Where does mfw come from?
mfw began to appear on 4chan some time before 2010. The context in which it first appeared is likely the same as it is today. As an imageboard, 4chan allows users to post images along with any text they choose. Because of this, it’s easy to create posts that include reaction images.
After its birth on 4chan, mfw began to experience an uptick in popularity beginning around 2010. The first entry for mfw appeared on Urban Dictionary on June 12, 2010. It didn’t take long after that for users of other sites, including Tumblr and Twitter, to pick up mfw. On April 28, 2011, the subreddit /r/mfw was founded. The format of this subreddit includes a title containing mfw, followed by a link to a reaction image.
Who uses mfw?
Mfw can operate as a standalone device or alongside a picture or GIF. Wherever it goes, mfw is sometimes accompanied by the greater than symbol (>), as >mfw. This is because of its origins on 4chan, where stories are often told in a segmented format separated by > as the story progresses. These are known as “green text stories,” named after the color of the font they’re typically written in. Sometimes the > can be used to direct attention to a reaction image of some sort. However, because mfw exists outside of 4chan, the iconic > isn’t as relevant to or understood by a wider audience, and its usage is sometimes mocked outside of the board.
Since its spread beyond 4chan, mfw without > is sufficient to get across your meaning. Sometimes, even the reaction itself isn’t included. When a reaction GIF or image isn’t included, mfw can be hard to describe. In these cases, it often acts as an intensifier for the surrounding text. This places more emphasis on the words and the feelings the person is trying to communicate. The reader of this text can then imagine what the writer’s face looked like when experiencing those emotions. When a reaction GIF or image is included, the emphasis clearly falls onto these pictorial representations instead of leaving it somewhat ambiguous.
The spelled-out phrase my face when can also replace any instance of mfw, but this is rare in comparison.
A companion to mfw is yfw (your face when), which is used in the same way as mfw. Yfw is used with the understanding that it is referring to the reader’s reaction.
“>accidentally banged my foot on leg of table / >pain / >foot didnt break / >still have to go to school tomorrow / #>mfw”
tfwnojutsu Tumblr (August 17, 2014)
“MFW someone tells me my hair looks nice. [mfw image]”
terminally-unique Reddit (June 6, 2013)
“mfw i can't catch up on Game of Thrones cuz the site i get it from is down 8C”
R.Britton Art @Zoroko Twitter (May 29, 2011)