Mulch and the enduring appeal of internet absurdism

I am haunted by mulch posts.

The most recent mulch video came to me in the middle of the night, when I was hours into scrolling through a particularly nasty bout of insomnia. The video was an edit of a tiny dog surrounded by a frame of glittering hearts, with an AI-generated voice narrating, “Today, I soilmaxxed to the highest potential. I am full of loam, asbestos and red 40.”

Mulch posts have periodically appeared in my restless nights for months. In the hours that I know I should be sleeping, I am hounded by content of petite dogs proclaiming that they’re soilpilled, or mulchmaxxing, or delighting in eating mulch with fellow sisters of the loam. The mulchgang prays for a plentiful harvest. Mulch posts celebrate a body nourished by microplastics and synthetic food dye. The silty clay earth feeds us all. 

Before the inevitable moral panic sets in once the trend gains enough mainstream attention: Mulch posts are not encouraging children to ingest dirt. Mulch memes are just that -- silly posts that, like the absurd, post-ironic internet humor that has been popular for years, aren’t that deep. The trend’s earnestness provides a brief reprieve from the fatalist cynicism that tends to drive meme culture. 

The meme came from, of all places, Instagram Reels. The spread of mulch posts across TikTok shows that Instagram still has influence in driving internet culture, despite Reels’ rocky start. It’s one of the first original Reels content to go viral beyond Instagram.   

Mulchposting started with a post in May from Instagram meme account sme11a__, which featured the word “mulch” superimposed on a low-res image of a white dog. The post was captioned, “mulch is here #mulchgang.” The post itself wasn’t particularly viral; in the last six months, it’s gained about 10,000 likes. The meme didn’t go viral until sme11a__ posted a Reel referencing the meme a month later, Know Your Meme reports, which gained over 103,000 likes. Other meme accounts started posting similar content — in a post of a comically fluffy dog with the text “sandy clay loam,” the meme account qooslag even credited sme11a__ for starting the trend. 

Sme11a__, whose Instagram bio says they don’t have a TikTok account, continued posting mulch Reels throughout the summer. The videos typically featured supercuts of fluffy white dogs over audio about mulch. In September, they posted a Reel using an AI-generated childish voice that said, “I love mulch. Mulch is my favorite food.”

Others started reposting sme11a__’s Reel, which had over 195,000 likes on Instagram, to TikTok that month. The meme, which had been largely contained to Instagram, began taking off on the competing platform. On TikTok, the tag #mulchgang has over 49 million views, and tag #mulchmaxxing has over 20 million views. TikToks about the meme’s apparent obscurity and bizarre premise further propelled its popularity. 

Under a video about struggling to explain the meme to those who aren’t chronically online, TikTok user bisouchuu commented, “i am mulchmaxxing on microplastic 24/7 but i keep mentioning it to my non soilpilled friends.” 

“This message makes me feel like a Victorian child when I read it,” another user replied to bisouchuu. 

Some have questioned whether mulch posts could be dogwhistles for hate groups. It's understandable that viewers would be suspicious of coded language in memes, given the history of white supremacy groups adopting seemingly innocuous imagery as symbols of their ideology. The white nationalist campaign to claim Pepe the Frog as the face of racist extremism jaded us all against anything online that should be wholesome. An Instagram user asked sme11a__ to reassure them that mulch gang isn't a "n@z1" or "NFT cult" in the comments of a recent Reel.

"im not any of those things, mulch gang is just funny dogs eat dirt," sme11a__ replied.

Mulchposting has all the markers of meme humor mischaracterized as “Gen Z culture,” which is really just Very Online humor. It’s absurd, and it’s easy to replicate, and there’s space for the joke to evolve. Internet absurdism is cyclical in nature, and mulch posts have been preceded by years of shitposting.

In 2017, The Washington Post tried to explain internet humor in a column titled, “Why is millennial humor so weird?” The column cited the meme “Hey Beter,” a four-panel image that starts with someone addressing the “Family Guy” character Peter Griffin as “Beter,” and ends with a phrase completely unrelated to the first image. In the example cited by The Washington Post, a laser-eyed Elmo holds Peter at gunpoint and demands that he spell “Whomst’ve.” The meme ends by asking viewers to “follow for a free iphone 5.”  

In its recent explanation of Gen Z humor for bewildered millennials, Insider cited the Grimace shake trend that went viral on TikTok earlier this year. In Grimace shake videos, TikTok users filmed themselves taking sips of McDonald’s purple milkshake, before the video abruptly cut to a clip of the same user incapacitated on the ground, in abandoned buildings or in eerily empty playgrounds. 

Neither “Hey Beter” nor the Grimace shake trend have an explicit punchline. The non sequitur is the punchline. Absurdist philosophy pervades meme humor, and the futility of trying to explain jokes that are ultimately meaningless is what makes internet absurdism so funny. It’s fitting that the meme “One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy,” which went viral on Instagram and TikTok this year when users paired the phrase with images and videos of impossible tasks, is pulled from an essay by philosopher and absurdist writer Albert Camus.

Internet culture is constantly subverting itself, and the “Gen Z humor” shaping memes today, like mulch posts, is an evolution of “millennial humor” of the 2010s. With its motivational undertones and earnest nature, the version of internet humor that exists today is decidedly less bleak than its millennial predecessor, which the Guardian described as “disorientating, dark and strange” in 2019. That millennial humor was shaped by online trends that existed long before social media. The 1998 “Hampster Dance,” credited as one of the first internet memes, was infectious, nonsensical and at the time, inexplicably funny.

The trajectory of mulch posts, from Instagram to TikTok instead of the other way around, is uncommon, but given the enduring popularity of absurdist memes, it makes sense that shitpost-y content would be one of the first original Instagram trends to break through to mainstream social media in years. Screenshots of Instagram posts, most of which are from meme accounts, are constantly reposted as TikTok slideshows — though the recycled content consists of standalone memes, and haven’t inspired a larger trend under a unifying theme. Reels may have had original trends, like viral songs or popular editing techniques, but few, if any, have been unique enough to spread to other platforms. 

Instagram’s hold on internet culture slipped as TikTok usage became more ubiquitous in recent years, and TikTok users have derided Instagram users as millennials who are behind on meme trends. Instagram’s short-form video feature, Reels, was built to rival TikTok, but the platform’s early years have been dominated by recycled TikToks. Instagram has tried to discourage users from reposting TikToks by refusing to recommend posts that contain TikTok’s watermark. An internal Meta document from August 2022 noted that nearly a third of Reels content was originally posted elsewhere, The Wall Street Journal reported

Lacking original content and overrun with reposts, Reels has been perceived as a platform for out-of-touch millennials — a sentiment jokingly held by many on TikTok. More Gen Z adults use Instagram than TikTok, according to surveys conducted by the data analysis company Morning Consult for its semiannual report on media and entertainment, and more Gen Z adults use both platforms at least once a day than millennials. It isn’t a generational divide that’s fueling the negative perception of Reels, it’s the lack of original content. 

TikTok users often joke that Reels users are slow to adopt trends and behind on current events. One recent viral video about Reels users, posted in November, says, “instagram reels users just finding out that the submarine imploded,” referencing OceanGate’s Titan submersible that went missing and later found wrecked in June. 

Mulch is one of the first Reels trends that actually originated on Instagram, and it’s one of the first to translate to other social media platforms’ formats. The meme can exist as a static image of a crusty white dog asking, “who up mulching?” or as a video narrated by an AI-generated voice extolling the virtues of munching on chemically enriched soil. 

In 2021, i-D predicted that incomprehensible shitposting accounts would prevail over the polished meme accounts that post content for universal appeal. Today, Instagram’s meme culture has largely shifted toward low-effort, text-heavy content that blends confessional captions with seemingly unrelated imagery. A recent post from the Instagram account fembiotic, for example, superimposed the text “my life is over. (my birthday is coming up)” over a vintage illustration of a cat holding a pink cupcake.  

Meme accounts are keeping Instagram relevant in the face of competitors, and naturally, a meme account drove one of the first original Reels trends. 

Whether the meme lasts is questionable — nothing kills a meme faster than going mainstream enough to be co-opted by brands, or worse, being covered by a news outlet — but the internet absurdism that shapes mulch posts will continue evolving into something weirder and more unexplainable long after mulch loses relevance. By then, it won’t be “Gen Alpha humor” or whatever generation comes after. It’ll still be internet absurdism. Until then, Reels can shake its profoundly uncool reputation by leaning into the shitposting. The sisters of the loam are all for it.