It’s week on Mashable. Join us as we take stock of the viral economy and investigate how the internet morphed from a fun free-for-all to a bleak hellscape we just can’t quit.

We are in the golden age of Facebook meme groups. 

Scrolling through my feed has become a stressful, tiresome experience. But in the sea of very lukewarm takes and endless airport check-ins, there are a few beacons of light: spicy meme groups. In these private groups, memes go underground and get weird. 

Incredibly niche meme groups are one of the few redeemable parts of the site — many of the groups, although closed, have thousands of members who all enjoy intensely specific content. Dubbed “Weird Facebook,” the groups’ absurdist humor and stupid jokes brought the social network back from its deathbed. 

New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens (or NUMTOT), is a group for young(ish) people who love accessible public transportation and urbanist policies. I feel personally attacked by this relatable map, is a space for cartography enthusiasts to complain about woefully inaccurate Mercator projections, and the group absolute umits and where to fimd them is a mixed bag of chubby animals and large objects. 

Members of the group I feel personally attacked by this relatable map rejoiced when Google Maps switched to displaying a globe instead of a Mercator projection.

Members of the group I feel personally attacked by this relatable map rejoiced when Google Maps switched to displaying a globe instead of a Mercator projection.

Image: SCREENSHOT/DAVID KLINGER

“I used to like, post statuses pretty frequently but that started happening less and less, especially once I started using Twitter,” Mark Gartsbeyn said over Facebook Messenger. Gartsbeyn is an admin and founder of the group what if phones, but too much (WIPBTM), a 41,000 member-strong community that pokes fun at tired anti-technology tropes. Think making memes about Black Mirror-y “social media is dangerous” sentiments and shitposting about Baby Boomers writing yet another think piece about why Tinder killed love. 

“Falling into the group hole at the end of 2016 at the very least really revitalized my FB experience,” said Gartsbeyn. 

‘There is an exorbitant amount of Spicy Content™ coming from Facebook groups nowadays.’

As Gartsbeyn points out, social media has an exhausting reputation of people “trying to, like, flaunt their best selves and look ‘good’ to other people they know.” 

But do you really care that your high school locker neighbor is just checked in for brunch? Or that your problematic distant cousin has another opinion that just has to be shared? Gartsbeyn says although he doesn’t believe people really flaunt their best selves on Facebook anymore, it wouldn’t happen in private groups anyway. Whether shitposting or discoursing, the closed groups that bless Facebook provide relief from the very local posts. 

“Admittedly, it’s not like my family or friends are a bunch of conservatives so I hate what they post, it’s mostly just boring,” niche group frequenter and college student Kelsey Wallace said. Another meme group enthusiast, who asked to just be referred to as his first name, Alejandro, said that “there is an exorbitant amount of Spicy Content™ coming from Facebook groups nowadays.” 

“Here’s something posted to the group David ‘Avocado’ Wolfe can fucking rim me,” Alejandro messaged me, and then sent a comic making fun of the pseudoscience anti-vaxxer belief that coconut oil fixes everything.  

How Post Aesthetics crashed and burned

But when groups get too big, they can easily fall apart. 

Take Post Aesthetics, a massive group that helped lay the foundation for groups like NUMTOT and WIPBTM. At its height, it had 40,000 members sharing a constant stream of original memes, screenshots, and funny anecdotes. As the Awl said in a memoriam for Post Aesthetics, “In the cultural universe of Weird Facebook, it was a heavy hitter — a little danker than Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash, and a little cooler than Cool Freaks.”

The group, whose membership consisted of mostly college students, was a hotbed for discourse as memes toed the very fine line between edgy absurdism and offensive humor. 

Post Aesthetics fell apart when the excessive use of the “dat boi” meme sparked a heated debate about its (predominantly white) member’s frequent use of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and whether a Dadaist meme constitutes cultural appropriation. The group was flooded with dat boi memes and discourse, and overwhelmed moderators took the brunt of their members’ anger for both not banning the memes altogether and also bending to “PC culture.” A mod told Paper in 2016, “The problem with organizing a group of 40,000 members with no point is that trends occur really quickly when people don’t know what to post, but want to engage.” 

Post Aesthetics’ lack of a theme contributed to its downfall — despite being an immensely popular group, there was no sense of community keeping its members together. Two of the mod/admin team “staged a coup,” according to Paper, removed the other 19 mods and admins, and then ran a script to remove everyone from the group until its membership was as empty as its content. 

Huge private groups can work if they’re hyper-specific

Two years later, groups with oddly specific themes are thriving. Emma McGrory, who isn’t the biggest fan of Facebook because of data misuse and her aunt’s “bigoted posts,” says she enjoys the niche groups that make her feel like she’s part of a community. McGrory is part of a private group called Queer Witches Boston, a small intersection of practicing witches and the LGBTQ community. 

‘For a lot of people it’s the only safe space they have to talk about being queer or being a witch.’

“You feel a bond with the other members even if you don’t know them because you’re all part of this very tiny bit of subculture,” she said over Facebook Messenger. “For a lot of people it’s the only safe space they have to talk about being queer or being a witch. So being part of a community where everyone is part of that subculture … ensures that we all have something to talk about.” 

The community aspect of smaller groups is a sentiment that many Facebook group members share. When I posted in my college’s meme group looking for people to talk to for this story, sophomore Kelsey Wallace said that despite the fact that the group was primarily made for shitposting, the community provided something of an orientation to the school’s inside jokes. 

But even in the massive groups, like NUMTOT and WIPBTM, the sense of community is strong. New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens has a whopping 108,000 members. The members’ shared interests that bonded the group together — affordable, extensive public transportation and creating urban spaces that are accessible — are being widely spread beyond the group itself. NUMTOT has inspired regional spin-offs, like Angelic Thoughts for SoCal TOTS, and interest-driven groups, like Airborne Memes for Flight-Oriented Teens. NUMTOT even created NUMTinder, a Facebook dating group for single and ready to mingle members.

The community is so tight, its reach expanded past Facebook and helped save the aerial tram emoji from being Twitter’s least used emoji. 

Acronym translation: New York City transit oriented teens got that big dick energy.

Acronym translation: New York City transit oriented teens got that big dick energy.

Image: SCREENSHOT WITH PERMISSION OF OP

Maintaining a healthy meme sharing community

There are two key elements to maintaining a strong private Facebook group: expanded features for mods and admins, and dumb reoccurring bits. Gartsbeyn says that since the creation of WIPBTM, group insights has allowed him to see the group’s growth and engagement, “which is neat.” He also credits screening questions, which Facebook rolled out last year, with making moderating easier. By requiring people to answer a questionnaire when they request to join, mods can generally weed out problematic Facebook users.

“Before you’d have to check every person’s profile and try to make sure they weren’t a spambot or skeevy in some way,” Gartsbeyn said. “My group like [many] others are pretty strict about like, not allowing racism or homophobia or sexism and so on, and asking a question outlining that policy makes it a lot easier to accept folks.” 

“Re: greater sense of community — anything that kind of forges an inside joke will do that.” 

Also important to the group: bits. Being part of these groups is kind of being in on an extensive inside joke — if you understand each group’s quirks and eccentricities, you’re in the club.

Gartsbeyn’s what if phones, but too much would go through “name change days,” where the group’s name would be switched for a day and its content would reflect that. Around Halloween, the group’s name was changed to what if bones, but too much. Gartsbeyn’s personal favorite name change was what if stones, but too much. Going in the complete opposite direction of its typical pro-tech content, “which was rly fun because it then just devolved into caveman roleplay complaining about these newfangled bronze tools.” That bit inspired a spin-off group called paleolithic predicaments for prehistoric people

The group what if phones, but too much is tired of kids and their newfangled devices.

The group what if phones, but too much is tired of kids and their newfangled devices.

Image: SCREENSHOT/MARK GARTSBEYN

Other bits are more bizarre — Lomgbook is an offshoot of Leftbook, which is a large cohort of Facebook users who share leftist ideology through memes. Except in Lomgbook, you’re not allowed to use the letter N (dubbed the “forbidden glyph”) and must replace the letter with M, or risk getting banned from the groups. (Sorry, bammed.) 

“Re: greater sense of community,” Gartsbeyn said. “Anything that kind of forges an inside joke will do that.” 

Weird niche content makes checking Facebook worth it

Obviously, private groups on Weird Facebook aren’t all wholesome places for love and support. Even if it’s not inherently problematic, any place on the internet has the potential to let toxic people worm their way in. But stronger moderation and set guidelines for hyper-specific content can foster surprisingly healthy internet debates.

“There’s just a sense of, like, respect everyone has with everyone else in all groups,” Wallace said. “We’re all here because of the same thing or person or content, and so just the way people talk to each other is so much more respectful than strangers in the comment section of a viral video.”

Gartsbeyn calls Facebook groups’ generally less terrible environments “earnest.”

“You can still find PLENTY of toxicity in a FB group but having a name and photo attached does change the dynamics of that,” he reasons. 

Although I don’t see myself deleting my Facebook altogether, I did briefly consider minimizing the amount of time I spend on it. But to be totally honest, I know that I could never stay away from my beloved niche groups long enough — the weird content that graces my feed makes it worth logging on every now and then. 

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