Whichever way you look at it, “feral hogs” is a comically perfect phrase. It’s set up like a punchline: two syllables, then one. Something is feral, and then you find out that it is, of all things, some hogs. The very idea of a feral hog – a wild, unrestrainedly boisterous pig – is funny. Some things just are. Also, ‘hog’ is another word for ‘penis.’
The fundamental funniness of both the phrase and the concept, however, only go some way to explaining why, if you looked at Twitter at any point around 10PM GMT on Monday the 5th of August, or indeed at any time on Tuesday 6th, you would have been inundated with tweets about feral hogs – 30-50 of them, to be specific. “Feral hogs” tweets – whether new “feral hogs” memes, or the words “feral hogs” interpolated into old, well-known memes – rampaged down timelines with the force of, well, feral hogs.
The touchpaper came in the form of a tweet sent by Twitter user @WillieMcNabb, which read: “Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?” McNabb was responding to a tweet by the musician Jason Isbell about gun control in the case of assault rifles, presumably implying that he would require an assault rifle in order to deal with the hogs. Soon, however, his position was mocked and his phrasing memed.
“Feral hogs” went viral because it feels like it was already viral, so ready-made is it for the canon of Twitter humour. This stuff used to be the preserve of the corner of the internet known as Weird Twitter, but it’s now just pretty standard Twitter humour. In their 2013 oral history of Weird Twitter for Buzzfeed, writers Katie Notopoulos and John Herrman stated of it: “This is where the language of Twitter gets created, where its funniest jokes come from.” This has only become more true since this oral history was written.
“Feral hogs” – as Jia Tolentino also writes of Twitter’s “large adult son,” a similarly prolific and stupid meme – could quite easily have come from the keyboard of @dril, “the ur-account for this genre of absurdist online humour.” @dril began as a part of Weird Twitter, but now has 1.4 million followers, and his surreal and frequently idiotic tweets have been uniquely influential on internet humour, slowly trickling down into the mainstream – or at least, the mainstream of Twitter.
Twitter humour is defined by absurdity and – it is important to stress – being a fucking dumbass, on purpose. It is not supposed to be clever; if anything, it is completely base. Tweets that knowingly reflect this frequently go viral, but the real excitement for users comes when they are able to coalesce around real world instances or unwitting tweets (like @WillieMcNabb's “feral hogs”) that exemplify the collective sense of humour.
There was the recent flurry of tweets over the (horrifying) trailer for the film Cats, wherein respected actors like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen feature as animated cats with their human faces intact, for example. There was also the time Twitter got hold of the allegation that then-Prime Minister David Cameron had put his penis inside the head of a dead pig (known as #PigGate, it has its own Wikipedia entry and is constantly memorialised by Twitter users in the UK as the best ever day on the site; I am inclined to agree). Indeed, absurdity rules on Twitter, but especially when it comes from the real world.
Fairly obviously, this feels like a response to the fact that much of what is going on in our world – the climate crisis; the rise of the far right – is much too terrifying to contemplate, and so when absurdity and fun comes out of real life, we latch onto it. Equally, however, it’s kind of an extension of the ‘we’re living in a simulation’ attitude that has proliferated over the last few years. There is so much alternately weird, jaw-dropping, and patently terrible shit happening that it’s no wonder that an influential branch of humour has stopped trying to explain anything. After all, what could be more absurd than the end of the world? “Rather than trying to restore meaning and sense where they’ve gone missing, the style aims to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world,” wrote Elizabeth Bruenig of ‘millennial humour’ for the Washington Post two years ago.
“Feral hogs” is simply the latest example of this. It’s important to remember that even if this wasn’t the intention, the initial tweet came as a seeming defence of owning an assault rifle in the aftermath of two mass shootings in the US (“Yes, I understand that people have died, but what if I need to shoot 30-50 feral hogs?”). The memes, therefore, are absurd responses to what was an absurd response in its own right. They are – or were in the beginning, at least – also fundamentally political.
Dr. Simon Weaver from Brunel University’s Department of Social and Political Sciences tells me that “Absurdism and surrealism have often been described as linked with politics, or as being implicitly or ironically political. Absurdism is described as an attempt to escape or demolish political discourse, framing, ideology. In today's context, it might be a response to populist framing or to more mainstream political framing.”
He continues, explaining that we see this especially on Twitter because “Twitter is the most political of social media platforms, in the sense that it is used for politics more than others. It follows that absurdist responses to politics appear on Twitter. Social media more generally offers a democratisation of political commentary and so it makes sense that absurdism emerges, potentially as a bottom-up response to political discourse.”
Twitter has always been a tool for political pisstaking, but especially over the last few years, when the attitude has been to meet the type of banally absurd landscape we’re faced with (say, a political party making a show of how normal they are by going out for a Nando’s) with more absurdity (say, an online publication conducting a full-blown investigation into who ordered what at that Nando’s.) Sometimes, this can be described as resistance, or as showing the thing up to the light to be ridiculed as it should be. Sometimes, it’s simply an unconscious expression of impotence – we feel we can do nothing else, so we go with the prevailing mood.
It’s important to remember that “feral hogs” in particular almost definitely went viral because as a pair of words, it is just fucking funny (and, as for the idea of 30-50 of said hogs flooding a yard within the highly specific time frame of three to five minutes? Well that is just an additional gift.) Every person who made a “feral hogs” meme or tweet was not necessarily taking a stand against conservatism or resistance to gun control measures – most were simply posting a joke, because memes become de-contextualised over time (and through sharing) to exist only as themselves, with their own meanings.
But along with the humour, and along with the fact that memes and collective jokes fundamentally make us feel part of something, “feral hogs” and the absurd internet humour it exemplifies is part of something wider: an acknowledgement that our world in itself is absurd, and maybe some instinctive, knee-jerk attempt to examine that. Or at least an attempt to have a good time in amongst it where possible. Perhaps, then, this online humour – attracted to the absurdities of our contemporary lives above all else – is best described as a real-time enactment of the idea that if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. And let’s face it: “feral hogs.” You’re laughing.