What is shitposting?
Why is shitposting even a thing? Is shitposting purely supposed to be funny, or is it about making a nuanced critique of meme culture, so witty and subtle it flies over most people’s heads?
Like the US Supreme Court discussing obscenity for the purpose of lawmaking back in the early 1960s, most of us have trouble explaining precisely what shitposting is. But boy, do we know it when we see it.
Those memes, you know, where the whole joke is it’s a picture of a frog on a unicycle. Or a cat with excessive and suspicious fondness for cheeseburgers. Political memes where the appearance of a leader is distorted to the point of absurdity.
Perhaps it’s helpful to consider what shitposting isn’t, before we nail down what it actually is.
THE CASE AGAINST SHITPOSTING
Conventional jokes – because all the best memes are jokes, right? – work a little something like this. You have a setup, where the conditions of the joke are established at the stary. Ideally this should be a recognizable, or at least easily-comprehensible, situation.
Then the punchline, or payoff, disrupts expectations, throwing the listener a curveball, that they need to process in their brain, briefly creating the sensation of amusement or mirth.
Here’s a great example:
SETUP: ‘How does the blind skydiver know when to open their parachute?’
PAYOFF: ‘His dog lead goes slack’
With shitposting, there’s no such structure – nothing even resembling a normie premise, to be built up then artfully torn down in the punchline.
It’s just a stupid picture, or string of words – the more nonsensical and against-the-grain of context the better. And this is the entire point.
The idea of shitposting is not to entertain, or delight and inspire. The goal is to disrupt. To interfere with the regular flow of discourse and sow the seeds of chaos and confusion in the reader’s mind.
Don’t take our word for it. According to Google Trends data, the phenomenon of shitposting hit its apex around the buildup to the 2016 presidential election. You remember, that spike in bellicose nationalism, the first meme president, a victory built on the back of angry dudes on reddit and 4chan.
It was the first time in human history, arguably, when basically everybody had a voice and a platform to express their feelings about an important world event. Previously, this ability was limited to people with newspaper columns, or TV shows. People for whom editorial standards actually mattered.
During the 2016 election – and ever since, to be fair – anybody with a passing competence at MS paint and a Facebook profile was able to wade into – and even alter the course of – world history.
Shitposting isn’t just memes, of course. It can be as simple as a stupid comment on a local Facebook group. The point isn’t making a point. The point is disruption. Unleashing chaos. Gumming up the wheels of discourse, for the sheer hell of it.
In the UK, reputable newspaper The Financial Times described shitposting as ‘posting ostentatiously inane and contextless content to an online forum or social network with the effect of derailing discussion’, and went on to huffily cite the example of progressive Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson.
Jo Swinson was forced to deny, on the actual evening news, that she had killed squirrels for kicks, after a (shitpost) story emerged about her doing exactly that.
SHITPOSTING AND DADA
Is there an historical precedent? You bet.
The Dadaists – we’ve talked about them before – were a loose collective of post World War I artists who used absurdity as a deliberate weapon to challenge the establishment status quo.
It’s worth quoting founder member Tristan Tzara’s 1918 Dada Manifesto, because it really chimes with the modern shitposting movement:
‘Let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean.
‘Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness, aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits, who rend one another and destroy the centuries.
‘Without aim or design, without organization: indomitable madness, decomposition.’