My name is Rafael Ortiz. I am a sophomore at Columbia College, and I have eaten in John Jay alone more times than I’d like to count. I transferred to the college last fall, one of few others accepted as a transfer to either Columbia College or the School of Engineering and Applied Science. I am on the boards of the Political Science Student Association, Columbia Political Union, the Columbia Model Congress, and the Columbia University Student Organization of Latinxs. My GPA is lower than I would like it to be, and I still haven’t heard back from a summer internship I really want. I’m also known to post memes on the columbia buy sell memes facebook page.
The columbia buy sell memes page has over 17,000 members—more than twice the undergraduate population. This page, created in late December, offers students a communal space to share images and videos with humorous captions—highlighting how they feel about a specific issue, moment, or event—also known as memes.
Though it exists entirely online, what is particularly bizarre about buy sell memes is the fact that it provided me—and other students, presumably—with our first and most poignant sense of a larger tradition and community. It seemed that Columbia, a campus constantly in competition over excellence, had united with humor, scathing as it may be, over our frustrations about that competition.
Columbia is continuously rated one of the most sleep-deprived universities in the country. Adding to this is our similarly high suicide rate. In one week in January, the University lost three students. We make light of our frustrations, but the campus environment admittedly takes a toll on us. As a result, student apathy has also been a major subject of discussion. This tradition of stress in campus culture is all-consuming in both its grasp and wrath—it takes no prisoners. Those who do not make it are briefly mourned and promptly forgotten. In response to their deaths, the administration provides increasingly ubiquitous copy/paste emails, reminiscent of the out-of-touch Marie Antoinette, suggesting to the French they eat cake to combat the famine.
Columbia students respond to being sleep-deprived and exhausted by talking about it through memes on the buy sell memes page. For example, there’s a tradition of infamy regarding Gulati’s Principles of Econ class exams, and although curved to compensate for the challenge, echoes of frustrations still resonate. The classroom accommodates fewer than 200 students, and yet the humor transcends the walls, echoing across the campus, to students past and present who share the tradition of complaining over having that class.
So what makes a Columbia meme successful, anyway? Most of the time, shared laments and frustrations. Within a matter of days, the page became a community space where Columbia students—Barnard and GS, first-years and seniors alike—all voice annoyances and frustrations in real time. The page showcased our shared irritation at being the only school in the city to not have a snow day, and later our jubilation at the (unnecessarily last minute) decision to finally cancel classes. It was where we laughed at students stuck in air shafts, poked fun at Columbia’s gaff over accidental acceptance letters, and rejoiced at the rightful Oscars Best Picture winner. These were all experiences felt by the entire campus, and focusing on them was guaranteed success. It’s almost as if what unites us is complaining about the millions of things we find inadequate with our time at this school, but that wouldn’t do it justice. We find humor in the strangest of things, in both the expression of the worth of traditions perpetuated (the Core) and traditions lost (the closing of Cannon’s). Our peers laugh at memes even if they don’t quite hit home. I would know, as someone who’s joked about both classes I haven’t taken yet and events I have yet to experience.
Occasionally, it is 2 a.m. in Butler, and the majority of chairs that surround me are still filled with students who, like me, are anxiously typing away at assignments likely due in the morning. My notifications from the memes page prove that, though I am by myself in these moments, I am not quite alone in seeking relief from the stress. I have observed memes, like mirrors at a fun house, (often) exaggerated, and making light of my frustrations. And it seems that my own interpretations of these very same emotions, things I thought I faced alone, have gone viral.
Being a student on this campus forces on most an individualist mentality that creates an almost tangible sense of isolation. Whether in class, in clubs, or for internships, the person next to us is always our biggest competition, and our bond with them only goes as far as what they can give us. Columbia doesn’t teach us how to make friends; it teaches us how to network. Thus, all our connections are intrinsically tied to our success.
Columbia’s buy sell memes page has been so successful in part because it rejects the competitive campus culture with which we’ve become accustomed. It reminds us that we are all human. We are all worried about our midterms and finals. We all have that one class we find annoying. Most importantly, underneath the thinly veiled sense of superiority, it reminded us that we all secretly care about each other. It just took a vaguely anonymous social media platform to remind us.
The author is a sophomore in Columbia College studying political science and economics.
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