Behind the Memes

It all started in December 2011, when a group of undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a page on Facebook called “UW Memes”. The creators merged photos of various landmarks on their campus with funny lines of text. During a recent power outage, for example, a warm-toned, professional stock photo of Madison student housing was captioned with the text, “Granite countertops. But no power.”  

Over the course of several weeks, dozens of posts and hundreds of shares, the page’s following grew to about 1,000 students. Students at other universities took notice and created pages for their own campuses at the end of 2011.

By the time the new year began, the movement had gone national. According to one analysis by technology blogger Rohan Aurora, no fewer than 218 U.S. universities had Facebook pages with some variant of the title “X Memes” by Feb. 1, 2012. In this meme-crazy climate, one UCSD student, named ‘John Smith’ for this article, decided it was time to create one of our own.

“I don’t want to put my name out there,” he said. “Part of the appeal of ‘UCSD Memes’ is that even though I obviously created and am running it, it’s a living, breathing entity. It’s a community, and I have to stay anonymous for it to stay that way. It can’t be about me.”

  At his high school, Smith was an ambitious student. He formed the Young Politicians Club and led the Key Club, the California Scholarship Federation and the National Honors Society. He gave the graduation speech for his class. Out of roughly 600 students, Smith’s GPA was among the top 10. He said he chose UCSD for its biology program.

However, none of his prior achievements could have prepared him for the enormous success of UCSD Memes.

Right now, the Facebook page has a reach of 16,000 — making it the third most-viewed meme page in the country, according to Aurora’s analysis. Smith started the page simply to make his fellow students laugh, but when the page was viewed by 30,000, 40,000 and ultimately 65,000 Internet goers, his motivation for running the page changed.

“It’s subtle, but right now, ‘UCSD Memes’ has two main purposes beyond just making people laugh. First, it gets important information out in a fun, memorable way,” he said. “Second, it’s a way for students to voice criticism and have their voices heard without feelings being hurt.”

Smith cited a recent Associated Students initiative to provide greater condom access across the campus. Though councilmembers printed thousands of pocket maps showing condom-vending locations around campus, few people Smith talked to knew where these machines were. So he decided to create a meme. It was a picture of an A.S. condom access map, emblazoned with the bold text, “Tritons. Before you slip it in, slip it on.”

“People are much more likely to remember things that way,” Smith said. “Nobody’s going to read through a pamphlet on sex education. But they might remember the meme.”

Currently, the photo has over 4,000 views on the Facebook page.

Smith updates the page eight or nine times a week. Slightly over half are his own posts; individual students and organizations from across campus submit the remainder. Over the past several months, posts criticizing everything from dining hall food to the presence of Evangelical Christians on Library Walk have received thousands of likes on the memes page and even attracted the attention of the administration.

More recently, at the start of October, Smith took a photo of a street-scrubbing truck with a missing safety hatch in Eleanor Roosevelt College. The truck had been in the same place since the beginning of the school year, uncovered. He posted a picture of the truck on ‘UCSD Memes’, with the caption “Just gonna sit here…and blow bubbles for the next month.” Within three days of that posting, Smith found that a new metal hatch had been welded onto the truck. He says he is confident that the cleaners made the improvement because of UCSD Memes.

“Everyone reads the page,” he said. “But that in particular was a triumphant moment for me. I don’t have proof, but I’m pretty sure because there was no activity for weeks before I posted that meme, and in less than 72 hours, they had made the change.”

Smith said he screens all posts and has final editorial authority over what is published on the page.

“Even though I’m anonymous, I feel a very strong sense of responsibility for what goes on the page. 65,000 people viewed the page last quarter during finals week. I don’t want to see individuals getting hurt.”

Shortly after making the page, Smith created an email account for complaints. He checks the email up to 20 times the day. He said that, on average, he removes memes anyone considers offensive within a few minutes of receiving an email.

“Constructive criticism of the university is healthy. Posting things that make students feel targeted — that’s not. I don’t allow it.”

Smith frequently runs into moral issues in trying to run the page. He said his greatest problem is determining whether something is offensive or appropriate for the page.

“Whenever I’m not sure, I ask my close friends, ‘Is this okay? What do you think?’ I do questionnaires. I genuinely try to solicit feedback.”

During the interview, Smith stood up at one point to examine a sticker someone had pasted on the wall behind me. He scratched his head and said he was thinking about turning it into a meme for the website.

“Everything to me is a potential meme these days,” he said, laughing. “I’m always on the hunt. It may be a little weird, but I don’t mind. They’ve made me better informed and more involved. They’ve made me who I am.”

When he is not hunting for memes, Smith reads original poetry at spoken word performances around La Jolla. He writes short stories and hopes they will be published one day.

“Thoreau is my inspiration,” he said. “I like trying to write like him and Emerson. Obviously not when I’m making memes, though.”

On his personal Facebook account, Smith has around 500 friends.

“I’m a pretty private person,” he said. “My status updates usually get about 10 or 15 likes each. I guess I’m pretty normal that way.”

Last Sunday, Oct. 14, Smith launched a second Facebook page, called “UCSD Confessions”. It immediately eclipsed ‘UCSD Memes’ in popularity, garnering over 75,000 page views and several thousand likes in under a week. Smith likens the page to UCSD Memes’s older, blunter sibling. Shortly before the page’s official launch, Smith had a friend design a logo.

“The first thing I did after launching was to restrict the page to users over 17 years old,” he said. “There is sex, there are drugs, there is crime on the page. And the point of letting that stuff on ‘Confessions’ is that I’m not here to censor anyone. This is a place for people to be honest, and it would be wrong for me to control the content too tightly.”

Many of the posts on the ‘Confessions’ page were criticized by columnist Hilary Lee in last Monday’s issue of the Guardian for being unrealistic, exaggerated or contrived.

“She has a point. Probably 40 percent of the posts are not genuine, but the majority is people getting things off their chest,” Smith said. “Some of them are boring, but I think it can be really therapeutic, for people to let a secret out and know that it will be read.”

Smith responded to Lee’s commentary by posting a screenshot of her column on the ‘Confessions’ page, with the caption, “One week is all it took to gather up some published naysayers. Look out for a letter to the editor, Guardian. For those of you that want to respond to this, comment on the article.” Smith included a link to the article on the Guardian’s website in the caption as well. The post went on to receive 65 likes and roughly 80 comments, many of which were later deleted.

“I felt she just glanced at the page and made a snap judgment about its content. I felt defensive because I’d spent so much time on it. I read the Guardian every time it comes out, so I was kind of hurt that they included a piece like that about something I’d made.”

In response to the posting of the Guardian column, hundreds of ‘Confessions’ users posted biting comments about the column, and the columnist herself. The picture of the column included the author’s name, so the attacks were not anonymous.

“There were derogatory comments, and those were not okay. I tried to delete them as soon as I saw them.”

Smith said that overall, he was sure he had done the right thing last week, when someone submitted a suicide note to the page’s email. Initially, Smith was uneasy about posting the note. However, the community reacted with overwhelming support.

“Dozens of people commented saying, ‘Go to CAPS’ or ‘Here’s my number, call me and I will help you’ or ‘Talk to me, I know what you’re going through’. I literally watched in real time as students from all over the university came together to help this person.”

Smith said that he wants to use his two pages to bring students closer.

“I didn’t expect any of this. But now that it’s real, I feel like the possibilities are endless. I don’t think we’re socially dead, but I do think we’re socially scattered. Maybe ultimately, these pages will give us a shared set of experiences to unite around. I’m hopeful about the rest of this year.”

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