture” has led loyal followers to support content makers even when they promote unhealthy mindsets. Due to this trend, Perez ultimately hopes to shift her focus away from her personal account, instead directing her creative efforts into projects for other organizations.
Charles Shields GS, who helped organize the event as a literary arts student, expressed his admiration for Perez’s work, especially as a markedly different form of media than what students interact with academically.
“I think it’s important to recognize alternative forms of scholarship,” Shields said. “As the ability to recognize beauty is the mark of a true artist, I think the ability to recognize scholarship beyond what it typically looks like is the mark of a true scholar.”
Another attendee, Arden Shostak, a RISD student, was struck by the decision to bring in a digital creator as a speaker. “I’ve heard a lot of conversation about, ‘Are memes art? Can we count them as fine art?’” he said. “I find that less productive than what we got tonight, where we got an actual content creator in the space to share her perspective and her work. … It was nice to hear from someone who is in it and making it, rather than have this hypothetical discussion.”