Harvard’s Ugly Offshoot of Campus Meme Culture
One of the most active communities to have emerged from my first two years as an undergraduate is not a registered student organization but a public Facebook group, “Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens.” Formed last November “to comfort Yalies’ crushed dreams” after an election that left much of the campus in despair, the forum is a gathering place where students share lighthearted graphics—trendy political GIFs, modified Trump sound bites, and Photoshopped stock images with captions that, like the cheeky group name, skewer stereotypes about a college that has been rocked, in recent history, by more controversies than I can name. The group originated in New Haven but its membership has since grown to numbers larger than Yale’s total enrollment, with virtual confrères joining from peer schools that host their own equivalent forums: “UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens,” “Princeton Memes for Preppy AF Teens,” “Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Tweens.”
Within the politically correct confines of liberal-arts colleges, these online threads have allowed students to flirt with humor that might scandalize broader swaths of campus. At one point this spring, a slew of posts in Yale’s group used stills from Internet pornography to express sarcastic enthusiasm about the university’s endowment. The very title of another group—“Cornell Memes for Sad Teens,” which has since been renamed—may, to some, have seemed to trivialize that university’s suicide rate. But most campus meme groups take measures to discourage overly provocative postings: visuals must relate to university life, and bands of student moderators are tasked with deleting irrelevant content. Though the forums would surely seem juvenile and smug—and even occasionally offensive—to outsiders, they tend to rouse little attention beyond their immediate sphere of undergraduates.
One exception came in April, when Harvard University discovered a stash of particularly tasteless memes in a private Facebook group started by recently admitted students. According to the Harvard Crimson, which first reported this controversy last week, at least ten of the prospective freshmen involved in posting the material have had their acceptances to Harvard revoked. The guilty Facebook group chat, at one point entitled “Harvard Memes for Horny Bourgeois Teens,” was formed in December as an offshoot of a more inclusive thread meant for recent admits, and it seemed to pride itself on provocation. Aspiring members were instructed to submit risqué content to the larger group in order to be vetted for the more exclusive collective, which shared images that mocked pedophilia, child abuse, sexual assault, and the Holocaust. One meme, according to the Crimson, compared the corpse of a Mexican child to a piñata.
The decision to rescind these students’ offers based on their private correspondences has, unsurprisingly, alarmed some advocates of free speech, who fear that Harvard’s punishment has threatened the First Amendment rights of the former admits rather than simply held them accountable. Others have pointed out that the university has chosen to be more lenient in disciplining already matriculated students. Last year, Harvard’s undergraduate dean denounced offensive messages posted in an unofficial group chat for the Class of 2020, but he did not take disciplinary action against its members. The university does, though, continue to post a broad warning at the top of official Facebook pages for admitted students: “As a reminder,” it reads, “Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions,” among them the discovery of any student’s participation in “behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.”
Incoming college freshmen have long feared surveillance by admissions officers, who, some imagine, may use the Internet to scrutinize potential admits. Such suspicions, substantiated or not, have inspired many applicants to attempt to avoid detection by partaking in a new rite of passage, changing their Facebook names to alternative spellings or clumsy puns. (My very tame, very turgid social-media persona once made a brief showing as “Aar Istotle.”) These days, though, the threat of snooping grownups feels somewhat outmoded. Precisely how Harvard representatives unearthed the memes is unclear—the university has maintained a cagey diplomacy around the case—but it seems likely that the offshoot group’s informant was not, in fact, an undercover inspector but a onetime student member who stumbled upon the offensive content, deemed it unacceptable, and then alerted the admissions office.
The images that issued from Harvard’s offshoot group have certainly offended many members of the virtual undergraduate populace, among them students who believe, or at least preach, that jokes should never broach certain topics at all. More narrowly, though, the images were condemned for violating an unspoken code of campus meme culture, which, for all its levity, aspires to the same inclusivity that liberal-arts campuses have strived, and sometimes struggled, to achieve. “Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens” is open to anyone who wants to join, its humor crowdsourced through a consistent, capricious economy of “likes” that unites even the most disparate cliques. Popular posts, propelled by comments, rocket to the top of the page, and tend to include gripes about the most relatable subjects: grades and dating. Other images, be they weirdly niche or inexplicably unfunny, falter and are forgotten in a long chronology. This egalitarian spirit insures that a post’s content reflects on its creator—not the other way around. I’ve seen the quietest students ascend to online celebrity after Photoshopping the face of our university’s president onto some keen TV screen-cap, and fiery outsiders redeemed by memes that celebrate our campus’s most benign mascot, the bulldog.
The offending pre-frosh, uninitiated in the mores of college life, virtual or otherwise, erred by importing the sort of aggressive one-upmanship that thrives in many other corners of the Internet—on 4chan, for instance, where anonymous users are free to post their “dankest,” darkest memes without consequence. The students failed to grasp that college groups are not meant to mimic online culture at large but, instead, to do something trickier, regulating its visual language to insure that it remains friendly to all. The offshoot thread’s ultimate offense was its perverse privacy, which tried to warp a public pleasure into a restrictive, hateful privilege. But the vile behavior is perhaps less surprising than the fact that these groups have managed to operate mostly without incident for as long as they have.
Last week, Yale’s meme group paused to debate the same question that students at Harvard were considering: Was the university’s decisive disciplinary action justified? Several prospective Harvard students who enjoyed the public meme thread but avoided its darker counterpart told the Crimson that they supported the decision. “I do not know how those offensive images could be defended,” one said. A flurry of insouciant memes, posted to the main thread, made light of the students’ fate. (“If the meme is too dank, you’ll walk the plank,” read one riff on “Pirates of the Caribbean.”)* *Most responses among Yale students were similarly unpitying. After a member of our group posted the Crimson’s coverage with a warning to “stay safe,” presumably from politically correct overseers, one rising junior suggested that users should refrain from posting offensive messages not out of fear of discipline but out of moral conviction. “Common meme sense?” she wrote. “How about just common human decency?” Never mind those adult monitors. It was the students who were watching.