By sheer numbers, r/fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu will always be one of the most populated forums on the internet. The epicenter for rage comics, one of the defining fixtures of Reddit’s native language, stands tall with 852,000 members. That puts it above r/halo, r/doctorwho, r/adventuretime, and dozens of other vibrant fan communities on the site.
But when Chase, an 18-year-old from the Midwest, returned to the subreddit last year, he found it in disarray. As rage comics had slowly dissipated from internet culture, a roving band of shitposters had moved in to squat on the bones of a dead meme. The front page was turned into a wasteland of low-effort posts, often completely unrelated to the titular comic format, each equipped with comment sections stuffed with juvenile bickering. Chase spent most of his middle school years laughing at rage comics, so it was heartbreaking to find the subreddit left for dead, a feeding ground for those who’d wish to tarnish its memory. All he wanted was to clean the place up.
“Upon discovering what was left of my favorite subreddit — decrepit, defunct, rampant with trolls — I stumbled upon a user in the comments sections of various posts. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but he’d express a desire to bring back law and order to the subreddit,” remembers Chase, when I interview him over Discord. “I got in contact with him, and then eventually in contact with Reddit officials requesting to give him modship. When they obliged, and he became a moderator, he went ahead and modded me.”
Together, they purged the trolls and returned r/fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu to its intended state; a place to post rage comics without a shred of irony. The subreddit will never resemble its former glory, but at the very least, it serves as a decent, well-curated tomb. The inscription enshrined in the sidebar sums up the fruits of their labor nicely: “It’s still alive! Kinda…”
The mod team reports a few posts per week, the majority of which are reposts from rage comics that were drawn up six or seven years ago, but there’s the occasional scrap of original content that filters through the front door every blue moon. One moderator, who’s been around the subreddit since its heyday but asks to stay anonymous, sheepishly shared with me a spreadsheet from 2014, in which the team logged over 1,000 total “mod actions” in a month. Today, that number rarely escapes the single digits.
“We still have some posts that do very well, but we also still have posts that only get a handful of votes,” he says. “Scrolling down the front page you very quickly get to posts that are a few months old. Back in the day, we would have more submissions coming in than we could handle, even with 20 moderators.”
Rage comics were one of the internet’s defining lexicons. If you are of a certain age and online proclivity, you can probably remember burning entire evenings on r/fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu, as part of a healthy digital diet alongside I Can Haz Cheezburger, Texts From Last Night, and Fail Blog. Together, they pioneered a very specific web-literate tone; earnest and zany, composed in AIM shorthand, with a distinct collegiate bent.
Don Caldwell, managing editor of the meme-history database KnowYourMeme, calls it the “epic bacon” period — internet humor at its most naive and sincere. “It’s seen as cringeworthy now, or ‘What were people thinking?’” he explains. “That’s what people associate it with.”
He’s right. The rage comics that do catch on in 2019 tend to be positioned as a caustic parody of the traditional form. Caldwell points to “Mom Can I Have Some Money,” which itself was once a genuine rage comic, posted by a particularly keen One Direction fan. (It followed a typical three-panel plot; asking your mother for money, turning around to spend it all on One Direction merchandise.) By 2017, years after its original incarnation, the comic resurfaced as a template for anarchy; haughty shit-posters who recognized the nubile innocence of the original piece, and mutated it accordingly. The girl was now a low-res frog, asking her mother for cash to purchase a giant bowl of soup, disposing of the sincerity that makes rage comics work. In that sense, it’s a sensible update to the way memes work in 2019. We used to joke about misplacing our memory cards, now we joke about clinical depression and breaking aliens out of Area 51.
There are plenty of theories as to why our internet humor has gotten darker, more absurd, and more nihilistic. Some speculate that the pop culture of the late 2000s — particularly sketch comedy headtrips like Wonder Showzen and Tim & Eric — implanted themselves within young minds. There are also reasons to believe that memes centered on pitch-black targets like suicide might be more therapeutic than they are damaging. The one thing we do know for sure is that the culture we’ve inherited is incongruous to the rage comics of yore, and the faithful who still love the format have been made aware of what they’re up against.
“I wouldn’t even know [rage comics] were out of favor if people hadn’t downvoted them and insulted me whenever I posted them in other places,” says one of the few Reddit users I interviewed who still routinely posts to r/fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu. “That’s okay though.”
If you ask that user, or Chase, or anyone else on the mod team what’s kept them around the subreddit, they’ll each tell you that they believe rage comics have a craftsmanship that’s missing from the internet today. It makes sense if you think about it. The memes you routinely see on your Twitter timeline — Big Chungus, Distracted Boyfriend, Weird Flex But Okay — have all been atomized to take as little time as possible to make. The form of rage comics, on the other hand, forced its creators to squeeze their jokes through sequential art. As far as Chase is concerned, that requires an adroitness he doesn’t see anymore, in a time of galaxy brains, deep-fried filters, and you and your boys looking for beans.
“I don’t think I ever really outgrew the comedic potential of rage comics, as they still charm me incredibly well today, and I’m happy to express that,” he says. “A lot of the charm is their ability to express the humor in situations without lazy shock-value humor. What most rage comics rely on is a mutual understanding between the uploader and the viewer, creating that much necessary relatability factor that a lot of humor needs.”
The anonymous longtime moderator agrees with Chase’s point, and adds that the gradual confluence of all social media channels slowly made rage comics redundant. It’s difficult to remember now, but there was a time not long ago where you weren’t able to summon up millions of potential reaction images from the comfort of your Twitter cursor. Instead, we relied on rage comics, with their crude, deformed stick figures and their low bandwidth strain, to get the point across.
“We suddenly have tons of real faces to use, which become memes if they’re noteworthy. It has mostly made the humble rage comic a thing of the past,” he laments. “What used to be comic strips is now an easily-shared gif that requires no attention span.”
All of this is an ironic boon for the few people who still make rage comics. The artist I spoke to says he routinely earns a sizable number of upvotes on every post he pushes through r/fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu, simply because of “there being almost no competition” from other, more prominent composers. It’s rare to find a private audience in front of nearly 900,000 subscribers.
“That makes me happy,” he says. “All the basic emotions already exist as pre-made faces, so you don’t have to do it yourself, and when you can’t find one that fits, you just draw over an existing one in the most simplistic manner possible to get your idea across. It’s like writing a rant, but more creative, careless and fun.”
The internet rarely gives us a definitive start and end point to the trends it churns up. It’s almost impossible to locate the ground zero of a meme, and Caldwell imagines the process will only get more arcane and subcultural as time goes on. Our current Area 51 fascination, for instance, blinked through the internet in a matter of hours, and seems destined to dissolve back into dust at any given moment.
Rage comics stand as an era, a whole genre of online humor, rather than an ephemeral meme. They’ll never fully go away, because they’ve been with us for too long. “Rage comics grew over a couple of years before it peaked,” explains Caldwell. “[It doesn’t] compare to other flash-in-the-pan memes, that blow up in popularity and then just die.”
So you can understand why those who still orbit r/fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu feel a duty to protect it as sacred ground. If nothing else, it’s a guarantee that the Y U NO guy won’t rest in an unmarked grave. We should be thankful for the few remaining mourners who ensure that the crypt remains tidy and open, so that anyone in the world may still annotate their daily grievances in stick figure form.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Polygon, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Variety, Rolling Stone, and Kotaku.