As we romp further into this silly and messy political season it’s come to light that Palmer Luckey, creator of the Oculus Rift and the boy who was last seen floating in a tropical paradise on the cover of time magazine, was the money man behind a group of Trump supporters calling themselves Nimble America. They dedicated the non-profit to proving “that shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real” and their primary goals were (or are) to disrupt online conversations and create funny pictures of Hillary Clinton.
They are credited with one meme, a billboard in Pittsburgh that shows a big-headed Clinton with the words “Too Big To Jail” in bold letters.
But what is “shitposting” and why would anyone think they could use it to sway public policy?
Shitposting is the process of derailing a conversation with, according to KnowYourMeme, “thread jacking, circlejerking and non-commercial spamming.” To go further down the rathole, “thread jacking” is exactly what it sounds like – taking over a thread with your friends – and “circle jerking” is the process of creating earnest yet ridiculous posts aimed at confusing everyone involved. It is the online equivalent of the old Howard Stern “bababooey” joke – a comment apropos of nothing designed to fluster those taking the proceedings seriously.
This is similar to the Russian “dezinformatsiya” or “disinformation,” a previously analog form of propaganda technique that now involves aiming an army of trolls at sites to press a certain viewpoint and mute all others. Business Insider, for example, published a connection between Russian disinformation groups like Nashi and a certain group of pro-Trump trolls. This is on the expensive end of the shitposting spectrum. Grassroots shitposting efforts usually cost nothing but time and dignity.
Luckey, for his part, seems to have paid a little for Nimble America’s non-profit status – a cost of about $1,000 in legal fees. He also promised to match donations to the organization. “Bankroll: Initial launch and advertisements are being funded by a Billionaire that has been vetted to the top mods and Milo. /u/NimbleRichMan is holding a 48 hours match for all donations/revenue to Nimble America,” wrote the Nimble America mods on a since-deleted post. “While he is helping us with the non-profit, it is very important to show we are strong in numbers.”
Luckey was happy to give.
“I’ve got plenty of money,” he said. “Money is not my issue. I thought it sounded like a real jolly good time.”
The organization sold a few dozen t-shirts on its closed Booster.com page and most of the previous posts announcing its launch are gone. In other words, Nimble America doesn’t seem to be making much of a dent although it’s unclear how you would measure the overall effect of a shitposting campaign in quantitative terms.
But remember that the shitpost isn’t an expression of power rather it is the derailment of discourse. A crass Hillary meme isn’t designed to convince anyone to vote for Trump but rather to mess with those who love to argue on the Internet. Trolling, whether it is on a Yahoo! chat room or a web forum, is a form of anti-PC speech that is designed to piss of regular web users for “lulz. “For the nerds, it’s not the twilight of mainstream, white power that terrifies,” wrote Ian Bogost for the Atlantic. “Rather, the endless night of dorkship’s impotence.”
The shitpost can do little but fluster the true believer. Like someone jumping into a Facebook argument about politics with a picture of a cat or an armed ISIS soldier, the shitpost is discourse out of turn, designed to make everyone angrier. That Luckey thinks this is a way forward is a testament to the strength of the technocratic man’s belief in the power of the Internet. Interestingly, Luckey’s own admission of shitposting could be a shitpost itself.
His lines about skipping a glass of scotch or a change of tires for his sports car are the ultimate catalysts for virulent online argument – “You wouldn’t understand, peon, so don’t argue.” This also shows the slippery nature of the shitpost. Everything injected into a conversation can be considered a shitpost, even this post. Or, on the other hand, perhaps shitposting doesn’t exist and all is just clean discourse. I doubt we need a non-profit to help figure that out.
Bogost, for his part, doesn’t think Luckey’s ambitions are small or silly. This young billionaire sees himself and his friends as outsiders intent on changing the status quo. They want to run the new world, much like Peter Thiel thinks he can control media from his Valley fastness. Luckey wants to change the real world in the same way he can change a VR world.
“Those who see VR as a temporary, occasional tool for entertainment miss the obvious truth of its ambition. VR is a symbol of the misfit’s ultimate victory over a world that would hold him back from other victories,” writes Bogost. “A tool with which to fashion virtuous, mediated lives outside the boundaries of cruel, brutish normalcy. The nerds never wanted to become popular. They want to end populism entirely.”
That technologists would use their power to harm or confuse is not a new a tactic. That they would use a “shitpost” to do it clearly is.