To get a sense of how deeply the death of activist Heather Heyer in Charlottesville has penetrated the national consciousness, try making sense of this: A Facebook group devoted entirely to the creation of memes that reference the hit ’90s sitcom Seinfeld is tearing itself apart over jokes about her murder.
Any attempt to understand the debate must define the function this group is meant to serve. “Seinfeld shitposting,” while 40,000 members strong, is but a single offshoot of a sprawling and Balkanized shitposting culture that stretches from one end of the internet to the other. Even within the realm of shitposting clubs devoted to classic TV series, you can find “Fraiser shitposting,” “Sopranos shitposting,” “Twin Peaks LogPosting®®,” and, in an indication of what this aesthetic is all about, “Infowars.com Proudly Presents Simpsons Shitposting™.” These pages, which fall under the general banner of Weird Facebook, notably diverge from the tradition of shitposting as it’s understood on forums like Reddit and 4chan; in that hemisphere, a shitpost is just plain garbage, the contribution of any idiot or troll who, deliberately or not, derails a discussion with irrelevant, incoherent shit. It is a product of indifference to the community’s priorities and expectations. To paraphrase the film Billy Madison: You are dumber for having read it.
By comparison, TV-based shitposting is an art. The idea is to remix the source material as a meme, preferably of low technical quality, relying on the self-selected audience’s obsessive knowledge of the show and other pop culture touchstones to deliver an in-joke accessible only to fans. Here, for example, is the pinned Seinfeld shitpost — kind of an entry-level groaner, but useful for illustrating the baseline activity on the page:
This is a pretty straightforward mashup: In the Seinfeld episode “The Seven,” George Costanza sets off an argument with his fiancée by telling her that he wants to name their first child “Seven.” One of the main characters in Stranger Things is named Eleven. The pleasure of the shitpost, such as it is, lies in a recognition of this near-synchronicity.
So, how did the Seinfeld shitposters get to the subject of Charlottesville? Like this:
Much as Twitter users connect real-life scenes of fitting reversals and regrettable awkwardness to Curb Your Enthusiasm’s clownish theme song, this shitpost attempts to frame the fatal Charlottesville car attack as a freeze-frame at the end of a Seinfeld episode, when things have once again gone awry. The post drew complaints for its insensitivity, with at least one member reporting it as offensive to Facebook, which ultimately deleted it. “Brosef Learyfinger” and a trollish faction of the group pushed back, arguing that this callous approach is the essence of shitposting. The image resurfaced in comment threads, and somebody one-upped the original by Photoshopping the car’s license plate to read “ASSMAN,” in a reference to the episode “The Fusilli Jerry.”
Then came a few memes that put Seinfeld characters and actors behind the wheel. Some of these, too, were deleted following complaints, which angered the creators.
We also saw shitposts that broadly addressed (or made light of) white nationalism. No surprise, as the group occasionally invokes Kramer actor Michael Richards’ notorious racist outburst at a comedy club in 2006, while conspiracist Alex Jones had argued that right-wing violence was the deceptive work of Jewish actors, lobbing the bizarre claim that “a lot of the KKK guys with their hats off look like they’re from the cast of Seinfeld.” (Curiously, no one made the connection between the Charlottesville chaos and Steve Bannon, the Trump adviser most associated with the racist ideology at its center, who also happens to have reaped a couple million dollars off Seinfeld’s syndication.)
Especially when it came to shitposts that appropriated imagery of vehicular slaughter, a subset of users protested. The resulting spats had the flavor of the political mudslinging you see all over Facebook but veered into squabbles over the definition of “shitposting,” the problematic points of Seinfeld, and the rules of comedy itself.
While some critics lamented that Charlottesville memes were popping up on just about every shitposting page, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Over at the Simpsons shitposting forum, the current hot trend is inserting the cartoon cat Pusheen into various scenes, which feels about as far as you can get from the cataclysm unfolding in the Seinfeld group.
At its roots, this war reflects how a sense of humor is refracted by political affiliation — and how the laughs of Seinfeld rest on a faultline between the hard left and hard right. (Among other topics of the scattered feud is whether communists are as bad as Nazis.) If you’re in the Trump camp, it’s funny to “trigger” people by crossing unspoken lines, and you adhere to the 4chan ideal of shitposting, which holds offense as a primary objective; for you, Seinfeld is great because it portrays the machinations of shallow, morally bankrupt people. Liberals are more enamored of the show’s existential thrust: It’s “about nothing,” and it dissects the million quotidian annoyances of modern life. Therefore, Seinfeld memes should be less about transgression than observation, the hallmark of Jerry Seinfeld’s clean-cut, almost totally innocent standup routines.
The administrators give scant guidance on this matter, which no doubt adds to the furor. Regarding offensive content, they ask users to alert them, not Facebook, in order to accelerate removal. But they’re more preoccupied with keeping people on-topic than policing tone. “KEEP THE CONTENT ON PAR WITH SEINFELD AND SEINFELD TOPICS,” they say. “Using the excuse ‘its a shitposting page’ to justify trolling or off topic content, is circular logic, and we won’t be having that.” And when someone posted a video spliced with 9/11 footage so that George appears to hit a baseball into the World Trade Center, commenters were only pissed that they’d seen it before. “Fuck outta here with this repost,” wrote one. Clearly, the old-school shitposters are in control here.
Is there a place on the web for those who prefer the wholesome Seinfeld shitposts? Perhaps. Yet even the Twitter parody @Seinfeld2000 is struggling to find the amusing side of 2017. Increasingly, one is forced to concede that bringing 20-year-old TV shows to bear on the news of the day can taint and spoil their time-capsule purity — that our toxic climate infects all things. If Donald Trump, basically a shitpost incarnate, is dragging us down into the mud, then so will shitposts revert to old forms that have little to do with hilarity or wit. Each will be just another turd on this gigantic pile of shit.