A Facebook tag from an avid Redditor marked my first introduction to Northwestern Memes. It was a doomed marriage of two opposing worlds. Yet, I watched as the submissions poured in and the fans multiplied. Northwestern had found a place to voice their greatest insecurities, frustrations and idiosyncrasies. It was a place of solidarity. It was a virtual Keg.
Then, the unthinkable. Success Kid started celebrating unbefitting captions. Fry was no longer pondering. Good Guy Greg was being a scumbag, while Good Girl Gina complained about guys’ hotness. Northwestern put its Internet illiteracy on full display. Worst of all, they kept clogging my newsfeed.
Why would my friends “like” that? It’s not even the proper use of the meme.
Memes are linguistic entities. A boy in a grey hoodie, listening to his iPod needs no introduction for the Internet savvy; he is a college freshman. We are able to read this image as an index of that idea. If we pair it with text, we form a statement. Beneath the banality of repeated jokes, memes serve as a complex mode of communication. They are a language predicated on an understanding of a replicated picture’s meaning (i.e. brown fitted hat = scumbag) and its interaction with a unique caption. And—as with any language—they have grammar. Using the wrong type of caption with the wrong image is no different than using the wrong “your.” It marks a breakdown of structure.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
By the second day of its lifecycle, Northwestern Memes was littered with these breaches in grammar. Frequenters of Reddit and 4chan griped about the misuses. Facebook, they argued, was not a suitable place for memes. They belong on subreddits. Worse yet, it seemed as though these were students’ first encounters with memes and Internet culture. But who was I to correct their grammar?
As with any other language, communication is prohibitive. My ability to read an image as “Socially Awkward Penguin” sets me apart from those who cannot. The Internet-savvy know this. Forums build entire subcultures around this idea. The Internet is anonymous, and that means class and race are mostly cast aside. In their place new measures determine status. One’s ability to garner upvotes on Reddit is a prized accomplishment. The proper use of Internet language, spanning well beyond memes, is valued. The communities that inhabit forums and websites establish rules just as we do outside the virtual world, and status depends on our ability to follow and subvert those expectations. When memes prevail on Facebook it is a breech of the unwritten contract that states, “this is not a suitable location for memes.” Facebook is widely accessible and easy to use. Allowing a vibrant subculture to exist in such an environment is concerning.
I don’t always post memes…
The page barely had a chance before the prolific trolling of Spiderman began. The popular 4chan meme made clear the troll’s statement: this has gone too far. Once everyone has it, nobody does. Memes on Facebook threaten the power of other forums. The problem is compounded when the rules are broken time and again. The most web-literate of students started to see their status dwindle. McCormick junior Dominick Cannella expressed his discomfort for the influx in Facebook memes, "they're just jumping on the bandwagon. They don't even understand how they work." The exclusivity was undermined and only chaos could put an end to it.
Memes are paradoxical. Their very existence depends on the ability of large audiences to read their meaning the same way. Yet they are a part of a culture that stresses exclusivity. Memes are meant to be shared within a community, but only if that community abides by the rules. Northwestern Memes broke the rules.
But I can’t blame them. Memes on Facebook are like Sex Pistols t-shirts on cheerleaders: subcultures will always have to defend against their appropriation by the masses. The Internet often mirrors the real world. No matter what, we will try to establish our own sense of identity and often this comes at the price of being inclusive. Our status depends on having what others do not. To that effect, Facebook memes democratize. Those who run the Internet can either accept it or move on. Memes are no longer the language of the virtual-aristocracy.