Shirt off, gut out, and a flashing unicorn horn on his head, Sihan Zheng yells at the top of his lungs, “suck it.” His girlfriend, Kruthika Ramesh, sits on the couch with a slice of Spanish Serrano ham in her hands. She laughs, the half-eaten slab of meat hanging from her lips, because she understands his references. All of them.
Ramesh knows that when Zheng wears the unicorn horn, he’s honouring his favourite World Wrestling Entertainment tag team, The New Day. Ramesh knows that when Zheng yells “suck it,” he’s imagining himself as a member of another wrestling team, D-Generation X. Ramesh knows that the intoxicated 22-year-old in front of her is not the person he appears to be every Friday night, when people from across the GTA—and sometimes further—gather in Zheng’s living room for drinks.
But like everyone else in the Mississauga living room, this is how Zheng was when she first met him. Ramesh met Zheng on the internet through a shitpost, a “mildly amusing but usually unfunny meme, video, or other picture that is completely random or unrelated to any discussion,” according to Urban Dictionary.
Since the outbreak of social media, people meet online in the masses. But in a world where the online community gives meaning to everything, we become drawn to internet nonsense. A 2017 study in Information, Communication & Society by Yuval Katz and Limor Shifman found that the simplicity, ridiculousness, and arbitrariness of internet nonsense is a way for people to cope with the complexity of life. The researchers found that the “obliteration of meaning may enable the creation of inclusive communities […] allowing a variety of participants to express their quirky creativity without being sanctioned.”
Every Friday night, most of the people in Zheng’s living room, often students, are from the internet. For Zheng and his friends, the internet became a new way for them to connect on a deeper level, based upon their common interest in shitposts. In fact, back in her high school days, when Ramesh first struggled with family and school problems, she turned to her online friends for comfort. Zheng would be the first person she meets in real life.
Ramesh was looking for a bottle of gin. She loves gin because of how it smells “earthy, junipery.” In May 2017, Bombay Sapphire accidentally released a batch of gin bottles with 77 percent alcohol instead of their usual 40 percent. Ramesh posted in a Facebook shitposting group, Cirque du Twerque (CDT), asking if anyone got their hands on a bottle. Most group members thought Ramesh was trolling, “The art of deliberately, cleverly, and secretly pissing people off,” according to Urban Dictionary. Zheng, a whisky enthusiast, who loved the malt drink because of its “peaty, smoky” smell, saw another alcohol fanatic and potential friend.
The whisky lover used multiple online sites, before he finally found one where he could meet drinking or dining buddies that weren’t too “weird” for his taste. Zheng tells me about the summer of 2017. He used to browse a Reddit thread called r/r4r, short for “redditor for redditor,” where people commonly look for meet-ups. On the thread, he met a girl who wanted to introduce him to her parents after one meal, and a guy who only ever wanted to go to strip clubs, where he knew every bartender and stripper. Although Zheng met these people in public places, he said he didn’t feel entirely comfortable being with them.
However, on Facebook groups like CDT, safety is hardly a concern. Most members have met at least one other person in real life, whether at a Hackathon or through school. “You start bantering with them […] you get to know them a bit,” says Zheng, “And then you have other people start to vouch for this guy or that guy. Like oh yeah, I dined with this guy when I was at so-and-so hackathon.”
Paul F., Zheng’s roommate, finds meeting people online weird. He doesn’t understand how his roommate feels comfortable inviting random people over every Friday. However, what he feels is far from concern. “I think it’s very unlikely that someone is catfishing a whisky enthusiast. At the end of the day, what’s going to happen? We kick someone out.”
Moshy, a friend Zheng met through CDT, shows up to the living room about once per month. The bearded compilers developer by day, powerlifter by night, looks to Zheng’s house for booze and banter. “We give each other shit for being fat and I give him shit for being such a WWE fan when MMA is superior,” says Moshy.
Harvard sociologist, Mario Luis Small, found that people are more open with strangers because they’re like blank canvases. People don’t have to worry about strangers passing judgement, giving reassurances, or making suggestions. Strangers just listen. “I’m more open to throwing insults at you and calling you out on things because there’s no repercussions,” says Zheng, “What’s Moshy going to do? Have sex with me? You know he got pretty close that one day.”
All the way from Pittsburgh, Brian Hill, Zheng’s furthest friend from CDT, only graced the living room once so far. The Pittsburgh student drove up to Mississauga after speaking to Zheng for months via a group chat. When he arrived, he finally met his whiskey-loving internet friend and could compare how much his dick burned, in real life, with Moshy, which is a reference to the burning dick meme. Hill says that he hopes to come back up sometime.
Back in the living room, Zheng cuddles on the couch with Ramesh. His rainbow horn slides down the side of his head. Moshy throws a thrash metal CD on and enjoys a red wine straight from the bottle. “Stop being a fat ass,” Zheng yells at the bearded metalhead. Hill isn’t here tonight because he’s back in Pittsburgh. We don’t know who will show up next time and we don’t know who will never show up again. All we do is listen to the guitar shredding and laughter that fills up the room, among the clinks and clanks of alcohol glasses.
We meet people online that we would never meet otherwise. The internet doesn’t discriminate by location or time. In fact, the shitposting community doesn’t even really care who you are. There are no expectations other than the ability to learn to laugh at anything: laugh at salt bae, laugh at the mocking SpongeBob meme, and most importantly, laugh at yourself. This community of unlikely friends can teach us a lesson about people—we relate over the simplest things. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than a funny image to bring us together.