The memes have finally taken over, everyone. The war has been lost.
Like thousands of other students, I was added to the “Official Unofficial Penn Squirrel Catching Club” group on Facebook recently, and my news feed has since been flooded with memes about all things Penn. Recurring themes included the difficulty of financing a Penn education, mental health issues among students and experiencing academic and social failure.
I admit to some cynicism here. Honestly, some of the memes really were pretty funny and clever. The fact that the more popular ones got over a thousand likes show that they’re relatable to a lot of people. It also shows that Penn students aren’t reluctant to laugh at themselves, which is relieving to see for a school that sometimes takes itself too seriously. Some people have even mentioned that the group serves as a means of achieving solidarity, in the sense that it allows people to recognize that others around them are experiencing and feeling similar things.
But here’s the thing: While digs at Princeton or commentary on the culture of procrastination at Penn are generally harmless, some of the topics are actually kind of serious. Some memes even served as astute commentary on issues like the University’s approach to mental health or the cutthroat culture among students, which are issues that affect a lot of people.
One meme juxtaposed the beliefs and supposed practices of Management professor Adam Grant, one of the most high-profile professors at Penn. Professor Grant has been a vocal critic of the pre-professional and “hypercompetitive” culture at Penn and other academic institutions. He has claimed that “toxic atmospheres” in classes are unnecessary and ultimately detrimental to mental health.
The meme contained a screenshot of an alleged email notifying a student of rejection to Professor Grant’s Management 238 course, explaining that only 70 seats were available and that over 250 had applied. The course requires applications separate from the Penn InTouch registration system. The meme received over 650 reactions on Facebook, with one commenter demanding an explanation from Grant with regards to the class’ alleged exclusivity.
This kind of juxtaposition shows that memes have the power to do more than elicit likes and lols, even if the effect achieved is inadvertent. But there’s something discomforting about the fact that so many students recognize a variety of problems or issues, and their first and only instinct is to make a meme. This form of satire, while legitimate, is limited both in its ability to create meaningful dialogue and to reach an audience.
In order to utilize the power of these memes, people need to complement them with action in the real world. Whether that takes the form of a more nuanced discussion, an organized protest or event or even writing out one’s thoughts in a student publication, real change needs more than a couple of minutes spent on Photoshop. Otherwise, these memes serve no other purpose than to reflect our collective cynicism and lack of actual initiative.
One could point out that the purpose of the group is limited to kicks and giggles, and that I’m missing the point. I get that. But isn’t it at least strange to think that our reaction to recognizing real problems is to create a meme? That in most cases, this often ends up being the only form of “action”? On the receiving end, most of us look at the meme, laugh and maybe like or share it. Maybe we comment something about it being “TOO REAL.” Then we forget about it and then maybe move on with our lives.
Some people might find no problem with that, and point out that they’re just memes. But this triviality is precisely what I find disturbing. Some of the issues mentioned above are very much real — I don’t think anyone would dispute that, and I don’t think anyone would take them so lightly in a public discussion.
Not everything needs to be a means of activism, but it feels unsatisfying to accept that the only thing we can do about certain things is to throw our hands up in the air and have a laugh. Because ultimately, the memes will be forgotten, the cry of laughter long faded away, but Penn will still be here, in all its glory and shadows.
JAMES LEE is a College junior from Seoul, South Korea, studying English and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. His email address is email@example.com. “The Conversation” usually appears every other Monday.