There are few feelings more uncomfortable and alienating than explaining a shitpost to somebody who is unfamiliar with shitposting. How can context-less images — of skeletons with brass instruments, frogs on unicycles, moths, and most recently, the outright banning of the letter “N”, aka the “forbiddem glyph,” from the online lexicon — entertain without presenting anything remotely reminiscent of a joke?
Generally, social media share-bait images follow the same rules of humor that other jokes do: They make an audience expect something, then turn that expectation on its head. Classic image-macro templates like Advice Dog, Success Kid, and Courage Wolf are clear examples of this formula, inspiring an expectation with the top line, before shattering that expectation with the bottom line.
Which brings us to the letter N.
Explaining the forbiddem glyph is nowhere near as simple as breaking down the anatomy of a joke, because there is no joke to be found. The letter N is simply disgustimg and meeds to be stricken from the ammals of history. Get it?
That’s where the gag begins and ends. Popular meme templates like Dat Boi and H-posting follow this shallow template, too. Completely absurd and devoid of context, the posts are funny, shareable, and engaging. The pure pointlessness earned the practice the title of “shitposting.”
According to Google Trends data, shitposting became an internet trend around 2014, spiking sometime around the 2016 presidential election and gaining popularity ever since. That time marked the start of a period of upheaval in our country, a spike in nationalism, acceleration in the growth of the wage gap as well as wage stagnation and a growing population of young people frustrated by their surroundings.
There’s an unlikely historical parallel to the moment: World War I-era Europe. To simplify, in the late 1910s, as the war neared its end, nationalism spiked as the bourgeois class was protected from the wartime turmoil that ravaged the working classes. This persisted even after the war, most notably in Germany, where post-war nationalism was reaching a boiling point. This atmosphere eventually led to the rise of the Weimar Republic.
Interestingly enough, as a response to all of this — the lack of upward mobility both socially and economically, the decay of human rights, the rise of nationalism — a small group of artists formed in Switzerland and, in essence, started to shitpost.
Visually, the “Dada movement” is hard to pin down. The whole point is that there’s no real guiding principle for the art other than the fact that it needs to stand staunchly opposed to any kind of established norms of composition. The only difference between the water fountain and a mundane piece of Dadaist art on display, a dad visiting any modern art museum around the world might joke, is a plaque and a multi-million dollar price tag.
But that was part of the point of the Dada movement: there’s no discernible artistic difference between, say, a urinal turned upside down and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Not that there’s anything special about the toilet itself, but instead that there’s no inherent value in the more traditionally acclaimed works, not when the world itself is so harsh and unforgiving.
Marcel Duchamp, perhaps the world’s most well-known Dadaist, championed this point of view with his concept of “readymades”. He used this term to refer to mass-produced household goods that, in his view, only needed somebody’s signature slapped on it in order to be considered worthy of display in a museum. This is why there’s an upside-down toilet next to an original Picasso at the Tate Modern in London. The thinking was that a shitty world deserves shitty art.
According to the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara, the beginnings of the movement came not out of a desire to make art, but out of a profound disgust with the world. Dadaist works would be confusing, context-free pieces that, specifically because they were so absurd, were seen as revolutionary works both artistically and politically. A society that victimizes its own most vulnerable elements doesn’t deserve context, humor, or decadence, the artists insisted. That society instead deserves nonsense.
The parallels between Dada works of the early 20th century and today’s shitposting come even further into focus upon digging deeper into the problematic aspects of both. The cultural rage that birthed Dadaism and, later, shitposting, has a darker side as well. Dadaism itself played host to plenty of problematic elements, chief among them the way their artists approached race. Though when the movement started, Dadaists defined their own movement as staunchly anti-racist and anti-sexist, the way in which they romanticized and engaged with non-European cultures was ham-handed and lacking in understanding at best, and at worst, actively contributed to the attitude that people from other cultures were something other than human.
Having said that, to hear it from the mouths of the artists that made up the movement, this was never their intention. In Dada Manifesto, Hugo Ball lays out the movement’s anti-art goals and principles (if you can even call them that) in the purest form. Not only that, it also reads like a reposted Tumblr thread at times:
How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop. Dada is the world’s best lily-milk soap
Why can’t a tree be called Pluplusch, and Pluplubasch when it has been raining? The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance.
Modern shitposting could be considered a neo-neo-Dadaist movement (there was already one short-lived neo-Dada movement in the 1950s). Society is in a similar state of upheaval, while members of the most marginalized communities find themselves disgusted by rising nationalism, crushing poverty and incessant attacks on human rights. The difference now is that the internet has turned everybody into a content creator.
Anybody with MS Paint can create a meme in less than an hour no matter their artistic ability. Beyond that, anybody with an internet connection can search through stock photo sites for any number of ridiculous images to post without context, an evolution of Marcel Duchamp’s original idea of readymade art. In theory, we don’t deserve cute cats, funny jokes or any content that could be considered understandable by anybody. By shitposting standards, Twitter and Facebook deserve to drown in a horrific sea of single-humped Ms.
And just like the Dada movement sometimes expressed itself in ways that were horribly racist, shitposting can be harmful as well. As the original counter-cultural message of the Dada movement faded, many more problematic contemporaries started cropping up. In the same way, a variety of Extremely Online communities have co-opted popular shitposting templates to serve their own purposes, either to spread messages of hate speech, harass vocal members of marginalized communities with whom they disagree, or to spam social media threads they find unsavory into oblivion.
The irony of twisting shitpost templates in a way that runs completely counter to their original intent (and in a way that, in adding context and content, necessarily makes these posts not shitposts at all) does nothing to lessen the horrific impact of the online harassment that they cause. At the end of the day, there’s not much that content creators can actually do to stop horrible people from co-opting their content and twisting it short of suing everyone — just ask the creator of Pepe.
The artists behind the Dada movement predicted this type of response to their art. As soon as Dadaism gained enough international renown to become recognizable (and therefore imitable), the phrase “Dada is dead, long live Dada,” as coined by Tristan Tzara, became a rallying cry for artists. The movement petered out quickly; by 1922, most of the movement’s artists had moved on to Surrealism, Absurdism or one of the countless other art movements that Dadaism inspired. The movement’s artists showed little if any loyalty to this insanely influential movement they had created.
Tristan Tzara’s 1918 Dada Manifesto lays out a pretty convincing argument as to why: the Dada movement was rooted in destruction, and the artists that considered themselves to be part of that movement engaged in a form of self-annihilation because the entire world was broken.
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.
So where does that leave us and the forbiddem single-humped M?
The Dada movement did not “sweep and clean” the culture, given Germany in the aftermath of World War I, and shitposting likely won’t cure a creeping sense of hopelessness, whether it’s due to economic strife, political anxiety or rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. But on the internet, shitposting has already achieved its aim. The intent is not to entertain by eliciting any kind of positive emotion in an audience, the goal is to make an audience so confused at the lack of content that they laugh or smile.
As horrific as the single-humped M is, it is the product of a harsh world, just like the most intricate pieces of Dada art. Perhaps sometime soon, we’ll finally again be worthy of memes with context, of jokes with obvious humor, of image macros that are understandable. Political change could give our lomg bois, our roumd friemds, our moths, our car salesmen, and our bad graphics frogs on unicycles a future where they have deep backstories and rich, layered, multi-part jokes to tell. For now, banning the forbiddem glyph is part of the revolution.
Sam Greszes is a writer and podcaster currently based in Chicago. He has written for internationally distributed print publications such as ION Magazine and prominent websites like Eater, UPROXX, Kill Screen, and Thrillist for over a decade. He also thinks he can beat you in a thumb-wrestling match, but he’s probably wrong.