The Life and Times of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

When Caroline Eisenmann, a young assistant at a New York literary agency, decided to rename her OkCupid profile, she wanted something that would make her stand out—a name that wouldn’t get lost amongst the omnipresent references to indie bands and cute animals, something that was “flippant” but with “a bit of a melancholic undertone” that would attract a suitably urbane mate, Eisenmann told me. Fingers poised over the keyboard, she wrote:

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

OkCupid rejected it. That it wouldn’t accept the lopsided, grinning face with upturned palms is almost strange: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ is, and was, part of the language of the internet, and it has been popping up more than ever in tweets, work emails, and gchats from friends.

The shruggie or “smugshrug,” as it is sometimes called, is what’s known as a “kaomoji,” or “face mark” in Japanese. It’s similar to an emoji or emoticon, but it incorporates characters from the katakana alphabet, instead of underscores and carets, for a wider range of expression. (The (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ table flip is a favorite.) It went viral in English when, after Kanye West shot down Taylor Swift in favor of Beyonce during his infamous 2010 Video Music Awards interruption, he gave a little shrug with his hands outstretched in a slight acknowledgement of his own ridiculousness; the rap crew Travis Porter immediately tweeted, “Kanye shrug —> ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” as a crude representation of the gesture. For a time, post-Kanye, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ continued to represent a kind of self-aware victory over the world: It was appropriated as the victory trademark of SeleCT, a competition-level Starcraft II player from Team Dignitas, after which it became known as “sup son,” and by late 2011, it was parodied on YouTube by Starcraft competition announcers and plastered on signs held up by fans.

After seeing the light of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, it’s hard to not notice it everywhere. Han Solo makes the gesture in Star Wars, as Reddit noticed in 2012. Daily Dot writer Miles Klee caught the Spider-Man super villain Mysterio doing it. In 2013, it appeared in a Reddit post that commanded users “lol idk just upvote.” “Lol idk” seems like a fairly apt description of the shruggie’s meaning, but it also doesn’t begin to describe the nihilism that ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ embodies today.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ is fundamentally connected to the experience of being online, in part because it cannot be spoken, only acted or typed. “Well, it’s like, the default Internet feeling,” Shane Ferro, an editor at Reuters, told me. She uses it “while gchatting a lot for ‘there is outrage on the Internet, but I just can’t today.’” Amazon editor Kevin Nguyen has it saved in his phone under the shortcut “IDGAF,” “but I realize that I don’t really use it to mean ‘I don’t give a fuck,’” he said. “It represents a way to acknowledging that maybe we take ourselves too seriously on the Internet.” Writer Molly Osberg explained that ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ is “the natural answer to spending too much time in Internet c a s c a d e.”

Yet it also transcends the Internet and perhaps language itself, echoing incoherent expressions of sublime rage or terror, like the untranslatable keyboard smash, “asdfasldkvhjasd.” “There’s no parallel word, but it stands in for any number of horrified and numb and nihilistic sentiments… like ‘I don’t even have the bandwidth to comprehend how terrible this all is,’” Osberg said. She suggested an example sentence: “Would mass human extinction rly even be a bad thing? I awno ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”

“There’s always a bit of a melancholic undertone. It’s like if YOLO grew from a reckless teen to an overly pensive twenty-something,” Eisenmann said. “The reason it works so well to convey bemused resignation must be some combination of the little half-smile and the wide arm-spread,” Wordnik founder Erin McKean explained. “PURE RESIGNATION, that’s my definition, caps included,” Jezebel contributor Phoenix Tso told me.

But, in addition to symbolizing despair, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ can be wielded as a Zen-like tool to accept the chaos of universe. Meditate on its wide eyes and upturned mouth; that’s not the expression of a quitter, it’s the carefree face of #blessed, radical openness.

When someone performs ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in real life, shrugging their shoulders and raising their outstretched hands in supplication to the sky it evokes an abdication of blame and a good-humored acknowledgement that shit, at times, happens, and there’s nothing we can do about it. “I think it’s obviously a ‘dealing with it’ vibe,” Vox Media designer Dylan Lathrop told me. “It’s a reaction more than a lifestyle, but I can definitely see people employing that vibe for their worldview.”

Rusty Foster, who writes the Today in Tabs newsletter, recently noted, “We are entering a golden age of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, which is very nearly the only reaction I am capable of having to anything.” In a yet-unpublished thousand-word manifesto, Foster writes, “11 plain black strokes perfectly capture the essence of everything I really believe most deeply. In short, my view of the whole universe is:
¯\_(ツ)_/¯.” Taking ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ the worldview to its logical conclusion, Foster makes the fatalistic argument that everything is predetermined and space-time is a false construction of the human mind:

Nobody has any actual free will, and nothing we do is chosen—what happens now is just is what happens, and we make up stories about it that make it seem like things happened for reasons and cause and effect aren’t just mirages of our flawed perception of a fundamentally static and fixed system.

Why go on living in our stage-set of a world? Indeed, why even bother tweeting at all? The answer, Foster thinks, is: “¯\_(ツ)_/¯ why not?”

Kyle Chayka is a freelance technology and culture writer living in Brooklyn.