MEMES
The week of June 5, 2016
meme_blacksmith

Inside the topsy-turvy world of Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes

By Jay Hathaway

“Just pure nonsense. That’s what a UUUM meme is at its essence,” says Eric Drewes, trying to describe something that might just be indescribable.

The Facebook group Drewes helps moderate, Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes, is the most interesting thing happening in meme culture right now, and it’s not on 4chan, Reddit, or Tumblr. It’s not even clear whether the things UUUM makes are “memes” at all.

Yeah, they have all the formal properties: They’re images, usually with words. But where are the rage faces? Where’s Pepe the Frog? Where are the SpongeBob SquarePants characters? You won’t find them here. Instead, you’re drowning in weird musical wordplay and cerebral pop culture references, hacked together with inconsistent Photoshop. You won’t see the same familiar characters and themes repeating—in fact, you’ll probably never see the same image twice. It’s against the rules.

Founded in 2014 by a group of friends out of a Louisiana college town, UUUM isn’t so much a parody of meme culture as a roast, a critical response. But it’s also fun—a hell of a lot more fun than the dozenth Mr. Krabs reaction meme you’ve seen on Twitter today.

Drewes told me it was fair to characterize a lot of the group’s output as a kind of anti-meme: UUU memes are memes in the same way that an anti-joke is still a joke. UUUM is useless and unfunny—it’s right there in the title!—and therefore very funny. It’s unsuccessful, and therefore very successful.

A lot of UUU memes are forced puns that don’t really say anything—it’s the combination of absurd wordplay and carefully terrible visuals that makes them great. Consider the lengths Adam Rutgers went to for this joke:

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“[A UUUM meme] is like a meme with no idea or purpose, no ideology to spread or cultural message,” Drewes explained. It has no ideology at all except an embrace of the absurd, and its rules are meant to nurture an environment that allows nonsense to flourish,” he added, “That’s why I love it.”

Ah, yes. The rules. UUUM has several of them, all built to keep it fun and differentiate it from the popular memes that make up the internet’s hegemonic shareculture. Before you post, you’ll want to read the three major tenets, as well as the nine questions you must ask yourself to determine whether a meme is good and in accordance with the teachings of the group’s deity, Uuumos.

But the rules run counter to what we think we know about memes. The origin of the term is well-covered territory: It began with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, describing a self-replicating idea, a sort of brain parasite. Per Dawkins, memes with high “survival value” spread throughout the “meme pool,” while less successful memes are dead ends. They disappear.

An internet meme, most often an image overlaid with text, is an efficient, snappy way to communicate the kind of idea Dawkins meant to capture with the word “meme.” But the medium has come to replace the message: Online, “meme” refers to the pictures themselves.They’re easy to make, and easier to copy and retransmit—social networks like Facebook and Twitter have pared the process down to one or two clicks.

That’s why UUUM’s work is emblematic of a kind of anti-memetics. The popular images that replicate throughout the shareculture are viewed as trash, and their very popularity, their ability to spread rapidly through copying and pasting, is what makes them so distasteful. To UUUM, reblogging an image macro is the opposite of original, creative thought.

Relatability is the primary meme currency of the moment. For evidence, look no further than the rise of tropes like TFW (that feel when) and “share if you agree.” There’s also a gaggle of “parody” social media accounts that profit by finding and copying other people’s relatable content.

UUUM recognizes this phenomenon and stands in opposition to it.

“Typically, people make memes in order to succinctly say something—maybe a statement, maybe a joke. And they want this nugget to spread around the world. When this works, we call it shareculture: People sharing because they agree,” Joey Aloi, the current High Priest of Uuumos, told me.

“And that’s not what we want. We want people to have original, uncommon thoughts and to make original, uncommon things. We celebrate when an image macro with Impact font fails at being spread around.”

Mainstream meme culture distances itself from “normies,” typical Facebook users who aren’t in touch with the latest internet bullshit. The shared vocabulary of images is a way of asserting one’s membership in an in-group that, for example, knows about a unicycling frog called “Dat Boi.”

To some UUUMers, those who uncritically regurgitate the code-words of meme culture are the “normies,” and in-group status belongs to those who take it one step further by producing their own content.

“Every post must be an original meme.”

The first tenet of UUUM is the OC: “This group is for posting original memes that have been created by the member posting. Every post must be an original meme.”

The stance isn’t strictly a new one—every medium has had its avant-garde, and to pretend otherwise would be ahistorical. The compelling thing about UUUM is that memes were already for weirdos—the teenage counterculture of 4chan /b/tards and Something Awful goons—before companies like Reddit and Cheezburger Inc. packaged them for a mainstream audience.

A good analogy for UUU is underground zine culture, in which creative people with access to a cheap means of production—the good old Xerox machine—created and distributed magazines full of words and images that fell outside of the cultural mainstream.

And in fact, some of the original UUUers do come from zine culture. Now they’ve adopted the internet as their means of production and distribution.

“A lot of us who started the group are zine people,” Tristan Cowen told me. “We came from this college town in Louisiana and things were different back then, so everybody did everything and everybody had a zine, and a band, and some paintings that might or might not have been terrible, and cigar boxes with pictures from magazines gessoed all over.

“So, yeah, zines and all that represents. from the early ancient days when the only way you could talk back to your TV was in the letters page of your town newspaper, or if you made zines and etc.”

Of course, talking back today is much easier. You don’t need a photocopier to get your message in front of people. UUUM wants to embrace that openness, but it’s full of contradictions. It’s a popular Facebook group for unpopular memes that will never spread virally. It’s a group that sets a high bar for content and has internal standards of good taste, but it’s not wholly elitist: The creators of UUUM want a big tent. They want to be accessible to everyone.

“We welcome everyone and have an environment that really supports and encourages nontraditional memers to create stuff,” Drewes told me.

“We have a lot of women, a lot of middle-aged people, a lot of LGBT, etc.; people that wouldn’t always be seen in 4chan or classic meme places.”

That’s the rationale for one of the group’s other rules: no punching down.

Having moderators who actively cull bigoted memes and delete easy jokes made at the expense of particular groups sets UUUM apart from other meme hubs.

With tens of millions of users, Reddit has a tremendous problem stamping out racism and sexism—at that scale, the efforts of the site’s unpaid moderators just aren’t enough. 4chan hasn’t even tried, which was always part of its edgy appeal to teens, free-speech absolutists, and the odd white supremacist.

On UUUM, the rules started from the top down—they’re the will of Uuumos, natch—but they’ve since been absorbed into the fabric of the group’s unique meme culture.

“I think I used to be a lot edgier with my humor, but in a way that wasn’t nice,” Drewes said. “I’m a lot less of an overt asshole now because of the group, because I saw the wisdom in the group’s ethos.”

But at 135,000 members and growing, it’s getting harder to maintain that ethos and teach it to new members.

“That’s one of the downsides of popularity,” Drewes told me. “As the group exploded in members, the people joining outpaced the ability for the older members to teach the newer members the culture.”

Being new to UUUM can be difficult, and reading the rules and other documentation about the will of Uuumos—including the long and ever-growing list of “played out” memes—will get you only partway there.

“We want people to have original, uncommon thoughts, and to make original, uncommon things.”

Like many other complex online subcultures, the UUUverse rewards reading for a while before you make your first post. On 4chan, a bad post will earn you the admonishment “lurk moar”—absorb what the veterans are doing and try again.

“UUU is really like baseball or something, where the ‘real’ rules are the unwritten rules that can only really be picked up by immersing yourself in the culture,” Drewes said.

On UUUM, memes can be deleted for what may seem like no reason. The third tenet, the 2016 Corollary, says “Mods will delete your memes if they are jealous of how awesome you are.”

I imagine that’s sometimes literally true, but it’s also a “no hard feelings” way of explaining that the moderators’ whims and tastes are what keep the group fresh and interesting.

Aloi told me that, in practice, “We delete sort of subjectively, based on both aesthetic and political concerns.”

If your posts aren’t working out, there are options: There’s a separate Deleted Memes Help Desk just to ask for explanations from the administrators as to why your meme was deleted. You may also lay it to rest in the UUU meme graveyard and deliver a proper burial address.

Another way UUUM encourages newbies to take it slow and immerse themselves in the culture before posting is with the second tenet, known as the Lisa’s Braces Resolution: “members should restrict themselves to three posts every 24 hours.”

The rule forbids spam, but it also forces members to slow down and put some time and thought into their work. It’s unique among meme communities: 4chan’s anonymous posting doesn’t lend itself to limits, and Reddit only has a short cooling-off period between submissions. Tumblr users are prolific posters, sometimes updating multiple blogs several times an hour. Facebook itself certainly doesn’t have a “3 per 24” rule, although imposing one would arguably make it a better website.

“It adds value in a sense to a valueless thing,” Drewes asserts. “I’ve seen a lot of people be at their meme limit and have a brilliant one that they want to drop. They watch the clock for it to open up. It adds to the fun.”

The arbitrariness of the rules and the whims of the administrators’ subjective tastes may not sit well with everyone—judging by the comments on the Deleted Memes Help Desk group, some people take the group’s aggressive curation harder than others. That’s why there’s also the option to create your own UUU splinter group, dedicated to whatever you like. There have been dozens of these schisms, which are not only allowed but actively encouraged.

Splinters have been a tradition since original member Chuck Babs created UUUM Reformed, the original Schism—its only rule was “don’t piss off Chuck.”

Chuck has since “quit the internet,” Aloi told me, but the idea of a multifaceted “UUUverse” remains. It’s given rise to groups ranging from UUU AFAF (memes with the phrase “as fuck”) to UUU FSKDFSJF (no intelligible content allowed) to UUU Stupid Shit Someone Said.

The long list of splinter groups provides a release valve for conflict, as well as for types of memes that don’t necessarily serve the mission of the main UUUM page: “to feed Uuumos useless, unsuccessful, and/or unpopular memes in order that he might wake, rise, and shatter the edifices of shareculture.”

• • •

A lot of the challenges facing UUUM stem from its relationship with Facebook. As a sort of countercultural meme movement, it makes sense to meet the shareculture where it exists: on a huge platform used by more than a billion people. On the other hand, a corporate for-profit website doesn’t necessarily fit with the ethos of UUUM—and sometimes Facebook’s user interface actively works against it.

For example: the Like. While memers enjoy the little hit of dopamine that comes with being acknowledged by a peer, it’s possible they enjoy it a little too much. Rather than encouraging thoughtful, complex work, Likes incentivize cheap, easy-to-swallow jokes.

Drewes gave me a personal example:

“I was shopping at Target and on my phone made a meme with two people in a horse costume. ‘You can prance if you want to, you can be your friend’s behind.’ Easy to understand pun on a popularly known song. It immediately gets hundreds of shares, hundreds of likes, lots of comments telling me how I am brilliant, etc. It’s a dumb meme, the joke is dumb. There’s no depth to it.”

“I stopped posting dumb puns based on popular songs for easy likes and went back to posting weird stuff, and it’s much more satisfying.”

Meanwhile, this illustrated haiku joke—a pun on “high coup”—was barely appreciated.

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The same thing happened with this fractal, which Drewes made himself from images of Fraggle Rock characters—a lot more work than what you’d see from a typical pun meme.

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And this one, incorporating TV personality Howie Mandel and some bratwurst. Clever!

“You can be your friend’s behind,” though. That was huge.

UUUM hasn’t truly been able to curtail the practice of chasing after Likes, and Facebook’s algorithms still promote the most popular memes in user feeds, but the group has devised a way to downplay the significance of Like counts.

Thirty-seven, not 1,000 or more, is the ideal number of Likes for a UUU meme. The closer you come to 37, the closer you are to Uuumos. For a time, there was even a spreadsheet that kept track of posters’ average likes-per-meme, sorted by distance from 37. Changes to Facebook code made it hard to maintain, though, and it’s not currently working.

“Once I stopped caring about popularity, I stopped posting dumb puns based on popular songs for easy likes and went back to posting weird stuff, and it’s much more satisfying,” Drewes said.

But whatever attempts UUUM makes to subvert Facebook, it’s still frustratingly beholden to the platform.

Tristan Cowen, one of the group’s original members, told me that the corporate workings of Facebook can’t fathom why a group would regularly delete material that isn’t spammy or offensive. The site’s algorithms sometimes assume that UUUM is beset with spammers or trolls, when it’s actually just being curated.

And the consequences can be annoying.

“All of the most active mods routinely get parts of their Facebook functionality (which is already intentionally broken) turned off. Every week one of us isn’t allowed to comment, or like posts, or share, or even log on,” Cowen said.

“Some of that comes from what I suppose are exploits in Facebook’s reporting feature, but the rest is just about us not using Facebook in a way that’s easy to predict or makes sense to people trying to harvest information to sell to third parties.”

“A lot of the memes we delete just aren’t strong enough compared to the rest of the memes from the day, or they are [unoriginal content], or other aesthetic reasons. I think that’s a foreign concept to Facebook.”

UUUM has explored other options—maybe Reddit? Maybe a completely independent platform?—but giving up Facebook would also give up some of the things that make it great.

“I don’t think UUUM could exist without Facebook, to be honest,” Drewes said.

“Without all the traffic and sharing, how would anyone find it? I would have never found it if I hadn’t stumbled upon it because a friend shared a meme from the group.”

“Can that be replicated without PMs, ‘real’ names/profiles, etc.? You don’t typically see these relationships form in the vacuum of comment sections on image boards. I have hundreds of UUU friends and zero Imgur friends, and I think it’s because UUU is on Facebook.”

And from there, the individual memes slip out to the wider internet. How could they not, with 135,000 people watching and potentially sharing them on their own Facebook pages? Seeing an individual UUU meme on Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, or in an office Slack chat isn’t enough to convey the rules of UUUM to the uninitiated, but all the good ones are emblematic of the community that produced them.

You’ll laugh at the absolute absurdity, and you’ll maybe rethink what memes can be. And slowly but surely, UUUM will make a dent in the shareculture, or at least show that internet humor isn’t limited to what you see on Reddit’s r/funny.

“I think it works like a virus,” Drewes told me.

“If you look at UUUM long enough, everything starts to look like a UUUM meme. I scroll through my newsfeed and see sincere, earnest posts by family members or coworkers and look for the jokes. I see serious news posts and roll my eyes. It’s like UUUM reprograms you to see the world through this bizarro lens.”

Illustration by Max Fleishman