Earlier this year, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a "major overhaul" of the platform's algorithm. Under fire from the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament, the European Parliament and the Indian parliament — to name just a few — on accusations that ranged from data mining to proliferating fake news that endangered the very nature of democracy, Zuckerberg said that Facebook's main priority was "meaningful relationships."
"The balance of what's in the News Feed has shifted away from the most important thing Facebook can do — help us connect with each other," he wrote in a Facebook post in January. "We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren't just fun to use, but also good for people's well-being."
Around the same time that Zuckerberg announced this pivot to salvage the utopic dreams of Facebook, around 30 people on the platform were trying to figure out whether SpongeBob had genitals. They were members of a now defunct group called "Poststructuralist Moms Against Shitposting," a fairly niche community that tended to talk mainly about the philosopher Michel Foucault, applying his theories to contemporary pop culture — usually either The Simpsons or SpongeBob Squarepants. The thread had gone on for weeks, as members tried to anatomically prove the existence of SpongeBob having a penis from stills of various episodes, or cross-referencing SpongeBob with other characters in the show. No answer was ever reached, according to members of the group, other than SpongeBob "shouldn't have his sexuality measured by the mendacity of Westernised sexual frustration."
"Poststructuralist Moms Against Shitposting" was just one of the thousands of groups known as "Weird Facebook." Some other examples you might have seen in your feed: "Sounds Like This Post Is Going to Be Evidence in a Future Legal Case But Ok," "This Fills Me With A Rage I Immediately Anticipated" and "I Would Like to Die After Viewing This Content." For the most part, the groups — some of which have thousands of subscribers — are a space where members can be funny, post videos and fan art and spend endless hours debating the mundane minutiae of pop culture, without freaking out people on their Facebook feeds or getting muted on Twitter.
Evan, a 28-year-old private finance broker in New York, is a big fan of these groups. "I must be a member of at least 80," he tells me over Skype. Evan first stumbled onto the groups when he saw a friend had joined one called "Implying We Can Discuss Music." "I assumed it was just a normal music page, and I thought I'd join so I could get recommendations of new albums or things to listen to." Instead, Evan found himself in a place where members would frequently get roasted for their poor taste in music — with Nickelback videos, with obscure memes and with more Nickelback videos. "They'd just take the piss out of dudes who don't shut up about Pink Floyd, or the ones who get mad whenever someone plays Lil Wayne."
Evan vows the group is among the most unique places on social media and "the few fun places that I look forward to checking out every day." As such, Evan ended up joining a bunch of other groups that "Implying We Can Discuss Music" members recommended. "I joined groups that would specifically make fun of white guys in Brooklyn who all think they're film critics; a couple of Dark Souls shitposting groups; and a group where everyone just posts and rates pictures of dogs that they see."
For him at least, being part of these groups isn't just a way to ignore Facebook's typical stream of endless engagement announcements, vacation photos and political arguments, it's also "a way to relax and laugh. These groups are genuinely one of the only good parts of the platform. Honestly, they're the only reason I haven't left yet."
Weird Facebook dates back to at least 2014, when, as the Daily Dot describes, it largely comprised of meme-based groups that could be best described as "David Lynch and Yung Lean [projecting] their consciousnesses into social media." The groups usually had names like "Stick Memes" and "Haha What," where users posted "bizarre, distorted images with nonsensical captions, all set within a world obsessed with obscure video games, crappy computer graphics, outdated operating systems and Danny DeVito. Pages are built around vague themes — skeletons, birds, sticks — but there's little incentive to stick to the script. Admins basically post whatever makes them laugh."
At the same time, Weird Facebook has also largely associated with progressive politics, which, on the platform, is referred to as "Leftbook." Mic has reported how many of these super-niche interest groups often employ a screening process, including asking questions like:
- "How many genders are there?"
- "Is reverse racism real?"
- "Is there a gender wage gap?"
To the group admins I spoke to, who didn't want to be named, the process "was there to weed out alt-right assholes and people who are just there to doxx our members, and put them on their fascist hit list websites." Some of the admins say that the screening process itself wasn't totally adequate — "people can (and do) lie all the time, especially if you're obsessed by anyone even remotely liberal" — but that it was pretty easy to spot who was/wasn't genuine. As another administrator tells me over Facebook messenger: "You'll have guys with fucking NRA symbols as their avatar, who've liked alt-right pages, post some copy-paste answer about trans people that they just expect will work."
In reinventing Facebook, groups have become a core part of Zuckerberg's strategy. Last June, as the platform was still reeling from criticism suggesting it was responsible for the election of Donald Trump, it held its first Communities Summit in Chicago. There, it was announced that Facebook would be giving new tools for group administrators to cultivate their communities, and would make groups more open and visible on news feeds. To Zuckerberg, this was at the core of Facebook's mission: "[To] give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together."
For some of Weird Facebook's most active members, however, this runs directly counter to what makes their brand of Facebook so special. "The point is that lots of members found the really weird groups by digging around, finding them three quarters of the way down a giant thread about whether peeing in the shower is activism and shit like that," says Trevor James, 31, a software engineer from Michigan.
Others worry it could put people's safety at risk. "I'm active in a lot of left groups who organize against state repression — whether that's defending people who are going to be evicted, or if someone's about to be arrested and deported," explains Sam, a 24-year-old graduate student, who's an active member of at least 10 Weird Facebook groups largely related to anti-fascism. "Private Facebook groups have been important ways to spread our messages and dispel right-wing lies. We've been able to do that on Facebook because of its privacy settings, and that we're too obscure to be made a big deal of."
Sam first recognized the danger when one group she was a member of showed up in the sidebar of a friend's Facebook account as they were scrolling through pictures of a party they'd attended the night before. "There wasn't an immediate danger, of course," Sam say. "But I was thinking to myself, What if some guy on campus we don't know, who's anti-left of whatever, sees this, and basically has a contacts directory for everyone he hates. What's to stop him from deliberately targeting us — and all just because Facebook sees he's got a mutual connection and thinks we're all friends?"
"Facebook might say it wants to build communities and relationships," Sam adds, "but it still thinks everyone is friends with each other just because they're on the same college campus or work in the same office."
It's this blindspot — a concern that was voiced to me by pretty much everyone I interviewed — that might end up limiting how much Facebook can meaningfully change so long as its aim is to connect as many people as possible. "In a way, [Weird] Facebook groups sort of represent the good ol' days," a group admin says. "The organic communities that form and the friendships that are made over dumb things we've seen and heard. But people only participate when they feel comfortable and secure. That's the thing Facebook doesn't seem to get. It's not about making the groups as big as possible. It's about giving us the space so we can make them a fun place to be."
Hussein Kesvani is MEL's U.K./Europe editor. He last wrote about how teens are flocking to YouTube to study.