Greg Capetty is 45, separated, lives in Livonia, Michigan, and works at Roonys Pizza and Pop. His social world is limited to his coworkers and his son, Jordan. Once, at a gas station, a woman named Crystal approached him as he was “picking up a cracker or chip,” and asked him out. Before their date, Crystal left a bouquet of red roses at Greg’s door, and Greg posted a picture of the flowers to Facebook. During their first date, Crystal made anda bhurji, which Greg described as “like scrambled eggs but makes your mouth hurt more.” At some point during their “whorl wind” romance, Crystal posted to Greg’s Facebook:
***AHEM-HEM*** Greg’s going to be a little busssssy for awhile and doesn’t need silly distractions. He only gets his phone back IF he’s a good boy, if you meow my drift…
Crystal’s guest status got 49 likes, becoming one of Greg’s most successful posts to date, and signaled a new level of engagement with the profile’s fans, which is what we were, really, because Greg Capetty is a fictional character who exists only as a Facebook profile. Welcome to Weird Facebook, an unlikely community on an unlikely platform.
The term “Weird Facebook” is fast becoming synonymous with Facebook pages dedicated to posting ironic memes — some of which, like Bernie Sanders’s Dank Meme Stash and I play KORN to my DMT plants, smoke blunts all day & do sex stuff, can clock over 100,000 followers. New York Magazine called them home to “thousands of the web’s most innovative weirdos,” while the Daily Dot called them “fodder for the guy you bought weed from in high school.” These larger groups often act like fan pages: One or a handful of admins make and post the memes for subscribers to like and share. But the delight of Weird Facebook is the network itself, which spills beyond these Facebook groups to the feeds of many of their members. “Dank Meme Stash” is only one realization of a vital and much more expansive sensibility. Weird Facebook lives in the posts that a loose community of artists, writers, weirdos and depressives make on their personal accounts and in conversation with each other. A genre emerges in these personal posts, something like a combination of performance art and comedy, and uniquely Facebookian: The art is in the performance of self, real or fictional or some combination thereof, with the depth and scope that a full profile, photo album and Timeline can allow.
The characters involved — or the most successful ones, the ones that spawn imitators and summon haters — are big, uncomplicated, and consistent, in a way that belies just a notch more brand awareness than an actual personality. Honey Martin is a vulnerable, hilarious 21-year-old woman who lives in New York and will post about plucking a huge hair from her neck as soon as a flattering selfie of her new haircut, with no shirt on. Rachel Bell, a poet in Chicago, plays the working-class ingénue and girl next door who’s as open about her sexual trauma as she is about her karaoke playlist. Heiko Julien is the reformed troll who engages more sincerely these days but is still kind of an ass.* The pleasure of Weird Facebook is as a petri dish of social dynamics and a real-time reality show you can mainline directly from your News Feed.
If you’re going rogue, an error message will ask, “Do you know this person outside of Facebook?” As a result, Facebook encourages strangers in a strange scene to think of themselves as friends
The Weird Facebook community lives in the personal profiles of the kind of high-status individuals described above, who act as hubs, and whose posts — rather than the kinds of kitchen-sink “this is what I did today” or “this is what I’m thinking about right now” posts that tend to dominate normal Facebook — act more like little poems, or statements, or reports from a more inner world, and are mostly meant to stand alone. The comment threads within these posts act as places to see and be seen, via riffing and/or trolling. Weird Facebook also lives in thousands of groups much smaller than the typical meme page, with memberships in the hundreds and a flatter hierarchy between member and admin. These groups are named after made-up micro-aesthetics like #SANDPUNK and “Think About the Ocean” that mean nothing at first; the membership — total strangers, mostly, until they’re not — creates the meaning. The privacy is often members-only, and posting in them is usually more about feeling like part of something than creating shareable content. The creators of Weird Facebook, by and large, are not trying to “make it,” but rather to make each other happy.
All good art is a mix of innovation and structure. But Facebook art has no fixed form, only a stable goal: to please a fixed audience. The ways that people please each other vary and evolve; figuring out new ways to get likes becomes the focus of innovation. If this sounds strange, think of Tolstoy’s definition of art: any form of human communication refined by attention, intention, and practice. Weird Facebook artists are merely early adopters in the ever-evolving progression from new technology — language, paint, video cameras — to art tool. And Facebook has produced a new kind of artist.
II: Facebook as Setting
Where I live, in Toronto, I’m a peripheral spectator to a community sometimes called “the Double Double Land scene,” which revolves around the eponymous art venue and a few other galleries and spaces in the same neighborhood run by people who all know each other. The scene has porous boundaries, open to anyone who learns the language. The art ranges from performance art to painting to music, video, and comedy, and shares a kind of family resemblance. Any individual work is arguably less important than the people involved and their relationships with each other. The scene is small; few outside Toronto and not even that many within Toronto will ever see the work. But for those who create it, the work is very real, with real consequences, and knowing that you’ll have an audience to impress gives you a reason to create. Weird Facebook is similar. Plenty of members aren’t trying to reach anyone outside of their immediate circle, but those who do, like those Double Double Land artists who tour and show and get written up internationally, tend to keep one foot in the local scene, because that’s where all their friends are and that’s where they live.
Facebook is still, after a half-decade of death forecasts, the entry-level social network — as New York Magazine pointed out, it’s “where everyone already is.” The platform was initially designed to connect people who knew each other already, or might bump into each other soon, and site guidelines still reflect that. If its algorithms sense you’re going rogue, an error message will ask, “Do you know this person outside of Facebook?” As a result, unlike Tumblr, which is designed to allow anonymity, and Twitter, where following is nonreciprocal, the national culture of Facebook encourages even strangers in a self-consciously strange scene to think of themselves as friends. Anyone can see what you looked like in 2007, and a message from a stranger will show up in between messages from your best friend and your mom. This makes the content more character-based — a user’s past and present are available, and sometimes required, for context — and more intimate. Running jokes, call-backs, and self-referentiality are possible in a way that resembles how you talk to your closest friends: Someone like John Trulli (both a single Weird Facebook personality and the admin of the popular meme page Cabbage Cat, before it was deleted) can do a whole “series” of memes on Bagel Bites that would make no sense at all if you didn’t know he’d had a confrontation with that company months earlier.
Weird Facebook is a product of the intersection of a wide array of internet micro-scenes: 4chan, VampireFreaks, alt lit, net art, Hipster Runoff, vaporwave, Reddit, popserial.net, dump.fm, Ello, rhizome.org, 4chan’s /b, Feminist Frequency, and the fan communities of Macintosh Plus and Yung Lean. (My way into the scene was through alt lit, and groups like People Who Write Poetry Sometimes and Are Also Poor.) Some users trace the seeds as far back as 2010; in any case, the community gained momentum throughout 2014 and 2015, when controversies like the rape scandals that disintegrated alt lit and the Gamergate debacle that turned a lot of people off Reddit caused the more progressive members to come together in the one space they already shared: Facebook. But whereas a handful of people I spoke to had highly developed Weird Facebook origin stories, many had no idea where the scene came from, and often were only hazily aware of themselves as being part of a scene at all. “Weird Facebook?” said Mei Shi, an artist in Philadelphia with whom I have 500 mutual friends (my only and best metric for determining someone’s involvement). “Is that like doggo memes?” Corey Holmes, a 21-year-old chef at a restaurant in Houston and a popular personality said, “Yeah, I’ve heard of it. Remind me what it is?”
What would be a really boring short film can be a really funny livestream; the form is so easy to consume that we’re not annoyed at clichés
This cluelessness is actually integral to the scene’s culture. The fact that joining is as easy as sending friend requests to the people involved and just letting their content slowly take over your News Feed means that, for an art community, the barrier of entry is incredibly low. Some people take it very seriously; some people have been cultivating their audience for years. But randos don’t need to know any of this. Anyone can just wander in off the street, walk onto the stage, and start singing. And if they’re good, heads will turn, and because Facebook’s algorithm rewards popularity with popularity, a new voice can emerge overnight.
A.W., for example, through his blunt, untrendy opinionating on everything from video games to white people, became notorious enough to gain “a small core of hardcore adherents, then a slightly weaker ring of sycophants,” and then an outer ring of “spectators,” many of whom “probably resent me a bit.” Before any of this, A.W. had a single IRL friend involved in Weird Facebook; he just started adding the people whose names he’d see in his friend’s comment threads. Rax King, who lived in Philadelphia at her Weird Facebook peak but now lives in New York, stumbled onto the scene through Ideas, a public megagroup on Facebook which is not really part of Weird Facebook — it’s more of a “normal” place, where people unironically talk about the subject in the group’s name. One night, King posted, “Idea: Men are bad at sex.” In a matter of hours she was flooded with friend requests from all corners of the Weird Facebook world, which is always ready to welcome like sensibilities.
The constant influx of randos to an otherwise relatively stable community makes for a fast-evolving environment. So does the fact that Facebook is a flexible platform: It has most of the functionality of Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr, and is constantly being remade to grab more of our minutes per day. As soon as Facebook Live debuted, for example, it became a new site of pranking and experimenting: The livestream deemphasizes the photographic or cinematographic choices that would normally be important in video art and emphasizes the choice of when and what to livestream. What would be a really boring short film can be a really funny livestream, like a slow pan of warehouse workplace that leads to some papers being shredded. The form is so easy to consume that we’re not annoyed at clichés, and so new combinations of old tropes can be exciting. A talented mind with something to show off but no access to traditional art or publishing or performance venues — and perhaps without the ambition or know-how to claw their way into those venues — can find themselves with a readymade audience. All this immigration keeps the work fresh and the competition fierce. Even the most established personalities can find themselves forced to reinvent their game or become obsolete.
III: Pop Artists
The text-only status update, the selfie (captioned or uncaptioned), the meme, the ironic share, the snap-like video update, the livestream, and even the long series of links to existing pages and groups, which has become a signature Weird Facebook in-joke — these are the forms available to the Weird Facebook artist. In contrast to this diversity of form, however, there is a relatively stable sensibility: emotional, manic, critical (but usually with oneself as the target); fatalistic, inward-turning. The best glassware for this cocktail is, again, something like a hybrid of a comedian and performance artist. Honey Martin and Corey Holmes are both masters of this form: hilarious and consistently exhibitionist. If you follow them, you follow the turns their lives take, and you feel like you know them. The details from life deepen the comedy, and the comedy is the honey that attracts you to the character. This formulation works best for the platform, because jokes and selfies and serialized life updates are what people like on Facebook, and the engine of Facebook art is like-chasing — the point is to appeal to as many friends, and friends of friends, as possible. That which gets likes wins, and becomes the standard-bearer.
Take Rachel Bell, whose Facebook career best illustrates the art of acquisition. Nominally a poet, Bell’s real genius is for the massively liked Facebook post — her first two books were compilations of her statuses. It’s nothing for her to get 300 likes on a flashy, funny, finely wrought little story accompanied by a relevant (or not) selfie. Last Christmas she posted a pic of an unremarkable college bro flashing the peace sign with the caption “downloaded tinder to find someone to sell me weed and well it’s a christmas miracle because this dude rode a hoverboard to my aunt’s house lmao” — a perfect storm of memes and references and low-key titillation mixed into a basically heartwarming tale — and got 617 likes. To see Bell evolve over the years is to see a highly responsive creator creating highly responsively, using the immediate feedback loop that Facebook provides to develop her work and its presentation. Her very pointed selfie-memes are funny and rebellious and elliptically political; they also capitalize on her physical beauty, not because that’s what she’s most proud of or what she wants her “thing” to be, but because that’s where the likes are, and she’s a “like” artist.
Just as Stefani Germanotta’s sensi piano ballads transformed into Lady Gaga’s club bangers, art tempered by the force of the “like” market can be a perfect union of selfishness and selflessness
Despite the difference in scale, Facebook “like” art is essentially the art of the pop star. Incomers’ idiosyncrasies and indulgences are tempered by the force of the like market. Just as you see Stefani Germanotta’s sensi piano ballads transform into Lady Gaga’s club bangers, so you see Bell’s early Nabokov references give way to her makeup tutorials. This might seem like pandering, but the flip side is that it’s a form of generosity: you’re literally giving people what they want. If you gain acclaim at the same time, as all entertainers know, it’s a perfect union of selfishness and selflessness.
Something else is drawn from today’s pop star, too: In the same way that Beyoncé documents her every waking moment and releases documentaries about her life, and DJ Khaled gives us a never-ending backstage pass to his life through his snaps, the artists of Weird Facebook package themselves as a kind of “friend experience.” On the surface, a Weird Facebook artist’s output might not seem that different from what a comedian on Twitter or TV provides, but the “total personality experience” of the non-funny stuff — the bed selfies, the sincere posts, the minor breakdowns; everything your real Facebook friends are doing — sets the overall performance apart as its own genre: It provides the entertainment we look to celebrities for, while offering the intimacy, by way of 360-degree mundanity, of an actual friendship. As Andy O’Leary, another comedian/performance-artist who takes their Facebook content seriously, says, “I basically treat it like a show where I’m the showrunner, writer, and star.”
IV: Non-Ambitious Motivations
Some of these artists have “made it.” Bell tours around the country constantly. Like Bell’s early poetry books, the first ebook by Heiko Julien comprises Facebook or Facebook-like content; it has been downloaded 50,000 times. Alfred English, a DJ/producer/graphic designer in Los Angeles who works the same territory as Bell, sells his beats for $200 a pop on his Facebook page and gets recognized as “that meme guy” around Los Angeles. John Trulli used his Facebook success as a jumping off point to get his start on Instagram, where, as Cabbage Cat, he now has almost 200,000 followers.
As a rule, however, Weird Facebook success does not generally translate into success on any larger stage. And this is how an interestingly large number of members like it: Like-chasing is not the same as fame-chasing. There is a contingent who view their Facebook popularity as a step on the path to bigger things, but as many just want approval and validation from a small inner circle, and actively spurn contact with a larger audience.
Rax King, who blew up because of “Idea: Men are bad at sex,” got so popular at one point that strangers were messaging her asking for advice on their personal problems. “I was like, I don’t know why you’re asking me these questions,” she said. “I’m just someone who likes to crack jokes on the internet.” A.W., for whom Facebook “got weird,” did not like the experience of being well-known either. “When a lot of people pay attention to you, you can be the target of some unsavory characters,” he says. “I don’t want that.” Lacey Day, who was well-known (as “Lazy Daze”) in the scene a couple years back and at one point put out “a couple of poetry scrapbooks on Scribd,” has since scaled down her involvement. She is now working toward a chemical engineering degree, and in a relationship. “I used to have a lot of free time,” she says.
Talking with other popular Weird Facebook personalities, I was struck by the discrepancy between how hard they clearly work at their content and how often they claimed to have no interest in being known by more people: It seems strange to shoot for stardom on a semi-private platform, working as hard as any self-styled artist in a medium barely acknowledged to be an art forum. “My real art is poetry, but I can never get it right,” says Rax King, who supplements her jokes with an impeccable and labor-intensive selfie game that shows a twist of brand consciousness. She has never published a poem.
This raises the question: Does Facebook present a new way to do art, or is it a sort of art karaoke? Is each post a creative act, or is it a single unit of giving up? Maybe it’s both, or something other. “I do not consider my Facebook content as art,” says Daneil Ian, whose day job is delivering clinical equipment throughout a large hospital in London. “But I do treat each thing as I would a piece of writing/poetry. As in, I value it just as much, if not more, because I know people will see it.” The difference might be semantic: It’s as if people like Ian hear the word “art” and attach the phrase “for a gallery,” and don’t want to be mistaken for Amalia Ulman. But people often make art for the same reasons they frequent social media, and many, if not most self-identified artists, are creating for an audience. Having an instant, readymade audience is not just an ego boost — it summons your creative, performative energies, even if the performance is not what you envision your work to be. “I’ve connected with folk all over the world just by being myself,” Ian says proudly, sounding very much like an artist.
Immanent art is everyday art. It holds your hair back from the toilet and asks of you little or nothing
Ashley Kennett, who lives outside Detroit and has issues with depression and anxiety that keep her mostly unemployed, said she doesn’t feel like she works on her posts. “It’s more of a compulsion to me. That is my motivation a lot of the time, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t dependent on it as a quick self-esteem boost. The likes can be powerful in that way. I like that I have an interactive way of getting some of the shit that’s in my head out.” Honey Martin was sexually assaulted regularly as a child, and during her teen years was thrown out of her home by her mother and was suicidal, prone to self-harm, and heard voices. “I don’t rely on Facebook,” she says, “but I feel there’s people on here that rely on me, you know? Nobody helped me when I needed it, and I want to tell them that they can get through anything.”
It makes sense that creative people in bad situations aren’t in expansion or acquisition mode. Social acquisition, or climbing, which is what making art for strangers is — it’s trying to reach people you haven’t secured yet — is easier, Maslow-wise, with a more stable base. For Alfred English, who makes personally-branded memes about himself and performs his persona as slickly as anyone, Weird Facebook can feel like hanging out at Hot Topic with your friends when you were 14. Compared to other social networks, where “you just watch your numbers go up,” referring to followers, in Weird Facebook “real shit happens and we can discuss it in full.” For many users, being in this scene is as much about building relationships as getting noticed, but you have to be noticed to make new friends. These modest aims have emergent properties, and one is art.
V: Unintended Art
Like conceptions of God, art can be split into the transcendent and the immanent: Transcendent art evokes the limits of human experience and sometimes requires caffeine, a full night’s sleep, and for you to do some of the work. It is not your friend; it’s your challenger, and it stands above you, asking you to reach for it. Sans Soleil, Robert Ashley’s “In Sara Mencken, Christ and Beethoven there were men & women,” and Ulysses are examples. There’s no denying how good — transcendent, even — this kind of art can be, but real human beings are rarely in the mood for it. Immanent art, on the other hand, is everyday art. It holds your hair back from the toilet and makes you laugh when you’re your worst self, and asks of you little or nothing; yet it can be every bit as good as transcendent art. Hyperbole and a Half, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and Transparent are all highly consumable and immensely good. Weird Facebook, to me, is immanent art.
Weird Facebook art is a collaboration between the individual and the crowd. There are many talented creators in the scene, including all the ones I’ve named in this piece, but it’s the aggregate effect of the whole News Feed that produces the feeling of the intimate, funny artwork — the algorithm, responding to what I like best, creates the perfect world for me. In this way, Weird Facebook operates like a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, where thousands of people pursue different goals but follow the same rules in the same world — only, instead of waging martial campaigns, players build an aesthetic together.
Take the Facebook group “soft negi,” which exists as a repository for thoughts and observations of things “softly negative” — an aesthetic unique enough that it spurs a pleasantly active half-collaborative, half-competitive conversation/competition of updates by a bunch of random strangers connected only by their having stumbled onto the group. Any individual post is simple enough (“When another trans girl compliments the small stature of yr junk and like… o” or “I ran into an old v close friend who kinda made me feel shitty in a lot of ways at the craft store she works at”), and at first glance seem to present no problem of interpretation. But step back and look at the whole group, and it becomes clear that although the individual statuses themselves are perhaps not notable, the cumulative effect of reading them has the effect of any important work of art: It gives you a new appreciation for an aspect of existence, and makes you see the world in a different way.
Weird Facebook, then, is a macro version of one of those micro-aesthetic groups: one big swamp of perfect conditions for content creation, where the momentum of the scene, the context, is at least as responsible for the work as the individuals. As a teen loops bar chords, a tradition can eclipse the artist; the environment takes on a life of its own, and produces feelings perhaps unintended by any one individual. Like the sentient ocean in Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, the movements of the scene, the replication and propagation of memes and the mutations of in-jokes, all modulated by Facebook’s algorithm, can feel like an enormous, amorphous mass of ambiguous consciousness that makes elaborate, alien patterns of great beauty. A great beauty that will hold your hair back from the toilet.
*This line was amended on August 20, 2016, to correct a statement made in error.