Vibes represent our universal longing for normality

On social media, vibes have also come to represent subtle sensibilities that are hard to precisely pin down

By Shalini Verma

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AP file
AP file

Published: Mon 13 Dec 2021, 11:03 PM

My colleague recently shared with me an Instagram post. It was a video of former Indian cricket captain MS Dhoni dressed in camouflage green sportswear, walking past tall bushes of green beans, while using his nifty wicket keeping hands to pluck a pod before chomping on it. My colleague messaged me that she got the same vibe from my Instagram post – a photo in which I, dressed in khakis, was standing somewhere in the Indian countryside with the serene hills of the Western ghats in the backdrop. The word ‘vibe’ stayed with me.

I started to wade through Instagram to understand how vibe was being used. There were 44 million posts with #vibes. Vibes have been trending on TikTok, leveraging potent bits of life in motion. Turns out you can create your own special vibe on Instagram, which is akin to a mood board or a theme. When I was young, ‘vibe’ was already part of our chatter about how we judged people we met. It was not a carefully calibrated assessment but a gut feeling about someone having good vibes or bad vibes. Our dating decisions stemmed from vibes.

Vibes are believed to have their roots in vibraphone, a jazz percussion instrument with subtle, somewhat muted notes that tend to linger. On social media, vibes have also come to represent subtle sensibilities that are hard to precisely pin down. Needless to say, the word is specifically derived from vibration. It is no coincidence that vibe became popular when new age metaphysics found cult following during the hippie movement in the 1960s. About that time, the American hip hop group, Beastie Boys released their hit song, GOOD Vibrations.

Evidently, vibe has always been a nebulous feeling. It is not quite this, not quite that, but rather a you-know-what-I-mean. Call it a shared code that people instantly sense without saying a whole lot. My son pointed out that the hindi/urdu word “mahaul”, which means a general impression of a place, closely mirrors vibes. It helps that on social media there is a picture or a video to conjure up that impression. There are restaurants in the UAE that evoke nostalgic vibes of faraway destinations or a past era. I can always relate with the 90’s vibes. The Burj Khalifa has its own unique vibe that tourists want to soak in.

Today, vibes are swirling up from an enduring mixed feeling across the world as we try to put the pandemic behind us. They are a product of a pervasive mood of optimism that is grounded in realism. If 2020 was about sheltering in place, 2021 has been about healing. Present day vibes are mostly good ones associated with #life, #lifestyle, #green, #music, as though we are trying to neutralise the grief, stress, and anxiety. They are all feel-good expressions of our time, yet mellow and understated. Vibes represent our universal longing and quest for the normal, even if it is entirely new and fleeting.

Books on vibes have often explored our spiritual dimension. Adult colouring books have been associated with good vibes. Largely, the focus has been on self-help, with the assumption that humans are a bundle of energy. But then a house could also give you a positive vibe. At a metaphysical level, vibes are based on the perceived notion that everything represents some form of energy, hence the use of positive or negative vibes. Yet there is nothing esoteric about vibes. Social media presents vibes as connections that any of us can feel at a given moment. It seeks to capture and express that fleeting experience in a composite manner. There is an otherness to it because they are always expressed by someone else, in a self-effacing manner.

It is not uncommon for technology to nudge along a more widespread use of an expression or a word that it didn’t invent. Chat, buzz, ping redefined our social interactions at the turn of the century when instant messaging became mainstream. Just as bandwidth, bytes, cloud, file were popularized by computing.

Vibes have always suggested intangible connections between all of us, just like a node-link diagram of a social network. It is entirely possible that a long-term use of vibes on social media may alter the word’s connotation. According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, blog was originally coined for something that resembled a block or log of wood. Code, widely used for software programs, was derived from codex or wooden writing tablets, which later came to mean a book of laws.

Likewise, vibes could become a compilation of our experiences that are meticulously diarized. We are in a sense collecting vibes that are developing a life of their own. I could be ‘vibing’ on a Saturday afternoon. In 2022, Sundays will have a Saturday vibe for us in the UAE, and we will all know what that would mean.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies, a Dubai-based cognitive innovation company. She tweets @shaliniverma1.

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