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“Circle Jerk” is a pejorative slang term referring to a positive feedback loop which occurs when an idea, belief or meme that is already customary within an online community becomes re-iterated and rewarded in a perpetual cycle, giving rise to redundancy, clichés and karma whoring. This phenomenon is typically observed in communities consisting of self-contained forums devoted to specific interests, beliefs or subcultures.
The term “circle jerk” was initially used to describe a sexual practice in which a group of men masturbate themselves or each other while sitting in a circle. The earliest known use of the term dates back to 1979, when the Los Angeles punk band the Bedwetters renamed their band to the Circle Jerks after one of the band members found it in a dictionary of English slang words. While there are digital footprints of its usage on Usenet newsgroups in the 1980s and 1990s, "circle jerk’ largely remained an offline slang term.
Then on January 22nd, 1999, Online Slang Dictionary user Audrey M. submitted an entry for “circle jerk,” alternatively defining the term as “a pointless group endeavor.” On February 12th, 2001, the book Studs, Tools, and the Family Jewels: Metaphors Men Live By by Peter Francis Murphy was released, defining “circlejerk” as “a boring or time-wasting meeting or other event.” On May 17th, 2003, Urban Dictionary user “anti-racist” submitted an entry for the term “circlejerk,” which defined the term as both a group sex act and an echo chamber-style discussion.
“To kneel in a circle with others and pleasure oneself. Also refers to a pompous, self-congratulatory discussion where little to no progress is made.”
Related: Echo Chamber Effect
The echo chamber effect refers to a phenomenon that occurs when people are isolated in social circles that confirm personal biases, beliefs and ideologies. Online, the phenomenon became amplified after transitioning from BBS sites to social networking communities in the late 2000s, where users and algorithms could curate what feeds they followed based on their own interests and biases. The effect has often been criticized for allowing false information to spread without being challenged and creating barrier in communication between those who share differing opinions.
On July 16th, 2005, The Constructive Curmudgeon blog posted a review of the film What the Bleep Do We Know?, to which commenter Phil Aldrige referred to the film as a “new age circlejerk.” On October 10th, Straight Dope Forums member Zebra posted a thread asking other members to define the term “circle jerk,” to which member THespos responded that it was often used in his office to describe time-wasting meetings. On January 3rd, 2006, an entry titled “The LiveJournal Circle Jerk” was created on the Internet culture wiki Encyclopedia Dramatica, described as “an elitist group of inept trolls who go about LiveJournal, fellating one another’s egos at every turn.” On July 18th, 2007, YouTuber chris3ff uploaded a video referring to YouTube celebrity collaboration videos as a “circle jerk” (shown below).
Usage on Reddit
The term “circle jerk” is prominently used on topic-based and tight-knit communities like Reddit and 4chan, where discussions can quickly easily saturated with inside jokes or references that are inaccessible to newcomers or casual visitors.
On December 10th, 2008, the /r/circlejerk subreddit was created to share cliched catchphrases, memes and beliefs that are considered to be pervasive among the Reddit community, such as praising the American politician Ron Paul and use of the terms “so brave”, “up votes to the left” and “literally Hitler.” Since then, several other circlejerk subreddits have been created, including /r/fitnesscirclejerk, /r/engineeringcirclejerk and /r/liberalcirclejerk. On August 6th, 2012, Redditor tikatwit submitted the question “What is /r/circlejerk” to the /r/ExplainItLikeImFive subreddit, to which Redditor -Sam-R responded that it was a subreddit for satirizing common posts and beliefs found on social news aggregating site. On January 1st, 2013, Redditor Khiva submitted an “Anatomy of a circlejerk” to the /r/circlebroke subreddit, which pointed out several notable quirks about the Reddit “hivemind.” As of January 2013, SubRedditFinder has over 65 subreddits tagged with the label “circlejerk” and a Facebook page titled “Reddit Circlejerk” has received over 3,100 likes.