Nearly 60 years ago, Jack Weinberg, a U.C. Berkeley student whose arrest spurred the era-defining Free Speech Movement, made a simple, somewhat tossed-off, comment to a reporter: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” In the process, he helped further ignite a generational wedge that sticks with us today, marking college campuses and the young people they contain as the initiators and supporters of a host of social movements, from anti-war protests to Occupy Wall Street.
In the 2020s, there’s a new student movement afoot…online. (And in some cases, it’s the main thing keeping college students on Facebook.)
“I mean, we make memes,” said Rachel Trujillo, one of the administrators for U.C. Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens, a Facebook group dedicated to posting memes about campus life.
Yes, really. With roots to Weinberg’s own alma mater, college meme groups, which focus on the joys and frustrations of individual campuses, are emerging as the latest, and perhaps one of the most useful, forms of voicing student dissent in the 2020s.
Though they’re often colloquially referred to as “pages,” which are visible to anyone, technically, Trujillo notes, most of them are actually “groups,” which have a variety of privacy settings.
“It’s a meme renaissance,” Kelsang Dolma, an administrator for Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens, a page like Berkeley’s at Yale University, said.
Some context, for those over 30
College meme groups, Trujillo and Dolma explain, emerged in the final throes of the 2010s. U.C. Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens, formed in late 2016, is largely considered the first. Berkeley’s group, which now boasts nearly 200,000 members, started with just 30 or so people, some of whom met at a vigil for Harambe, the deceased gorilla of internet lore, according to Trujillo. (Kids today!)
As the group grew in popularity, other schools followed suit, with the phenomenon now all but ubiquitous to life on campuses big and small, according to Ashutosh Jindal, a founding member of the meme group for Johns Hopkins — once called Daddy Bloomberg Memes for Money Needing Teens (JHU), and now, following a flurry of critique about presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg’s attempts at meme relevance, named Ronny D’s Dank Meme Machine (JHU). Ignore whatever feeling just flushed over your body when reading those group names: Almost every group — UChicago Memes for Theoretical Midwest Teens; Northwestern Memes for Slightly Bankrupt Teens — follows a similar title structure, typically a variant of Berkeley’s. Many pages have a wide reach as well: Johns Hopkins’ group has almost 17,000 members, the University of Chicago’s has around 26,000, and Northwestern’s has nearly 16,000.
They’re similar in other ways, too. The memes in these groups all primarily focus on the insular in-jokes of their respective schools: undesirable dining halls, assumptions about certain majors, favorite professors, and the like. A quick scroll through their pages can serve as a crash course on campus happenings. Dolma points out that some students join a school’s meme group when trying to make their college decision.
That said, you probably won’t fully understand a lot of the memes unless you go to the school. Exhibit A: The glorious chaos (below) from Yale’s meme group about a beloved Dean and campus libraries.
The groups are unique, too, in that they sit at the intersection of two different iterations of the internet. They merge the homey glow of college-specific social media, an older phenomenon which once bred, you know, TheFacebook, with a uniquely Gen Z sensibility. Fresh as they may feel, these groups offer a much more fundamental benefit, according to Dr. Karen North, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies the intersection of social media and psychology.
What they offer is primal, North notes. Students get the creative freedom that can come with being in a closed group, alongside the communal comfort that comes from being in on the joke. Beyond that, there’s the wider usefulness of using memes to communicate political goals.
College meme groups offer something unique. They’re an outlet for a localized, razor-sharp critique with an attentive, and communicative, audience.
These memes are “operating like political cartoons. The beauty of that is that people [posting the memes] are trying to focus their audiences on key issues,” North said. “Then, the absurdity of memes helps people understand the ramifications of actions. By making it absurd and funny, it calls people’s attention to the key message embedded within the meme.”
And that’s where the groups’ political content becomes interesting. While other social media platforms have already proven themselves to be ripe breeding grounds for the bottled political frustrations of a new generation of dissenting voices, college meme groups offer something unique. They’re an outlet for a localized, razor-sharp critique with an attentive, and communicative, audience. It’s college. Everyone has some vested interest in what’s happening on the (digital) quad.
“People are forced to be on Facebook to get campus news,” Dolma said, noting the perceived outdatedness of the platform that houses most meme groups. “It’s a way to get news very easily and readily. [But] then, it snow piles from there. Administrators became known as the meme people. The meme page grew beyond what we ever could have imagined.”
College meme groups are no joke
Unlike other platforms, political memes on the groups rarely veer into broader social critique, Trujillo and Jindal note. Instead, they remain focused on the same kind of school-centric content that typically floods the groups, which is precisely their benefit for the students in the group, Jindal says.
“If people were talking about foreign policy, it wouldn’t end up on the meme page,” Jindal said. “[But] I was informed of very serious things that were going on at Hopkins through the meme page. The meme page has eyes on it.”
What’s unique is that the content on the groups has to relate back to life at a given school. This is typically one of the most zealously enforced aspects of moderating the groups, Trujillo and Jindal say. (Some groups have directives saying the same on their “About” section, or pinned to the top of their “Discussion” section, like this one from Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Tweens: “All memes must be Harvard-specific. If the meme could apply to any group of wealthy, pretentious pseudo-intellectuals, at least Photoshop a Harvard logo in there somewhere.”)
What this means, in practice, is that any political content has to tie back to the school in some way as well, thus giving it an especially captive audience. Rather than weighing in on a relentless national political discourse, political memes typically emerge on the groups only when larger social issues touch something going on at their campus, like when Yale students call out their school’s climate policies:
The goal of political memes on these groups, Trujillo says, is not necessarily to change minds or directly encourage attendance at protests, though this does happen. At Johns Hopkins, Jindal notes, talks about a privatized police force on campus fostered continual discussion on the meme group, eventually resulting in a sit-in organized by student groups.
The connection between meme groups and real political happenings can become less opaque in other ways too, like when the Berkeley group collaborated with its campus’ food-delivering robots (Kids Today 2.0!) to give students a discount after proving they voted.
Even as instances of explicit mobilizing remain rare, the groups offer their most useful benefit as public forums, Trujillo says, with students trading nihilistic musings on the myriad ways in which, for the current generation of undergrads, larger political issues are constantly touching student life, notably when linked to especially pervasive issues in American life, like income equality.
In addition to being a platform for student-to-student commiseration, Trujillo and Dolma point out that many students feel as though the groups afford them more direct access to voicing their opinions to school administration than elsewhere. That’s not to say that all school administrations pay attention to — or even know about — the meme group at their given school.
Of the meme group administrators interviewed here, only the communications department for Jindal’s school (Johns Hopkins) responded to a request for comment on this story. A spokesperson wrote, via email: “Johns Hopkins students are known for their intellectual curiosity, creativity, and wit, as illustrated by the many platforms and outlets they utilize to express their perspectives on a wide range of subjects. We do occasionally see or hear about memes circulating among the student population, but do not routinely follow the content.”
“People feel heard [in meme groups]”
But for schools with professors or administrators following their activity, as Dolma asserts occurs on Yale’s meme group, the groups can offer a fairly direct line of access.
At some schools, outlets for students to directly communicate with school administration or officials are scant, and usually heavy on effort, Dolma says.
“Posting on the meme page has a way lower threshold than trying to write and publish an op-ed,” Dolma said. For the latter, “you have to write at least 800 words, and it takes longer. On the meme page, you can instantly post a meme and it’s seen by 10,000 people.”
Trujillo notes that because of the immediate viewership that can come on these groups, they help students communicate with the school at large, becoming especially beneficial for gaining an audience for grievances and injustices.
“People feel heard,” Trujillo said.
Everything in moderation
In a perfectly meme-drenched universe, whenever issues arise on campus, the groups would exist as a direct line of communication between students and administration, like an especially funny town hall meeting. The reality of the situation is more complicated.
Most meme “pages” require administrator approval, which doesn’t make them private, either. Following a chaotic fit of laughter when first introduced to Berkeley’s group, I requested to join the group of every school I could think of, in a frenzied attempt to avoid studying for finals my junior year of college (at a school with, yes, its own meme page). Some have questions from the administrators to confirm student status, though most are … joke-y. Oberlin Consortium of Memes for Discourse-ready Teens, for instance, asks, “ya like jazz?” I answered, “ya, like jazz.” I was already accepted to the group by the time I remembered, embarrassed by my own lapse in memory, that this was a reference to 2007’s meme-laden Bee Movie.
Said differently, the groups are not actually private. But because they do have some barriers to entry, students might be inclined to think that the memes posted on them are private as well, which is hardly the case, North points out.
“People forget what they do is potentially available to anybody in the world, by way of a screenshot,” North said. “If you think it’s private, it’s public. If you think it’s temporary, it’s permanent. Everything is permanent and public. Your audience is broader than you think.”
This came to light for some back in 2017 when Harvard rescinded the acceptance of at least 10 incoming students to the Class of 2021 after they were revealed to have exchanged offensive memes within a private messaging group, titled, at one point, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.”
North points out that the supposed “privacy” afforded to students in these groups can embolden memes that veer towards the extreme, which could have especially harmful consequences when the memes touch on more politicized matters.
“People will say things in privacy that they wouldn’t say otherwise,” North said. “People can be lured into being more extreme if they believe they’re speaking privately.”
This is only compounded by the fact that regulating particularly strident voices sometimes proves challenging. On these groups, the job of managing what memes make it in falls on administrators and moderators. Different schools have their own selection processes for these positions. Some involve an application process, while others, Dolma points out, have a more hereditary lineage, with friends passing the group on to friends. What this means, ultimately, is that a small group of students is left to regulate what can sometimes be an overwhelming amount of incoming memes. (Trujillo and the five other administrators for the Berkeley group split up the responsibilities, sifting through daily submissions that can range from five memes (on an especially slow day) to submissions well into the high 50s, according to Trujillo.)
The moderation process also brings up another issue that has vexed other aspects of campus life for many colleges as well: a purported minimization of the voices of conservative students.
Trujillo, Jindal, and Dolma maintain that there are only two questions necessary to determine whether or not a meme makes it on the group: Is it about the school, and is it funny? Considerations about where a meme falls on the political spectrum would never keep it from making it on the page, they say.
However, Trujillo notes, some students and student groups have accused Berkeley’s meme group of intentionally silencing them, sometimes for conservative political beliefs, though Trujillo says that’s never the intention.
“We’re not trying to silence people,” Trujillo said. “We don’t accept them when they’re not funny. We’ve accepted some memes that may have made people [on different sides of the political spectrum] mad. But they were funny.”
If a meme is too “spicy” (Trujillo’s words), it’s usually brought to a group chat with other administrators in order to receive an in-depth deliberation about whether it should go up or not.
“I commit at least one hour a day [to looking through memes]. I’ll scroll through memes at lunch, or at dinner,” Trujillo said. “It takes some work.”
Despite any conflicts that arise in the moderation process, Trujillo ultimately looks on the group, and what it represents to fellow students, with pride.
“Every student seems to know about it. Even people who have graduated know about it. One student did a sociology thesis on it,” Trujillo said. (The thesis was titled “The Berkeley Bubble: Constructing a Political Echo Chamber in UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens.”) She continued, “It’s kind of surreal that people see this as part of their college experience. School can be rough. We just want people to have a nice experience.”
What’s the matter with kids today?
With all the talk of spicy memes, meet-ups at Harambe vigils, and “discourse-ready teens,” the world of student dissent today might appear frivolous compared to Weinberg’s famous arrest.
North, however, maintains that the dissent expressed on college meme groups is similar to the behavior observed in young people generation after generation.
“People in early adulthood are in a period of their lives when they believe passionately about causes,” North said. “Generation after generation of kids in high school and college will protest issues of the day. If there’s a compelling interest, they’ll protest.”
“Every generation has its own way of talking to each other.”
There’s a tendency, though, to constantly assume there’s something wrong with the kids today. North pushes back, defending the ~youths~ and their digital habits.
“Whenever you look at behavior in the digital front, people always say that this is a brand new phenomenon,” North said. “That’s usually not the case. It’s a standard behavior, but now it’s being applied to a new situation.”
North maintains that while college meme groups are offering a distinctly original form of campus communication, especially concerning their capacity for voicing student dissent, they’re really just indicative of current norms in communication rather than a new phenomenon.
“Every generation has its own way of talking to each other,” North said. “Every generation has its own slang, its own way of communicating. Memes are a current, fun way that people communicate with each other. But they’re not really new. So, I don’t know if memes are going anywhere.”