What is a meme? According to Dictionary.com, a meme is “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.” Yet to many of us who have laughed at one or shaken our heads in silent empathy with another, a meme is so much more. It is a source of gentle humor after a long day at the lab or in the library and a way to encompass our never-ending list of complaints about being Princeton students in one image and a few lines of text.
It is then no small wonder that the Facebook meme page, “Princeton Memes for Preppy AF Teens,” now has over 15,000 members. Even as students graduate from the University and take on new challenges in new places, a well-shot picture of President Eisgruber or text about the relative difficulty of Princeton and Harvard classes can still inspire laughter. Memes are a way for Princetonians to unite as one student body by laughing at our combined struggles and knowing that all of us, even those who we believe may have everything under control, can be challenged.
At first glance, the reason behind the popularity of memes is not clear. Most of the memes posted on the Facebook page are about the struggles of being a Princetonian, from the crushing workload to the terrors of leaving the campus to become an adult. If brought up in conversations, these themes are usually met with guarded tones, because many of us instinctively want to keep these topics a secret. Conversations about our grades or the actual level of difficulty of our assignments are difficult because they are first and foremost our own business, and because they depict an imperfect side to our lives here in Princeton.
Memes that depict these topics are liked by hundreds of students, however. This tendency for students to enjoy memes about subjects that would be unlikely in real conversations can be explained by how many students approach their struggles. Many students want to talk about how difficult their classes in Princeton can be, but do not do so out of fear that they may be seen as unable to rise to the challenge. However, empathizing with a meme about difficult classes provides relief for both students' want to share their struggles with other students and their need to be seen as having their affairs under control. Memes then can become a way in which students sympathize with others’ struggles without having to show that they themselves may be struggling.
So what? How does this dual function of memes affect how we Princetonians act or think? Through memes’ ability to allow us to empathize with others’ challenges, academic or otherwise, without exposing ourselves to outward attention, we come closer together as a school. Without communication between students about the common struggles that we face in Princeton, it is far too easy for individuals to assume that they are the only ones struggling. Without confirmation that others also feel as they do, students can feel as if they are the only odd ones out on this campus. However, though memes, students can know that there are others who can relate to the challenges depicted in the text or the image. They can realize that they are not alone and that they are in fact part of a group whose struggles are shared.
Through such knowledge that we have attained through memes, many of us in Princeton can find additional strength to continue with our studies or our activities. The idea that many of us face similar challenges can drive us to work harder together for our common goals, instead of being trapped in a solely competitive mindset. Even more importantly, memes can instill in us a common identity of Princetonians, not as students who have to be perfect in every respect, but as fallible human beings who are simply trying their best.
Daehee Lee is a sophomore from Palisades Park, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.