What inspires you lately? Who do you turn to for good advice — the kind you haven’t heard a million times before? When was the last time you resolved to make a change, and stuck with it?
Since late 2018, Males Soul has blessed the internet with more than a thousand of these motivational memes, and amassed a cult following of over 100,000 in the process. The voice is irresistible: not-quite-fluent English, bewildering metaphors and a masculine bravado laced with heartbreak. The quintessential Males Soul quotes sound like quasi-profundity from a guy who’s been through hell and back — but has huge biceps to show for it. On the visual side, you have a panoply of hunks. Some are recognizable celebrities (Keanu Reeves, Jake Gyllenhaal, Justin Bieber and Timothée Chalamet have all made appearances), while others are Instagram model-influencers with sizable fan bases of their own. Here and there, you’ll see the Joker, or Cillian Murphy’s gangster character from the TV series Peaky Blinders. It’s a rich tapestry.
In form and affect, Males Soul belongs to a genre of mindset content that crosses many platforms: Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Tumblr and LinkedIn. It’s certainly not the biggest account of this kind — though it might be the most eclectic, and this helps to explain its cult appeal. Whereas a business-oriented brand might post about the need to keep grinding and taking risks as you make your first million, or a romance-focused one can serve up gauzy colors and aphorisms on the nature of love, Males Soul resists any obvious through line. It shows you dudes rippling with muscles, but it doesn’t offer any diet or exercise advice. It extols the virtues of being single and ignoring women, yet frequently alludes to a sense of loneliness and despair. The methods or meanings of “self-improvement” and “hustle” are even less defined here than on other inspirational pages. Some concepts, like that of the “sigma male,” are lifted from red-pill web communities.
You begin to suspect that the author, whoever they are, isn’t exactly the hot success they want you to think they are. Or maybe this is all an elaborate joke.
Much discussion of Males Soul is driven by the question of its intent. Does someone actually think this way, or is it just an ironic pose? Over the past two months, the comedian Conner O’Malley has twice appeared on the account, most recently in the image above, sparking theories that he (or someone in his orbit) is the admin, performing an avant-garde satire of masculine web culture. The “epic mind soldiers” line comes O’Malley’s pitch for his bizarro virtual reality project, Endorphin Port, so it stands to reason that this is an absurdist bit of advertising. However, O’Malley isn’t the only one to show up here with a caption that feels more winking than sincere. The YouTuber Chad Lebaron, better known as “Cherdleys,” has appeared in a deliberately awkward picture, accompanied by the claim that “legends have depression.” Another guy posed with Pokémon cards. A third pretended to be dumbfounded by his own hand.
The posts that don’t use celebs or stock photography — that is, the pics where the subject is tagged on the “collab” — are a major clue to what’s really going on with Males Soul: You can DM them and strike a deal to be featured. Sometimes, it’s a buff influencer who wants to leverage the platform to gain more thirsty followers for himself. Elsewhere, it’s a shitposter inserting himself into an account beloved for its off-kilter, seemingly accidental humor. Either way, it means that Males Soul is an economic venture. So where, exactly, does the money lead?
All the way to India.
The narrator of the Males Soul videos on YouTube has an Indian accent. When I joined the Males Soul channel on Telegram for more information, I noticed immediately that the contacts first added back in May of this year had Indian names. (The avatar, meanwhile, is most likely a portrait of a European model named Billy Vandendooren.) At first I wondered if this meant a group, not an individual, controlled the brand — which would somewhat account for its delightfully scattered approach. Digging deeper, I found my answer: It’s actually just one guy, 19-year-old Sahil Agarwal, who lives outside the city of Bhopal, India. Though my attempts to get in touch with Agarwal went unanswered, I was able to track down an interview he gave to the short-lived podcast Net Positive in November 2020, since deleted from SoundCloud though still available on Mixcloud. His voice, as far as I could discern, matched the one from YouTube.
On the podcast, Agarwal reveals that he was moved to try mindset memes after experiencing their effect firsthand. What’s more, he belongs to a community of Indian creators in this space and operates many accounts at once, including @the.attitude.problem, which has more than double the audience Males Soul does. His fellow admins are less competitors than they are partners: They trade tips for engagement, Agarwal said, and will buy one another’s accounts to grow and then resell for a profit.
Even so, it’s mostly a hobby for him, not a business or career, and the money he makes is reinvested in new social media assets. He admits that the “character” of Males Soul is nothing like him — he’s simply posting what attracts additional followers while retaining those already on board. When he first acquired Males Soul, he had to experiment with the formula, and as soon as he struck an odd point-of-view that went viral in the Western world, he was incentivized to continue on that track. Males Soul isn’t designed to inform or improve its readers; it purely aims to expand its own reach and, therefore, value.
This is the final twist of the Males Soul mystery: Instead of being managed by a guy with a genuine but weird and disjointed philosophy of masculine ideals, or by a prankster making fun of that kind of guy, it’s a reflection of our appetite for such nonsense. Agarwal happened to tap into a vibe between satire and salesmanship, and we ate it up, so he stuck to it.
Talk about manifesting — it’s like we willed this stuff into existence. And certainly we’re better off for it.