Quotes: parroted strings of meaningless clichés, or powerful gems from another’s mind?

I like the implications of this quote: we use labels too simple to define us.

50% of today’s social media appears to be made up of quotes.

Take Facebook for example — most of the posts I see in my feed are in the form of sentences written in curly letters across a picture. Most of these quotes are authorless with thousands of shares. I know some people who see these quotes and sigh, saying things like, “She has a strong, powerful voice of her own — why is she using these recycled clichés?” And I also know people who are passionate about quotes. They copy them down from books and conversations, TED talks and interviews, and love to share them with others.

What’s with all this quote sharing? Why are we doing it — are we sacrificing our voices to join the crowd or are we sharing the fact that we’re all humans with human emotions?

After thinking about this question, I’m not sure there’s an answer. But I did find some interesting points to ponder on.

What are quotes?

The Oxford dictionary says to quote is to “Repeat or copy out words from a text or speech written or spoken by another person”, and a quote is “A quotation from a text or speech.” Apparently, the word originated from medieval Latin “quotare” or “quota” and was defined as to “mark a book with numbers, or with marginal references” which, to me, sounds similar to giving someone’s post a ‘like’ — to make a note of what we love.

Colloquially, I think we use “a quote” to mean any string of words that are not our own and we’re not pretending they are.

Why do we even like quotes?

Quotes are like haikus — the best of them are short, poignant, and bring to attention a very specific idea:

There are quotes for and from everything. I think we like them because they’re moments — they sum up an emotion, a thought, an event. In someone else’s words, it seems to mean more than in our own. They’re also inspiring: a certain mindset we want to obtain, a dream we want to live. Quotes certainly inspire me to write — like this post for instance. I’ve also written book reviews based on quotes from the books, which I think is a common thing to do — outlining how the quote perfectly portrays the whole meaning of the story, etc. A more scientific piece of writing could be spiced up with quotes or quotes can be used to explain and/or reference difficult concepts without plagiarising (somatic cell nuclear transfer — how is one even supposed to begin there?).

Are there good quotes and bad quotes?

Some quotes inspire me, some make me gag. What intrinsically makes a good quote?

I just Googled ‘facebook quotes for status’ (because just ‘facebook quotes’ got me quotes about Facebook…) and I think I see the problem. Just scanning Google’s first result, about 90% say the exact same thing. Their meanings are genuine — about becoming a better person, believing yourself and not taking crap from people — but there’s just so much of it. When we see yet another quote saying “Live every moment to the fullest, you never know what will come next” and then sigh, is it because of the monotony?

Just like every other animal on the face of this earth, we have short attention spans — our brains say “is it adding anything to our life? No? Then leave it”. Most people don’t like to re-read books once they’ve finished — it’s like the fight for survival watered down into “I’ve already taken this information on board, now I want something new”. We don’t have enough attention for everything and our brains ignore what’s unnecessary, so when we see words we’ve seen hundreds of times before, they become faceless and meaningless. Is that why we groan when friends we love share these “inspirational words”?

Are we sharing or hiding?

When we post a quote to our status, send one to a friend, or have it automatically attached to the end of our emails, what are we trying to say? Are we sharing our love for what we’ve found? Are we stating that this life thing is hard, but we’re trying? Are we trying to inspire others? Are we using other people’s words to define us? Are we trying to look ‘cultured’, showing off what we’ve read and how ‘highbrow’ the things we like to think about are?

Maybe these are questions we need to ask ourselves.

We’re caught knowing what we want to say and then using the words everyone else is. Should we write our own quotes — can you quote yourself?? Should we look harder to find new quotes that express our feelings? We’re humans sat in a pool of words, all striving to be heard. One quote with thousands of shares is one big voice — but maybe we’re compromising our individuality. It’s easier to yell if it’s another’s words — they become responsible. If we’re choosing to agree with someone else’s ideas rather than state our own ideas for fear of finding ourselves alone, we need to ask ourselves if that’s who we want to be.

Fiction writer, story critic, and biologist. Passionate about inspiring writers, discussing fun science, and promoting equality.

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