Memes: A Source of Distraction or Solidarity?

Source: Facebook

By Stephanie Yang and Paul Yoon

Memes. We know and love them. Whether as a source of endless scrolling to avoid a deadline, or a reason to tag your friends to share a laugh, memes have been a hallmark of digital natives who share everything from mundane personal experiences, to pop culture references, or even politics.

Thanks to the Internet, memes have spread far and wide, through the underworld of 4chan where they began into the newsfeeds of everyday people– even Donald Trump has retweeted a meme or two. Memes have the ability to bring people together. Through meme accounts focused on a specific topic or community, it’s clear that a meme can get a laugh from two very different people.

One meme account that has taken NYU by storm is the Facebook page “NYU Memes for Slightly Bankrupt Teens.” Users posting on the page typically publish self-deprecating jokes about student-specific phenomena: course registration on Albert, the manic-inducing stress of midterms, or the different NYU stereotypes that exist. However, overnight, NYU Memes for Slightly Bankrupt Teens transformed into an unlikely support system.

On October 2nd, an NYU freshman tragically committed suicide by jumping in front of an oncoming L train at the First Avenue-14th Street station. As the news quickly spread, and as administrators stayed relatively quiet about the incident, the de-facto NYU meme page made a point to reach out to fellow students. For 24 hours, the meme page retitled itself as “NYU Memes for Wholesome Teens” and was filled with posts of positive messages, words of support, and a sense of community despite NYU’s typically non-existent campus unity. What was once a Facebook page filled with Stern snake jokes was suddenly populated with memes about how grades don’t define you, a thread devoted to solely dog pictures, and posts bringing together different NYU schools. While the 24 hours of “wholesome memes” was no permanent solution to student stresses, they served as a reminder that despite how dysfunctional being an NYU student can be, the student body can indeed unite as a community when times are tough.

In addition to “NYU Memes for Slightly Bankrupt Teens,” other non-NYU meme accounts have struck a chord among different types of people. One example is a Facebook meme page called “subtle asian traits” that posts memes about common Asian or immigrant struggles and other relatable content. While the group was only started in mid-September this year, the page has grown to over 400,000 members– comprised generally of young students with Asian backgrounds. Many minority groups in the United States have difficulty in feeling a sense of belonging. Although a page for jokes, Subtle Asian Traits has provided Asians a platform to discover that they are not so alone. The most popular posts get thousands of people tagging their fellow Asian friends who can relate to things like “Tiger parenting”, common dish names that dim sum cart-pushers scream out, or being shocked when told to keep shoes on in a Caucasian household. The page also finds ways to unite different Asian cultures, with memes in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and Japanese. In one effort to be more inclusive, a non-Japanese user posted a Japanese meme after noticing a lack of Japanese representation on the page.

Abigail Posner, the Head of Strategy of Google’s Brand Unit, describes sharing memes as an “energy exchange” where “we’re not just sharing the object, but we’re sharing in the emotional response it creates.” On the surface, these memes are just jokes meant to stir a chuckle, but perhaps they’re more than just that. As Posner puts it, perhaps they are “little moments of pleasure that remind us we’re truly and deeply bonded to one another.”

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