A picture of a generic commuter bus speeding down a D.C. street is currently the most liked meme in George Washington University’s “GW memes for the most politically active teens” Facebook group. It says:
Bae: Come home
Me: I can’t I’m on the Vern
Bae: My roommates aren’t home
Me: [photo of speeding bus]
To an outsider, it really doesn’t make that that much sense — What’s the Vern? — but to the 1,100 students who liked and shared it, it’s a slice of their college life in a nutshell. It’s #relatable.
College-centric meme groups are a subset of the larger internet meme culture that exists on online forums like Reddit and Tumblr. Typical memes in these groups chronicle student life and create social commentary on everything from crippling student loan debt to university politics and school rivalries.
As meme groups spring up and grow at elite universities, they’re changing college culture in unprecedented ways. College students are using memes to relieve stress online, but they can cause trouble when they take a offensive or inappropriate turn, as 10 Harvard admits just learned the hard way when their admissions were rescinded after unsavory posts in a private meme group were revealed.
“I’m not even sure I’d call it a subculture anymore — it’s so pervasive and almost everyone on campus is in these groups,” Ephraim Sutherland, founder of Yale’s meme group told USA TODAY College. “It’s mainstream.”
Inception and expansion
These student-driven meme groups have grown online since late 2016, when UC Berkeley’s Facebook group “UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens” gained traction with thousands of college students — including scores who don’t even attend the university. The group has over 95,000 members, while UC Berkeley enrollment tops out at 40,000.
A viral meme can garner thousands of likes in the group — and sometimes even a sneaky re-post by a rival group. A joke about a tough professor, a favorite college-town bar or a heated school rivalry can unite students around an experience they can all relate to.
The Berkeley group was spearheaded by then-junior Chris Tril in May 2016 as an exclusive hub for sharing student-created memes related strictly to Cal culture. An outsider might not understand the language and references of the memes. After all, the “official unofficial” rules prohibit reposting already-existing memes and anything non-Cal related.
In a commentary Tril wrote for the Daily Californian, the student UC Berkeley newspaper, in January, he said he created the group after participating in two 4chan boards, hoping to find fellow Cal students who shared his humor. And these groups soon took off at other Ivies and elite universities.
Indeed, these groups are most popular among Ivies and baby Ivies: Witness Harvard’s Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Tweens, UCLA’s UCLA Memes for Sick AF Tweens, University of Southern California’s USC Memes for Spoiled Pre-teens, Duke’s Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens, Yale’s Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens, and more.
‘Wit and originality’
These groups thrive because students need an outlet to express their feelings about college, Sutherland said, especially at elite universities where the pressure to perform is high.
“[They] make light of on-campus issues, general student anxiety or common tensions of college life, lack of sleep, lack of a lot of things,” Sutherland said.
Terence Casey, a rising senior at George Washington University, noted that memes derive their humor from relatable topics combined with pop culture references.
“In college groups, an element of exclusivity is added to the mix,” Casey said. “The relatable sentiment is generally an inside joke referring to life at the university, and may not necessarily need a pop culture reference to merit recognition in the form of likes and laugh reacts.”
Casey points to the bus meme, his personal creation, as a perfect example of this. He broke it down, explaining that it suggests that the speaker is going to take GW’s Mount Vernon bus (“the Vern”) to hurry over to see their love interest.
Brendesha Tynes, a professor at the University of Southern California whose research focuses how young people experience digital media, says sharing memes helps students break the ice in awkward situations — like in a group for newly admitted students.
“People want a space for like-minded individuals to connect around these issues and to joke and forge a connection that they would continue through their college years,” Tynes says. “It helps people to feel connected to one another and forge these emotional bonds and community around topics that they find of interest.”
Sutherland thinks these groups tend to be most popular among Ivies and other elite universities where competition is their fuel.
“I think there’s another layer where it feels like a competition of wit,” Sutherland says. “I know as Harvard’s page grew, Yale’s grew, [and] we would get in little meme wars. It’s a competition of wit and originality.”
‘The darkest corners of the web’
But even in a subculture devoted to community-building, things can take a less innocent turn, spawning private GroupMe messages and group texts used as backchannels for sharing non-politically correct content.
Last year, Harvard administrators issued a statement denouncing students who shared “racially charged jokes” in a private GroupMe message related to the official Class of 2020 group, the Crimson reported.
No disciplinary action was taken at the time, but when some of this year’s admitted students shared sexually explicit and racially offensive memes in a similar group message, 10 students had their acceptances revoked.
The memes in question, some of which were published online by college-oriented news site The Tab, made light of sexual assault and minority groups, and included references to Mexicans, the Holocaust and child abuse.
Tynes said one reason these “dark” memes can spring up among elite college students is the implicit privilege and superiority some group members feel after being admitted.
“[These memes] cement your position in society,” Tynes says. “If you feel threatened in some way, or you’re a privileged group in society. … It cements your status on the hierarchy when you can share this meme that denigrates a woman, or denigrates a Mexican person.”
Harvard’s decision to rescind the acceptances of students who shared these memes has drawn criticism, with some detractors saying it infringes on students’ free speech. But Tynes says the sharing of offensive and explicit images has real-world effects on students, especially members of the targeted groups, who experience depression and see their academic performance suffer.
“It’s passed off as ‘just a joke,’ but it reproduces some of the negative and sometimes really vile stereotypes that exist in our culture,” Tynes says.
Sutherland says the “dark memes” circulated by those incoming Harvard freshmen are examples of what niche channels on Reddit and 4chan often spawn before entering the mainstream.
“There is an internet subculture, and I just think it’s sort of intrinsically wrapped up in that,” Sutherland says. “I know on Reddit it’s a big place where people get a lot of their edgy memes or dank memes, and I think those groups have sort of splintered off getting progressively darker, leading all the way to the darkest corners of the web.”
Placing a lighthearted picture — often from a popular TV show, like Spongebob Squarepants — over disturbing or offensive content can be a way to pass off dark humor as something more innocent. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily dampen its power to offend.
Sutherland says a key factor behind the rise in dark memes is shareability. Because it’s an image, all you have to do is share it — with the goal of winning laughs and likes.
“I think coming from a humor-related side, it seems to present a more innocent seeming way to get into the darker things,” Sutherland says. “Those sort of darker recesses of the web have come out through memes into more of a mainstream platform which is where they are getting more notice.”