An Anthropological Introduction to Academic Weird Facebook
While trawling through the murky waters of social media, you might notice a peculiar image slipping through the crevices between your aunt’s cat photos and your third cousin’s passive-aggressive crypto-complaints about her ex. It bubbles up and washes ashore onto your feed like flotsam in an ocean of posts, selfies, personal updates, jokes, and statuses by more than a billion people living out the minutia of their daily lives online, a public spectacle for people that haven’t talked to each other in months, and likely don’t plan to either. At first glance, the image looks like any old meme, it probably has a funny and distorted picture, a caption, maybe some funky fonts, emojis or other 2017 meme memorabilia, but upon closer inspection, it’s not really like your typical meme at all—instead of talking about animals, relationships, politics, or other common topics, its punchline is about some obscure 19th century philosopher, the average word length is distinctly in the double digits, and the people in the comments section keep asking someone to explain the joke. The source of this image is a weird diaspora of the underground meme scene which has found a home for itself in the unlikeliest of places: Facebook.
I’ve been a part of this community for the past three years, watching it gradually simmer and then suddenly burst out in a huge flourish of frenzied activity in 2015. Since then, there’s been several other renaissances in different parts of the scene, but the trajectory has continually been upwards and outwards. I would like to paint an ethnographic picture of this community. This is by no means an unbiased account—my beliefs, attitudes, and understandings of it are informed by my personal lived experiences as one of its members. Besides simply being a casual participant and observer, I’ve been one of the organizers, stewards and shepherds of my own little niche within this community, and so I have been privy to the various scales and spaces that comprise it from multiple perspectives. However, it’s a very complicated and multifaceted community—“It’s hard to point at any one thing that can represent Weird Facebook. There’s no one page or person that defines weird facebook, and this is part of what makes weird facebook robust. Weird Facebook is an emergent property of a certain network of people” (Wilcox). Due to the constraints of this assignment, I will stick to outlining shared structures and characteristics rather than going into details about particular sub-niches.
The intellectual niche of Weird Facebook doesn’t currently have any standard naming conventions in regards to itself, it is often referred to as simply intellectual or academic Weird Facebook. From here on I will abbreviate these two communities when necessary as WF and IWF, respectively. In my account of this community, I will first focus on the general practices and habits of the larger community of WF before moving into the peculiarities of IWF, as it is necessary to understand the former in order to understand the latter.
The term “Weird Facebook” comes from the misappropriation of the Facebook platform, which was originally intended for modeling real life relationships; for users to use their real-life persona and identity to connect with family, friends, classmates and co-workers. Users who do not play by these rules often incur casualties at the hands of Facebook’s moderation and policy enforcement in the form of activity-blocking and account suspension. This tension between the policy of legitimate identity and the desires of the user base for play and entertainment illustrates what Jodi O’Brien views as the “strain between those who view online interaction as an opportunity to ‘perform’ a variety of perhaps fabricated roles versus those who see cyberspace as a new communication medium between ‘real people.’”(Kollock & Smith). Weird Facebookers parade behind strange names and profile pictures that don’t reflect their real life identity, use the platform to share memes and satirical, ironic and absurdist content instead of family photos, and base their social networks around memetic interactions, affiliations and communities instead of real life relationships—befriending strangers from all over the world on the basis of the perfect combo of clashing meme signifiers in their profile pictures instead of their hometowns, universities or workplaces. However, O’Brien’s dichotomy of real vs performed begins to collapse in on itself when this community is viewed in the light of the rest of Facebook.
Despite its owners’ claims to authenticity and their continuous efforts at ID-verification, even people who use their real names and pictures on Facebook can’t be said to be representing their authentic real-life selves. Social media has become an everyday ritual to a large part of the population and “people rarely self-identify as performers when engaging in everyday rituals, but they frequently adjust their behaviors for different audiences.” (Papacharissi). However, unlike the real-life everyday, where a person is apprehended from all sides in all their real-time flaws, social media gives the user the power to selectively represent themselves, choosing or hiding photos in a way that skews the persona presented online into a highly edited and staged performance. “In the context of social awareness systems, self-awareness and self-monitoring are heightened as individuals advance into a constant state of redaction, or editing and remixing the self.” (Papacharissi). Yet the mechanics involved lead even the people posting the pictures themselves to be lulled into a sense of realism—all the images are posted from real-life events, so the whole profile looks highly realistic and believable. However it’s not with photoshop that reality is manipulated on Facebook—it is unlikely that many people edit the actual contents of their photos—but through the self-conscious redaction and self-censorship that accompanies every single decision to-post-or-not-to-post, and the stable and lasting representation of a human being that emerges out of this. In light of this mechanism, to treat social media as necessarily parallel to real life is inherently disingenuous, as is attempting to enforce it with ID checks.
I observed one IWF participant admit “i never feel like the same person i was the next day but social media preserves appearances and i dont appreciate that there’s this static body of information out there that people think is me(sic).” Weird Facebookers abandon that project altogether and instead take it for granted that the profile is a performance, and explore how the human condition spills out into the procrustean bed of Facebook’s categories and functions. “In the deliberately improvised performances of a digital orality, interplay between spontaneity and preparation enables individuals to blend print and oral practices of storytelling in presenting themselves.” (Papacharissi). Users stage photos, change their names, embellish their photos with meme signifiers, fill in their profiles with jokes based on random meme references instead of real information, photoshop their face into memes, heavily edit their photos and add weird captions and other meme characters’ faces into the images to create complex narratives, and in this way their online existence almost becomes a meme in itself, inhabiting the same space and interacting with other memes in their own dimension. Yet by doing this, they treat the platform as a world in itself—not a place to perform a re-presentation of an idealized real-life self, but as a new communication medium between people living out online realities, in a novel visual language—an inverted reformulation of O’Brien’s dichotomy.
Despite its rebellious nature, the WF community is nevertheless shaped by the platform, so rather than being a faceless cohort of strangers such as results in other meme-centered communities such as imageboards like 4chan, whose anonymity allows for the creation of a new identity with every new post, the sociability, scalability and intimacy of the platform actually connects the users in a much more meaningful way, simulating real life friendships. In much the same way, there is a blending of the personal identity of the user, which combines the constructed, meme-clique online identity with the circumstantial and contextual real life identity. These two identities exist simultaneously, with people often participating in both regular Facebook and Weird Facebook on the same account, connecting personal, real-life social networks with online, interest-based social networks into a broad, strange, but very rich and eclectic circle of friends. There is a flattened hierarchy of intimacy between real-life friends and internet friends and everything gets posted to the same account. “Blending the public with the private, they produce what boyd (2008) referred to as ‘context collapse’ for performances of sociality lacking the situational definition inherently suggested by public and private boundaries.” (Papacharissi). Facebook does present users with a toolkit for segregating friends into lists for post-visibility, however these are not consistently used and the two worlds often bleed into each other. In fact, this clashing interaction between the meme community and the greater context of Facebook is an important influence on the style, structure, and narratives of its members: their play is often a self-aware exploration of the intended and unintended consequences and experiences of users wading through the messy social milieu of a society to which the internet is not some novelty, but a staple and mundane part of life. Other times, their postings are the pure expression of creative freedom in a post-postmodern era where Shrek, Spongebob and fidget spinners inhabit the same social spaces as theology, politics, astrology and cat videos. In a world of overwhelming overstimulation and overexposure to mass media, millions of personalized interactions with faceless strangers, everyone shouting and yelling and laughing and screaming all at once, and an infinite scroll in a 24/7 always-on mediascape—an economy of attention to which the primitive human mind is maladapted—the recombination of memes feels like the bewildered actions of infants trying to fit square pegs into round holes in a play-set with billions of moveable parts. An unconventional attempt to understand and meaningfully interact with a swollen and bloated cultural corpora whose growth and velocity has massively outpaced the ability of any human to comprehend. Unbound by artistic conventions or definitions, these users are simply combining and recombining imagery like monkeys at the keyboard of a colossal meme generating machine that, given enough time, will probably permute all the possible combinations of clashing images, symbols and texts known to man.
Perhaps in this way it was inevitable then that some meme-makers in search of novelty eventually turned to history and literature as a way of enriching their repertoire. Academic memes have always existed in various corners of the internet, however, in the past few years there’s been a noticeable surge of meme content about history, philosophy, and the sciences being created and spread across social media. In tandem with the general rise of the meme-population, hundreds of thousands of students, hobbyists, as well as serious academics are congregating around these academically oriented memepages and their porous community structures, which function as hubs for collaboration, community education, and memetic experimentation. The intellectual memepages exist parallel with the root framework of social interactions, profiles, and friend networks that comprise Facebook. The memetic content that is created in IWF discussion groups and pages (the more public sphere on fb) both spills out into the more personal, profile/timeline-space (private-sphere) interactions, as well as being enriched by these private connections, in a symbiotic relationship. These new social circles facilitate innovation and the playful generation of content through everyday interactions.
Much like WF hijacked Facebook, there is a double-hijacking in the IWF, which hijacks both the Facebook platform, and simultaneously co-opts the visual language of WF towards its own ends. IWF both draws from and subverts memes from WF, with its own memes sometimes spilling into the greater memeosphere, but often remaining contained due to their inscrutability.
The reference pool of IWF contains obscure philosophers, scientists, thinkers, writers and historical figures, as well as the standard pop-culture pool of WF, yet it treats them the same as other meme communities treat anime characters, funny animals, celebrities, video games, and other pop-culture memorabilia—with irreverence, vulgarity, absurdity and a general sense of playful disregard for context and appropriateness. Yet, there are also many make-shift conventions that govern the visio-linguistic usage of memes, which are ever-changing and context-specific, the rule often being to flaunt the rules but always in an interesting way. “It is intriguing that digitally literate behaviors … require reversal of the grammatical and syntactical norms that typify literacy offline. The performance of digital fluency may thus require deviation from the literacy norm” (Papacharissi). In IWF, complicated and serious philosophical, scientific, and literary notions are expressed with emojis, texting abbreviations, low-brow sex and poop jokes, deliberate misspellings and various internet jargon. It’s a huge mess, but somehow it all works together.
Largely due to the academic orientation and proximity of this sub-community, an important component of the discourse within it is a self-conscious and reflexive conversation about its own evolving nature, stylistic conventions, community structures, rhetoric, and practices. There are a huge number of sub-niches within WF, and within IWF, many of them overlapping, and many others having rival or antagonistic relationships. “However, once another … group becomes involved in the discussion, such distinctions tend to collapse as each group orients itself in a monolithic manner toward the other group. Within-group variation is attenuated while across-group differences are accentuated.” (Kollock & Smith). IWF must differentiate itself from WF, and yet when contrasted with regular Facebook, the differences pale in comparison.
Intellectual Weird Facebook is constantly expanding and evolving, and its own self-understanding is evolving alongside it. At once an emergent phenomena, a network of users, and an image-making vernacular, it is simultaneously linguistically-isolated from the mainstream world, and also a linguistic bridge to meme-makers and consumers the world over. It is comprised of a myriad subdivisions, and I have outlined the big picture of the community, however, it is always experienced by its members at the ground level, so I have appended a list of pages by subject so that the reader can experience it as it’s meant to be: https://goo.gl/kEimnB
Boyd, Dana M., “Taken out of context: American teen sociality in networked publics.” (Doctoral dissertation) University of California, Berkeley, School of Information. 2008
Papacharissi, Zizi. “Without You, I’m Nothing: Performances of the Self on Twitter.” International Journal of Communication, vol. 6, 21 Nov. 2011.
Smith, Marc A., and Peter Kollock. Introduction. Communities in Cyberspace. London: Routledge, 2006. N. pag. Print.
Wilcox, Rosemary. “Why ‘Weird Facebook’ Is the Next Great Internet Subculture.” BEST STORIES ONLINE. N.p., n.d. Web.