If you’re even slightly active on Facebook, chances are that you’re probably in a meme group of some kind. The most popular meme groups at the University of Toronto are ‘UofT Memes for Edgy Teens,’ which boasts over 13,500 members, and ‘UofT memes for true 🅱️lue teens,’ which has over 3,000 members. These groups have moderators, and although some content may not be approved or kept up for long, the groups are ultimately a free space wherein anyone can post whatever they want.
Merriam-Webster defines a meme as “an amusing or interesting item… spread widely online.” I like to think of memes as inside jokes for the internet, and often as inside jokes for a group of people with shared experiences. In the case of U of T meme groups, that experience is being a student at this university. Although some might question the wisdom of taking these memes too seriously, I think they express student concerns and anxieties better than any other medium.
This is not in spite of the informality of the medium — it’s because of it. As Marshall McLuhan would say, the medium is the message.
McLuhan was talking about how mediums like television, print, or radio would shape the way we think about the world and process information. Yet we can see his insights reflected in memes and internet culture as well. The fact is that memes permit a type of self-expression that is normally unavailable in other forms of discourse. Expressing qualms about the university through a meme is easier than filing a complaint through official channels, and it often garners attention nevertheless. Compulsory respect for public figures when expressing oneself, conversely, is unnecessary, and few if any topics are wholly off limits. All that is required to create a good meme is a sense of humour and a knowledge that the meme will be understood by the community.
In Elizabeth Bruenig’s Washington Post article “Why is Millennial Humor So Weird?,” she discusses how the absurdism of life for millennials, from economic anxiety to uncertainty about the future, has given way to embracement of the bizarre and strange. You can find plenty of especially strange memes in both U of T meme groups. One meme, for instance, explains how to look like a Rotman Commerce student — wearing an expensive but unremarkable suit and tie and purchasing a potato chip to place on your shoulder. Another meme, in rebuttal to a Trinity College student’s denial that the college is “extra,” displays a stained glass window depicting an angel holding a photo of the college in its hands.
To an outsider, these memes might seem nonsensical, yet they manage to convey the anxieties and oddities that are unique to U of T life — in this case, those anxieties and oddities that are unique to certain programs and colleges. Similarly, other memes in the groups focus on other commonplace concepts within the U of T community, such as the antics of Jordan Peterson or all of those posters around campus that call the university ‘boundless.’
The stresses of our lives, including extreme academic pressure, sky-high tuition fees, ever-increasing job insecurity, and a crumbling mental health system, have inevitably given way to the “the surreal and bizarre,” as Bruenig puts it. But memes have distilled our anxieties into something else — something that is, dare I say, boundless. Memes help us communicate and share inside jokes and references about the student experience without having to rely on formal language, reinforcing our sense of community as students at this university. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the content these memes could be expressed in any other medium.
Our memes have tapped into something that few other student publications or organizations have been able to truly understand, and they have helped us raise common thoughts about the student experience that might have previously stayed private. Since so many people are in one meme group, sharing thoughts on any given topic only requires creating a post. The impact of that accessibility can be unexpectedly far-reaching, especially for this campus — consider that only 4,403 students cast votes for UTSU President during the first round of last year’s UTSU elections, a figure lower than the amount of people who belong to ‘UofT Memes For Edgy Teens.’
In a way, memes are more representative of student beliefs than anything else, as they are so easily accessible and the groups are so democratized. If you really want to understand what’s going on in the student mind — what has resulted from our unique circumstances, and what issues actually draw people’s attention and concerns — look no further than our meme groups.
Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying Women & Gender Studies and English. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.