In February 2020, Howard Cheung came to St. Petersburg for the first time to visit a friend. By June of that year, the city lured him back for another trip.
As he watched a Black Lives Matter protest wind down Central Avenue that summer, he decided to leave Brooklyn and move here.
“I went to school in Boston, and I felt that it was such a racist place,” said Cheung, who is Chinese American. “I did not have that same feeling here.”
Cheung, 25, already had a remote computer science job, and found an apartment in north St. Petersburg. (“I moved first, asked for permission later,” he said.) He felt like he was home.
He just needed to meet people. So, he channeled his loneliness into an anonymous Instagram meme page.
The idea sprouted from a scrolling spree. Cheung kept noticing posts from “affirmations” accounts pop up.
Young millennials and Gen Z take a much more open approach to mental health than their predecessors. They might know the names of their friends’ therapists, talk about preferred antidepressants or download one of the many apps that sends affirming push notifications: I am healthy. I am seen. I can do great things. If you repeat these phrases to yourself, maybe you can reprogram your brain to think kinder thoughts.
In 2021, meme pages took the affirmations format and ran with it, posting their own ironic, even goofy, mantras. The Instagram account @afffirmations was the blueprint: COVID has not ruined my life, the glowing text of one post reads. Anxiety is not choking me. Eye contact is not scary. Soon, local versions popped up, including a USF-themed affirmations page. I will NOT get into a car accident in the Bruce B. Downs Starbucks drive-thru.
Cheung saw an opportunity for the connection he craved. There were no St. Pete affirmations — yet.
The first post he published on Instagram as @stpete_affirmations was inspired by a friend who grew up in town. It took aim at low-hanging fruit: the St. Pete Pier.
The new Pier, he wrote. Is better than the old one.
Later, he posted a meme inspired by a conversation with college students about a certain type of local guy. Eckerd boys are not weird.
His posts cover a variety of hopeful pronouncements:
On shopping: Tyrone Mall has everything I need.
The rental market: I can afford to move out of Pinellas Park.
Recreation: My dog will not be eaten by pelicans.
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Cheung expected maybe a couple hundred people to see his posts. After three months, he now has over 3,500 followers.
“I don’t consider myself an influencer,” he said. “I consider myself a mirror to the community.”
He admits that he feels a bit insecure about running a local meme page as a transplant. To offset this — and learn about his new home — he often reaches out to followers.
“I want to give credit where credit is due,” he said. “At this point, most of my memes are submissions from others.”
Direct messaging with fans about submissions leads to full conversations. As a former sociology major, Cheung loves getting to learn about his new neighbors — and micro-histories of places around town.
“Someone would say, ‘Can you do an affirmation about this location, about this business?’ And I would ask them, ‘What makes this business so special?’” he said. “We would branch out from there when we talk about ourselves.”
The next thing Cheung knew, he was getting invitations to parties. And to the surprise of the hosts, he actually showed up.
“They didn’t know who I was at first,” he said. “But once I revealed who I was, I had a great time.”
New friends at parties turned into brunch invitations and coffee meetups. His plan was working.
It wasn’t just other followers that he bonded with. Cheung started DMing other local meme page admins, like the folks behind @stpetemoodboard and @srq.affirmations.
“We’d share tips on how to edit our photos, our experiences of people not knowing who we are and wanting to know who we are,” he said. “Eventually, after a long conversation with Sarasota Affirmations, I decided to meet up with him. So I drove all the way down there and hung out with him.”
“I just couldn’t believe that was the man behind the mirror,” said Nicolas Alibasic, the 27-year-old page admin. “We just looked like two nerds sitting behind this table. Who could ever guess?”
Alibasic gave Cheung a tour of downtown Sarasota, and the two have kept in touch, with plans to hang out more. He confirmed that meme-making, though anonymous, is a tremendous way to meet others. Alibasic has even helped followers flirt with their crushes through the account.
“Every weekend I’ll have an invite to parties of people I’ve never met,” Alibasic said. “All of the sudden, you have more friends than you know.”
While Cheung continues to meet St. Pete, he’s still working on building deep relationships. And maybe some sponsorships for the page.
“I spend about an hour a day on it, and I’ve made $0 so far,” he said. “But friends are priceless.”