Two days before my History of the Modern Middle East take-home final was due, I found myself in an east-facing side room in Butler 6 that smelled of anxious sweat and the Kale Caesar my neighbor had snuck in from Sweetgreen. Prompted by a friend’s invitation, I had just opened an unfamiliar Facebook page called columbia buy sell memes. The group, I quickly realized, was exploding: Everyone seemed to have found their way to this page. I scrolled with vigor, skimming memes in lieu of my readings. The memes were witty, Columbia-specific, and punchy. Columbia was finally funny.
On the day the final was due, while briefly struggling to find the passage of reading I needed to know, I texted my friend, the one who had invited me to the page, asking her how I could make a meme. She sent me to surf.co, a website providing templates for meme-makers. I wrote down what I wanted to say, then spent 10 minutes looking for the perfect stock image—something that, I hoped, would provide relatable content to my fellow students, who were just as stressed as me.
After 10 minutes of unproductive reading, I sheepishly opened Facebook again. Likes had come in like raindrops at the start of a storm. It felt rewarding—more so than my past three hours of reading.
Soon enough my friends were tagging me in memes by the minute—memes about Ferris lines and failing classes. My friends would bond over memes late into Butler nights. In particular, I began to recognize acquaintances posting satirical memes about Columbia’s overwhelming workload, and I remember thinking, “Wow, they feel that way too?” A community was growing around the commonly felt struggles of Columbia’s colleges, like a playground for the uncomfortable and the overwhelmed.
Weeks later, long after finals are over, I sit down with three of the six admins of columbia buy sell memes to discuss the page. The page emerged out of a need for relief during finals week—a need I experienced firsthand.
Lauren Beltrone, co-founder and a senior at Barnard College, describes the page as
a light, shared platform for collective support. “I think that it did help people through finals,” she says. “It probably made people way less focused, but it also adds a frothy, light level of, ‘It really doesn't matter, you'll be fine, probably.’”
Hawaii native Christina Hill, a Columbia College sophomore and co-founder of the page, agrees. She found herself struggling during finals week. “To see memes of the same thing—the same finals stress, yeah it was definitely comforting.”
But the admins don’t take their page’s finals-fueled success for granted. Hill knows the project could have “crashed and burned [and] definitely could have gotten to 1,000 [members] and stayed there.” But instead it soared, and has 16,747 members as of the writing of this piece. In a way, it makes sense: As Sam Nussenzweig, Columbia College sophomore and the third co-founder I spoke to says with a half-chuckle, “Like, why wouldn't you join a meme page for your school?”
The community the page formed was, in many ways, a surprising one. “Sometimes, I wonder if the general public at Columbia is funny,” Beltrone says candidly.
But once the page emerged, however, she saw differently. “People are creative. You just don't see that side of your classmates a lot because I think people are just really serious,” Beltrone says.
Rafael Ortiz is a sophomore in Columbia College and something of a legend as the page’s most prolific poster. “A big thing at Columbia is like, pretend everything is fine and everyone is in their own world,” Ortiz says. “This was the one thing that unified all of us, in a relatable way.”
The founders and the meme-makers that were interviewed all seemed to reach a consensus—that the student body here is somehow under strict, unspoken orders to come across as put together.
Last fall, Madison Ailts from the Barnard College class of 2019 wrote an op-ed entitled, “So long to the Columbia girl who has it all.” In the piece, she demystifies that girl we all have in one of our classes—the one who does all the readings, is never late to class, and yet somehow manages to be seen at frat parties on the weekends.
As Josef Starc, creator of the famous “Study the test, pupper” meme and Columbia College junior explains, “Everyone is thinking, ‘Oh, everyone is so smart and everyone is doing so much better than me, and they all have everything figured out.’” His meme encouraged students to put their faith (and grades) in the hands of a bespectacled golden retriever reading a textbook by commenting on the image, “Study the test, pupper.” 853 students commented, which certainly helped upend any illusion of academic perfection.
In his iconic 1976 work The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme,” defining it as a phrase “which is ascribed to an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”
While I doubt Dawkins specifically had the death of Harambe in mind, there is no denying that internet memes unfurl across internet subcultures, even if only for short periods of time, and capture the internet’s collective imagination. So what is it about internet memes? How do they function so universally as a medium for creative expression and community?
According to academics Bradley E. Wiggin and G. Bret Bowers, who wrote a 2014 paper on memes as a social genre, memes exist as a part of a participatory digital culture, which has “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.”
Therefore, recognizable meme formats,such as that of the starter pack, Kermit the Frog, and “You vs the boy she told you not to worry about,” serve as forms of the low barrier by which one can bring their own content to the table. Novel memes are only those that bring new ideas to pre-existing structures.
Rasmi Elasmar, a Columbia College senior and frequent poster on the page, agrees that this is what makes memes an accessible platform for community participation. “I think in general, [memes] are pretty derivative,” he notes. “They take some kind of form, and I guess the job of the person creating one is to identify their own adaptation.”
Elasmar, who uses only his first name on his Facebook account, has a constant stream of relatable memes, and thus thousands of likes. Memes have been made portraying him as a sort of “master meme-maker.”
This malleable structure has allowed memes to be adapted specifically for a Columbia or college audience. Nussenzweig finds all Spongebob memes funny; as a format, it can be adapted with low effort to be relevant and entertaining. One meme on the page shows Spongebob becoming increasingly distressed as he moves from a simple MLA citing format to the notoriously unbreachable Chicago format.
There is also succinctness. “I think memes are really powerful in that sense—they make you say what you want to say in very few words,” Beltrone says. “You can think about things in a different way very quickly.”
Starc’s “Study the test, pupper” meme, which went viral by the page’s standards, is an example of the power of rapid spreading brought about by low barriers to participation. Although the slogan was unoriginal and had actually been a recurring meme on Reddit and other meme pages, it became emblematic of stress culture at Columbia. Like middle school chain mail, the meme drew students in because it tapped into a familiar feeling.
A lot changed on the lighthearted page in the two days after I had first joined: Seemingly aggressive and targeted memes had come up about Barnard, GS and SEAS—memes such as “When your friend is in GS” with a stock image of a younger woman hugging a much older woman, or a couple of “Bernard” memes making fun of Barnard women for not being smart enough to get into Columbia College, were among those that could be construed to be in bad taste. This seemed like such a great unifying outlet for the undergraduate schools in a university that had always felt vacant of community. Why bring in animosity?
The meme I created on that unproductive night in Butler 6 was a picture of Obama crying with the caption: “When you thought that columbia buy sell memes would unite the undergraduate schools of CU but social media proves to be a faulty platform by which pettiness prevails.”
Nussenzweig tells me that, on the whole, he would say, “[The page] was unifying. I don't think there has been lasting saltiness effects.” A Barnard student herself, Beltrone doesn’t mind jabs at her college. “Barnard is really easy to make fun of,” she admits. At the end of the day, memes are a good way to air issues with a satirical slant.
Satire can serve as a lens through which to discuss graver issues, too. “I think joking is a good way to deal with things,” Elasmar offers when I bring up stress culture, “I think depression and even suicide—I think that being able to joke about these things is one way of discussing them, because otherwise we wouldn't really be discussing them at all.” It has become clear, though, that these issues need to be handled delicately. Elasmar posted a meme that showed a stock image of a woman in a Halloween straightjacket with a caption referring to the mental health state of CU students by the time they become seniors. The meme was taken down soon after. Perhaps the Columbia community is still learning how to strike a balance between presenting pressing or controversial issues humorously as well as sensitively.
“I have seen memes on the page about specific campus issues and how to deal with them well and [that] would inspire people to look more into it if they don't get the meme,” Beltrone says.
Beltrone leans forward on the couch, beside her fellow admins, and remarks that the page turned into somewhat of a cathartic outlet for students—and for the creators too.
“You can complain but also be comforted by the fact that everyone is also just like not okay. And you weren't okay either,” she says.
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