When we think about politics, we tend to think big–national elections, popular revolutions, world wars, and all the things we read about in history books. Take the idea of a coup d’état: We might bring up the Ides of March, 44 BCE, when Julius Caesar was murdered by a group of conspirators in the Roman Senate, or the 18 Brumaire, 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the French Directory and replaced it with the Consulate.
The concept is familiar, really. We could talk about any number of upheavals that we learned about from high school history–that one political science seminar, or the front page of the paper. But precious few of us would talk about Sunday, June 17, 2016, when a handful of moderators from the popular Facebook group “post aesthetics” ran a script that ejected over 30,000 members from its ranks, and even fewer of us would take it seriously if we did.
That, however, would be a mistake.
“The fall of post aesthetics was something that most people in the group didn’t see coming,” said Alex Cohen, one of the group’s former members. “I was just using it as I usually did one day, when suddenly I saw some angry posts from moderators complaining about some group drama. The next thing I knew, all of the moderators had been removed from the group, someone new was in charge, and the size of the group was shrinking by the minute.”
It turned out to be a classic coup d’etat, in this case perpetrated by the old leaders against the new. Before its collapse, post aesthetics was a repository of what members dubbed ‘good content:’ text and image-based content that was original and eccentric in form. The group was controlled by a handful of people, referred to as admins and moderators (or mods), who had the power to delete any media that had been shared to the group; moreover, they could kick other members out. A group of new mods had recently joined the older ones and differing philosophies about how to run the group–what posts to delete, who to kick out, and what the space’s goals should be–began to clash. Ultimately, the old moderators became concerned enough about the changing dynamics that, afraid to lose what power they had left, they decided to take matters into their own hands.
“The new mods had taken the group in a different direction than the founders intended,” explained Cohen. “And rather than talk about it, they essentially committed a coup and just took it back over.”
Jules, a former admin of the group, spoke more about the internal dynamics that led to its collapse.
“[The old mods] made it out to be like they were intimidated,” she said. “It’s a strange thing to say, since the new mods couldn’t [stage a] coup like they did, because none of them were admins except one. […] Even more hilarious was that the coup process was initiated by one admin that was the most paranoid about a potential coup.”
And so post aesthetics collapsed from the inside out, putting a digital twist on a time-honored classic. But unlike Caesar’s assassination or Napoleon’s uprising, it is easy to dismiss the group’s collapse as frivolous or apolitical. Designated as a space to share “content”–a term used in various online communities to refer to any form of media, from images and articles to videos and personal stories–post aesthetics was populated almost entirely by college students who were fluent in absurdist memes, not the mechanics of revolution.
“The purpose [of the group] was pretty much just to make stupid jokes and share funny, weird, or sad stories, and just be part of something bigger than yourself,” said Zach Cohen, another former member. “But instead of just doing that on normal social media, it was a community of like-minded peers, people going through similar stuff as you, who were always supportive, kind, and hilarious.”
People may have flocked to post aesthetics to crack jokes and make friends, but that doesn’t mean that real political forces weren’t at work within the group. Just as Caesar’s assassination betrayed a fragmenting republic and Napoleon’s coup reflected a decades-long process of revolution, the downfall of post aesthetics speaks to a complex, underlying web of political tensions that simmered for months before erupting. These tensions raise real questions, with real stakes. In fact, they echo urgent debates that have emerged in many other political contexts. From Trump’s campaign to Yale’s campus, they reflect issues related to “free” speech, identity, and ways to create spaces where everyone can contribute without hurting other people.
It speaks to the gravity of the situation that the straw that broke post aesthetics’ back was the banning of “dat boi,” a meme that many members of the group criticized as racist. The meme, which became popular at the beginning of the summer, featured an image of a frog riding a unicycle, harmless in and of itself. However, it also included two phrases “here come dat boi” and “o shit waddup”–that employ a variety of linguistic features that are characteristic of African American Vernacular English, which brought race into the joke in a way that made Black members of post aesthetics feel mocked and excluded.
“The phrase comes from AAVE,” explained Diamond Jack, a former moderator. “It’s slang, it’s mispronounced words, it’s a part of our culture. Us Black folx get teased for the way we say things. It sounds so ‘ghetto’ and broken; it sounds like we’re uneducated. This is where the racism comes in. […] In reality, those two small sentences [“dat boi” and “o shit whaddup”] are how my family down South speak, how I speak when my inner New York comes out, and so on. It’s not a joke, it’s not silly– it is a piece of Black culture that white people make a spectacle out of, and that made me as well as people in post aesthetics angry.”
Because the humor of the meme depended largely on its spelling and pronunciation, non-Black people who posted versions of it were not only appropriating AAVE, a central element of a culture that did not belong to them, but also exploiting it, using its unique features and phraseology for the sake of comedy without thinking about the expense at which it came to Black members of post aesthetics and society in general.
“The meme surfaced and a lot of white people started to use it,” said Jack. “Everywhere you went, that meme was plastered all over, and the mockery as well as [people saying], ‘LMAO THIS MEME SOUNDS SO STUPID’ followed. While people were laughing at the silliness of “dat boi,” it was a constant reminder to black people that non-black people continued to steal our culture and make fun of it.”
In response to the meme, Maya D., another former moderator, invited members of the group to start calling out posts containing dat boi, and was met with an instant backlash.
“I was immediately attacked in the comments by white people trying to delegitimize what I, a Black person, was calling out as antiblack,” said Maya. “Whites came in trying to derail, saying dat boi didn’t count as AAVE, that the meme is about the pic, not the words, that appropriating AAVE isn’t necessarily mocking it, and really any bullshit they could come up with to try to justify using the meme.”
Ultimately, the mods decided to ban dat boi, which meant that any posts containing it would be deleted, and the poster might be kicked out of the group. For the older moderators, most of whom did not support banning the meme, that was the last straw.
“This and many other choices made by new mods in how they chose to mod the group came under fire post-coup in the group chat,” explained Jules. “The person who deleted the group was way against banning [dat boi], and even modding [regulating] the person that started the idea of it, which we ultimately did. Pretty much the only old mods behind banning it were BPOC [black people of color], so go figure.”
Maya explained that the old mods felt that the new mods had violated post aesthetics’ original purpose, which suggests the presence of a disturbing streak of racism within the group.
“It’s kind of telling that our impact as new mods [was] the purging of a lot of antiblackness from the group. We in turn destroyed the original vision of what, according to the original creators of the group, PA was ‘supposed’ to be,” she said.
Indeed, the coup raised a number of questions about the purpose of post aesthetics itself, not to mention the role of its moderators, seeing as they wielded the most power in deciding what was said and done in the group. Jules spoke about what makes a good moderator.
“A good mod isn’t opinionated, but holds a steady ground for the group rules and tries to listen whenever possible,” she said. “Identity and life experiences should be encouraged by a mod over artistic and academic merit. The latter is for your dissertation on ‘What It’s Like When Memes Collide’ or when you get hired by Buzzfeed, not for a joke group kept together by real people with real experiences.”
In other words, the originality or shock value of a post should not be prioritized over the wellbeing of other people, such as when a meme is racist or otherwise exclusionary. There is a time and place to view and analyze certain kinds of content and a lighthearted, communal space like post aesthetics is not that time. It is the moderator’s job, then, to ensure that this kind of group remains–or, perhaps better said, becomes–inclusive. And, according to Jules, it is far from easy.
“[Being a mod is] a lot of thankless emotional labor and banning people for trigger warning jokes,” she said. “Also being held to an unspoken, but high standard to produce the best content. On the flip side, you’re creating a safer space.”
Indeed, the notion of a “safer space” has implications that reach far beyond a single meme or Facebook group. Post aesthetics had more than a history of racism; that history was also presently reflected and perpetuated by its membership and, thus, needed to be actively dismantled by anti-racist action, such as moderating dat boi. Likewise, there are countless institutions in America that were built on fundamentally exclusive foundations, whether they be political parties, national industries, or supposedly world-class universities.The politics of post aesthetics, then, can be understood as a microcosm of a vast structural pattern that applies to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and more.
Because of that, post aesthetics has a lot to teach us. For one, it suggests the naiveté in assuming that these long histories and present realities of exclusion will disappear simply because we would like them to. It proves that even the things that we might think of as small, like a single word or meme, can have serious consequences and must be taken seriously. And it shows us the urgent need for action from everyone and in every context, whether it’s a sidewalk, a classroom, or a Facebook group for seemingly harmless memes that are fraught with political meaning.
Indeed, politics touch every aspect of our lives, no matter how large or small. That’s why it is vital that we think about spaces like post aesthetics and consider ways to make them more inclusive–because everything people do deserves to be taken seriously. There is something to be learned everywhere–even if it’s not the kind of thing we read about in high school classes, political science seminars, or history books.
The fall of post aesthetics looks nothing like what we think about when we think about politics, but it tells us just as much.