Memes to an end: The underbelly of Reddit’s IndianPeople Facebook

When Asif Raza Rana, a Pakistani government worker, posted an image to his Facebook page on 13 September 2015, he had no idea that it would make internet history. It was a photograph of him shaking hands with a man named Salman, above two small photos of another man—Mudasir—who had been crossed out in each one with a lime-green X. Colourful WordArt letters at the top blared “Friendship ended with Mudasir / Now Salman is my best friend”. A caption explained that Rana was parting ways with Mudasir because the latter had become “selfish” and “proudy”.

Circulation of the memes

Rana’s post got thousands of shares and likes, and in the three years since he first uploaded it, it has spawned countless memes riffing on its “Friendship ended with X” phrasing. For example, a recent one, made and circulated after this year’s fractious G7 summit, showed Donald Trump shaking hands with the leader of North Korea under the heading “Friendship Ended With Western Allies / Now Kim Jong Un Is My Best Friend.”

One of the engines that fuelled Rana’s post and its virality was r/indianpeoplefacebook, a forum (or “subreddit”) on the social news aggregation website Reddit. The blurb that introduces r/indianpeoplefacebook to newcomers defines it as a place where anyone can post “screenshots of Indian and other non-English speaking internet users discovering the wonders of Facebook and other social media”.

Three days after Rana made the announcement, a Reddit user shared a screenshot of it to r/indianpeoplefacebook, titling the post “Mudasir done fucked up.”

Popular over the internet

It became wildly popular across the internet, and news outlets soon began running articles about the severed friendship. Some of them even wrote follow-ups a month later, when Rana posted another image to announce that he and Mudasir were friends once again.

Rana’s meme is still r/indianpeoplefacebook’s biggest claim to fame, but the subreddit has grown at a steady clip since then. From about 41,000 subscribers when Rana’s meme was first posted, it now has over 340,000. R/indianpeoplefacebook has also since emerged as a watering hole for humor about how South Asian people supposedly behave on social media—a subject of jokes that, in today’s increasingly niche-based meme culture, seem to be getting more and more popular both on and off Reddit.

As this meme economy of voyeuristic “cringe” humor grows, so too does the potential fallout. Apart from the racial stereotypes that this supposedly harmless mockery furthers, it also raises serious questions about the privacy of people like Rana who are the butt of the jokes. The exposure of content meant to be, at the very least, semi-private is a dangerous tool in the hands of the troll or the cyberbully, for instance.

It’s high time we examined what today’s internet is laughing—or cringing—at, and why.

Engines of mockery

Many of the popular posts on r/indianpeoplefacebook draw their humor from the grammatical mistakes that their subjects have made. For example, one popular post is a Facebook screenshot of a photo of a man and a woman on a motorbike with text on top of it reading “Life is Short, Be a Racist” (seemingly a mix-up between “racing” and “racism”).

Another one is a screenshot of a Twitter interaction between a transgender woman and a South Asian man, in which the man misunderstands the word “trans” as “trains”, saying that his father drives a train and telling the woman to “stay strong” even though “trains is hard job”.

The subreddit often mocks South Asian Facebook users’ enthusiastic—and often amateurish—use of Photoshop. “No one loves Photoshop-like Indian people,” said Felix Kjellberg, who runs the most-watched channel on YouTube and is better known by his username Pewdiepie, in a video he made this January.

He runs through and laughs at some of r/indianpeoplefacebook’s most popular posts, including a terribly Photoshopped image of a man standing “backstage with Eminem”, and one that shows a man who has clearly Photoshopped Justin Bieber’s haircut onto his own head. Many other YouTube channels have made similar videos, racking up thousands if not millions of views.