Finding Memeing in Student Life

The term “meme” was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1986 book “The Selfish Gene.” Meme originated from the Greek word mimeme, which means “to imitate,” and Dawkins’s focus was on the behavioral and cultural traits of modern society like skills, art, or games that could be passed down via imitation. While he was initially referring to its relevance over spans of hundreds of years in evolution, the word, since the advent of the internet, now refers to an image, a joke, or story that is shared online.

Recently, there has been an abundance of university meme pages on Facebook, including but not limited to The Student Coalition of Dank Memers at UCI, UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens and Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Tweens. Memes have become the popular mode of expression for millennial college students — a venue to voice their angst. For example, UC Berkeley’s group includes memes that poke fun at Berkeley’s grade deflation and grade inflation at universities like their rival, Stanford, or campus buildings, or its terrifying mascot, Oski. Any part of student life translates to meme template — including campus organizations, Greek life and struggles related to certain majors.

To get a better understanding of being part of a college meme community, I joined UCI’s meme group. The memes ranged wildly in topic, from Spongebob references to parking tickets, but above all, they were relatable to the struggles of UCI students. Taking note, I posted a few memes in the group and got ready to post to the biggest university meme page: UC Berkeley’s, with over 70,000 members as of the time of this article. Over time, I noticed that memes directly related to student life received more reactions than those that didn’t. I scoured the internet and my meme folder to see if anything would suit my test post into the group. I found a few that fit my criteria.

My first two memes received tremendous responses. One was about not doing the reading before class, and the other was about actually doing it. I chose these two because I felt they illustrated both sides of a spectrum — those who were prepared, and those who were not. Almost immediately, likes and other reacts started to flood my notifications. One of the memes I posted on Feb. 28 got 4,400 likes, 32 shares and over 300 comments. The other received 3,000 likes, eight shares and over 200 comments.

Ultimately, these memes serve as vectors for groups of people to find support. An optimal meme is one that is relatable, yet self-aware of its meme status. It can be referenced endlessly and speaks to the human condition, or in our case, the student condition. It was extremely satisfying to watch the reactions and comments accumulate. It was refreshing to imagine I was able to make someone smile or even lightly chuckle at the ridiculousness of my memes. Memes can be confidence boosters; they make the poster and the viewer feel good, no matter how trivial the meme is. Although I’m not a student at these other universities, it doesn’t stop me from appreciating their meme themes and the light-hearted communities they create. Making and sharing memes is easy, if one dares to embrace the absurdity.

Although Dawkins first described memes as a model for how people pass information through replication, and many consider the present-day understanding quite removed from its use in evolutionary theory, his version is not too far off from its modern incarnation. The volatility and unpredictability of memes is part of what make them engaging media. Some may stay in circulation for a year, while most captivate people for a few days or weeks before fading into obscurity. However, when a meme comes into the mainstream, it becomes mass-produced, opening it up to various interpretations and situations that promote a sort of harmony within the communities that make and share them all across the globe. In this manner, we can consider memes a form of validation, providing humor while speaking to a broader audience’s feelings.