What’s in a meme?

U of T meme groups on Facebook offer an accessible vantage point into the student experience

What’s in a meme?

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.

Thanks for the memeries

When words fail, memes provide an effective outlet for exchange

Thanks for the memeries

“Don’t talk to me or my son ever again!” I once yelled, in response to a particularly egregious pun. I wanted to convey that I appreciated the joke, but that I had also noticed the dreadful nature of the pun. I decided, therefore, that exaggerated outrage was the best way of communicating this specific sentiment.

By referencing a meme, I successfully conveyed the mixture of hilarity and disdain that I felt — a feeling that not even the phrase “I feel a mixture of hilarity and disdain” could have achieved.

Communication is, at its core, an exchange of information. It is a transmission of a message to someone else, the goal being to reach as close to a complete and total understanding as possible.

Since words have a myriad of connotations, and people associate different thoughts, feelings, and experiences to them, we will never be able to reach an identical understanding. Memes are a mechanism that can bring us closer to that ideal understanding, better than words ever can.

Memes represent communicative progress — their meaning is emotive and comes from the collective consciousness of popular culture.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, coined the term ‘meme’ in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins described the phenomenon of meme retention as a process similar to the ways in which organisms evolve.

With this interpretation in mind, memes represent communicative progress — their meaning is emotive and comes from the collective consciousness of popular culture. The result is relatability: a compelling form of understanding stemming from the evocation of a shared interest.

Memes are also a symbol of progress in a temporal sense. They lend themselves wonderfully to the technologies of modern communication; they can be sent as an attachment or hyperlink in a text-based conversation.

The rise of social media platforms such as Tumblr, reddit, and Facebook contributed to the spread of memes and created the environment in which they are interpreted. Some of the most popular and successful memes use irony, which relies heavily on the knowledge of their context.

One argument against memes as a legitimate form of communication emphasizes that memes often include non-standard spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This argument challenges conventional standards of communication in general; I could argue that the question “Why did you do that?” is correct and that the question “y u do dat????” is not.

If the goal behind communication is to send a comprehensible message though, and both forms of the question achieve this, then the objection applies merely to the construction of the question. Regardless of how someone may feel about the rules of grammar, the essence of the meaning remains. Thus, communication can be considered successful so long as the recipient understands what is being said.

This contempt for popular culture derives from its accessibility and is driven by a classist moral superiority complex.

In fact, “y u do dat????” may even be closer to the intended meaning. The excessive use of question marks at the end could demonstrate an increase in incredulity or a level of surprise that the ‘correct’ version of the question may not evoke. The non-standard spelling may be a nod to irony, or it may show that the question was formulated under time or space constraints.

On the Internet, we observe a rise in non-standard spelling, whether in reference to popular culture or not. Errors resulting from typing at a high speed, as well as conscious choices in some cases, contribute to this trend.

Additionally, some Internet users are typing to mimic vocal speech patterns. These variations on standard spelling include the inconsistent use of capital letters or an inversion of accepted uppercase and lowercase forms.

For instance, beginning with a lowercase letter and proceeding with capitals indicates that the speaker’s voice is rising in loudness — a contextual addition that could not be attained within the restrictions of proper grammar.

The reliance of memes on popular culture is also used to dismiss them as a lesser form of communication. This contempt for popular culture derives from its accessibility and is driven by a classist moral superiority complex.

It may be ‘edgy’ to decry what others find enjoyable, but it represents a fundamental disrespect for entertainment to apply criticism simply because something is widely available. This thinking is similar to the assumption that, because you don’t need to be formally educated to enjoy things like reality television, such entertainment should be reserved only for those without formal education.

Likewise, the same is true of non-standard spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Many arguments have been made with people who adhere steadfastly to the rules of grammar, who will go out of their way to correct other people’s grammar, in order to assert intellectual and moral superiority. I, too, have been guilty of this at many points in my life; I would weaponize my command of the English language, as though it made the substance of my argument better.

Eschewing memes for their grammatical non-conformity and relationship to popular culture is illogical and classist. Conventions of grammar and other areas of language are constantly evolving to suit modern communicative needs. Memes are simply an expression of that change.

Memes challenge base standards for communication and introduce new ways of relating to others on a fundamental level every day. They ought to be acknowledged as a growing communication movement and not dismissed for their perceived vacuousness. They should be shared and rightfully enjoyed as vehicles for bonding.

In the same manner that a picture is worth a thousand words, a .gif is worth a thousand pictures — and a meme is worth a thousand .gifs.

Iris Robin is a Trinity College alumna who studied English Literature and French. They were The Varsity’s 2015–2016 News Editor.

The triumph of John Scott (and other uninspiring athletes)

Tracing an athlete’s rise to popularity in the age of the meme

The triumph of John Scott (and other uninspiring athletes)

In the Arizona Coyotes’ most recent game against the Winnipeg Jets, Coyotes left-winger John Scott averaged roughly five minutes and 11 seconds on the ice. He did not receive a single goal or assist, let alone a single shot on net, and would have been entirely forgettable had it not been for a two-minute penalty he received during the second period of play. Now, after 11 games and one recorded point this season, Scott is headed to the NHL’s All-Star game with absolutely nothing to show for it.

How did such a low-caliber athlete get into the all-star game, you might ask?

It’s a long story.

His rise to fame began a few months back, when fans of the Arizona Coyotes were asked to vote on their preferred players for the NHL’s annual talent show. Arizona — a state that’s 90 per cent desert and 10 per cent cacti — isn’t exactly known for its love of the puck, so it’s no surprise that the fans elected one of the worst players on the team to perform. 

After being voted in by fans, Scott was subsequently traded to the Montreal Canadiens who sent him down to their farm team, the St. John’s IceCaps upon arrival. It seemed, briefly, as though all hope was lost. Until an Internet movement — bound together by a mutual appreciation for this deficient competitor — resurrected Scott from the bowels of the minor leagues.

The group behind the movement demanded that the national league, as they put it, “#FreeJohnScott.” The fans succeeded, and Scott will now captain the Pacific All-Stars in their match against the Central All-Stars. In a nutshell, that’s how John Scott became a so-called All-Star (Captain All-Star, at that), but more importantly, it’s how John Scott became #JohnScott. 

Scott is one of many mediocre athletes to reach surprising heights of popularity entirely by accident. But skill level doesn’t necessarily equate popularity. Gone are the days when fans prescribed worth based solely on athletic expertise. In the age of Internet memes, professional athletes can be any level of athletic proficiency — as inspiring or uninspiring as they please — and still develop a cult following that could blow LeBron James’ fan-base out of the water. While recruiters look for specific skill-sets in professional athletes, online popularity strives on quirks, physical appeal, or one eyebrow where there should be two. The goal is not to find an inspirational figure for us to cling to; rather, it’s to find amusement that will appease our momentary attention spans. 

It’s hard to say where all this started, but then again, it’s hard to say where anything ‘started’ on the Internet. At some point or another, somebody found an athlete’s face, actions, or performance laughable, packaged it into a meme, and catapulted their creation into cyberspace. 

NFL quarterback Tim Tebow was one of the first athletes to fall prey to the Internet’s memedom, when the act of ‘Tebowing’ became a popular practice amongst football and non-football fans alike. His stats weren’t deplorable, but they were nothing to write home about either. People liked him because he’d drop to one knee when overcome.

The other popular athlete who found meme-fueled fame, is Anthony Davis, whose name NBA fans wouldn’t recognize had it not been for his unibrow. The Internet quickly picked up on his captivating facial hair, meme’d it, and now — as a non-NBA fan — you’re more likely to recognize Davis than you are to recognize Steph Curry. 

Needless to say, the popular yet mediocre athlete has long predated the Internet. The ‘entertainers’ — like Tie Domi, Dennis Rodman, or Dock Ellis — have been around as long as fans have taken pleasure from the oddities of sport. But now, said entertainer is selected rather randomly, and often without the athlete’s knowledge. Davis didn’t set out to have his face become a popular Internet meme, and Scott certainly didn’t plan to play in the all-star game. But in the world of sporadic and momentary online trends, anything is possible.