Ever since the dawn of social media, fans have found creative ways to obsess over their favorite TV shows — be it chat rooms littered with “Lost” theories; Tumblr pages dedicated to “Teen Wolf”; or “Game of Thrones” hashtags filled with millions of tweets during just one episode.
A handful of years ago, the internet birthed yet another mechanism to interact with television: “no context” Twitter accounts. True to their name, these profiles post captioned screenshots from popular series — from “Glee” to “Succession” — removed from the context of the show.
There are no context accounts for series ranging from “The Sopranos” to “Queer Eye” to “SpongeBob SquarePants,” while 274,000 Twitter users follow a profile solely dedicated to Nick Miller (Jake Johnson) of “New Girl.”
“The Office” alone has more than a dozen no context accounts, the most popular of which has over half a million followers. Sometimes, the screencaps are just isolated moments from the show — think Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) spilling the vat of chili on the floor of Dunder Mifflin — but sometimes they’re placed in an entirely new context relevant to world events.
Kaysi, a 24-year-old “Parks and Recreation” fan who runs @nocontextpawnee, tells Variety that many of her most popular tweets played on the 2020 presidential election. During the recount, she posted a screenshot of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) saying, “Well, math is hard.” A day later, when Donald Trump had officially lost, she posted a meme of Donna Meagle (Retta) saying, “You’re fired.”
“Abbott Elementary” writer and producer Brittani Nichols says no context accounts allow fans to “put their own spin” on their favorite series: “It gives the show a life of its own outside of traditional broadcasting and streaming. It also gives fans this sort of shorthand and way of communicating that is unique to the community.”
Kaysi has run the “Parks” account for about five years, but she said her follower count exploded right around when the pandemic set in. Screenshots of Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) wearing a mask during flu season or Leslie complaining about not being able to go into the office due to a government shutdown gained entirely new meaning in the world of COVID-19 and went viral on Twitter.
“Those things were just so relatable to everyone during the pandemic, even though those episodes came out five, six, seven years before,” Kaysi says. In fact, many other owners of no context accounts credit the pandemic with increasing their followings — likely because people glued to the couch in a time of despair returned to their favorite comfort shows and began seeking a sense of community online.
“My favorite part of running the ‘Parks’ account is getting to talk to other fans,” Kaysi says. “It’s nice to see how even seven years after the show, there’s still such a community for it. To be able to pop online and be like, ‘Li’l Sebastian died 11 years ago today’… we’re all crying about a fictional horse.”
However, Kaysi notes that her account is not just enjoyed by “Parks and Rec” experts who have seen the show dozens of times. New fans are constantly joining the community.
Similarly, Anna Golez, who manages the most popular “Succession” fan account, @nocontextroyco, says many of her followers started watching the show because they wanted to understand the context of her screenshots. In other words, no context accounts have inspired many hyper-online people — largely Gen Zers — to jump aboard TV shows because “they’re seeing all these memes on their timeline, but they don’t know what they mean,” Golez says.
Nichols adds: “It spreads the show to a completely new audience that taps in from seeing the screenshots. It offers an opportunity for people to check something out they normally would not have.”
When punching up scripts, television writers are obviously not thinking about which lines will land best on Twitter. But Nichols says seeing her jokes go viral online is nonetheless a treat. “We don’t write to get memed. We don’t write lines specifically thinking that they would make a good screenshot, but when they do, it’s certainly something that I think everyone enjoys.”
“We’ve all been wondering who is behind the no context account for ‘Abbott,’” says Joya McCrory, another writer on the hit elementary school sitcom. “I’m glad they love the show and are putting in that effort. We have so much gratitude.”
“Abbott Elementary” isn’t the only writers’ room that enjoys its no context counterpart. Allison, who runs @nocontextbcs, says the official “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” accounts follow her, as well as “Saul” showrunner Peter Gould. Yağmur, who runs a popular “Community” account, says star Ken Jeong was one of her first followers and helped the account grow by retweets. Soon after, Joel McHale and many of the show’s writers hopped on board as well.
Managing no context accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers is no easy job. Golez says when new episodes of “Succession” came out, she watched them “once for me and twice to get screenshots.” Kaysi maintains an organized system of folders on her computer filled with “Parks and Recreation” screengrabs labeled by episode and tagged with keywords so they’re easy to find. Allison says she pulls screenshots from a Plex server, where she can snag pictures with the highest resolution available.
Yet, nearly all the account owners interviewed for this piece do it without getting paid. While no context accounts foster vibrant online communities, they also provide incredible free marketing for major networks and streamers. After all, it’s the reason they aren’t dishing out cease and desist letters.
“I don’t know how anyone could see free marketing as bad,” says Nichols. “If it was harmful to the creators and to the networks, I think they would shut it down. They would pull out their little copyright laws and shut these accounts down, but they don’t because they know how helpful they are.”
To take it a step further, Netflix has adopted the no context trend for its official marketing strategy for high-school dramedy “Sex Education.” With more than 400,000 followers, the Twitter-verified no context account is wildly popular, but it’s also been met with some resistance.
“I definitely don’t agree with [Netflix] co-opting the trend,” says Nichols, adding that it’s often “cringey” when social accounts for corporations and TV shows try to mimic internet language. “There are some things that are birthed from the internet and should continue to belong to the people on the internet.”
Adds McCrory: “That’s just the way the internet works. The youth come up with something cool and then corporations see it and co-opt it, and it becomes uncool.”
Of course, while many take issue with a major streamer cashing in on something fans online already do for free, others are just surprised to see the trend hit new heights.
“We do it for fun, so it’s just insane that it has reached Netflix and gone this far,” says Francesca Persick, who runs a no context account for “Glee.” “They’ve seen all these amateur accounts bringing resurgences to their shows, so they’ve made their own no context account because it works.”
Representatives for Netflix and “Sex Education” declined to speak with Variety for this report.