Memes and mobilization

<h6>Auhjanae McGee / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Auhjanae McGee / The Daily Princetonian

I had never used Facebook before coming to Princeton.

I created my Facebook page when I was 13 years old, in an eager and vain attempt  to feel more like an adult and connected to my peers. Little did I know, people my age were all on Instagram, which I would not get for another two years, and the only friends I had on my page were members of my church and 30-year-old cousins.

I would have never anticipated that, just six years later, I would spend about as much time on the platform as I do on YouTube, which, if you know me, has been a serious shift. What, you may ask, sparked this interest in Facebook? Well, once I had enrolled at Princeton, I was suddenly bombarded with friend requests and invitations to join various student groups.

Wanting to fully immerse myself in the Orange Bubble, even before I was on campus, I joined all of the ones that piqued my interest. The two that have stuck with me and enabled much of my procrastination this school year are Tiger Confessions++ and Princeton Memes for Preppy AF Teens.

These two pages just so happened to be the ones I was perusing when the University began to announce its policy changes and emergency measures in response to COVID-19. Rumors that Princeton would cancel the rest of the spring semester lurked within popular campus conversations, which, at the time, largely consisted of people stressing over midterms and arguing over whether Marshawn Lynch was a good choice for Class Day speaker.

Come March 9, the University inadvertently released a statement on the webpage that, beginning on March 23, classes would transition to an online format for two weeks until April 5. The policy was meant to encourage students traveling for spring break to stay in their respective locations and thus reduce campus density.

Having seen this update, which was released around midnight, students began to frantically communicate with one another that classes would be going online, and the ‘Prince’ was communicating with University officials way into the early hours to clarify what was happening. The post was deleted, and everyone breathed a tentative sigh of relief.

As it turns out, the University was intending on having a virtual portion of the semester for those two weeks — it just had not meant to post the update, yet.

Within this time frame, one of the first memes about the effects of COVID-19 on higher education that I saw was posted on the Princeton Memes for Preppy AF Teens page. It was that meme that inspired me to write this piece. Students, likely and understandably baffled that they were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend an elite institution only to have the quality of their education reduced to an online format, began to suspect that they could see Princeton’s “true colors.”

In the meme, there are snapshots of the classic reveal scene at the end of a Scooby-Doo! episode in which one of the main characters lifts the mask of the monster to reveal who the true culprit is. In this scene, Fred removes the mask of “Princeton,” only to reveal that it was “DeVry University” all along, which is a well-known online university.

The cleverness of the meme, how effectively it conveyed the sense of almost betrayal that we, as students, were tricked into believing Princeton was something more profound than it actually is, makes me laugh to this day.

Even over a month later, it’s still a high quality meme, in my humble opinion. What drew me to it, aside from its hilarious nature, is the rapid pace with which it was made. The speed with which people saw it, liked it, and related to it was rather admirable.

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And thus began the radical reconfiguration of millions of individuals’ education across the world. Harvard University announced on March 10 that students would experience a mandatory evacuation, and that courses would continue in an online format for the rest of the semester. Students on campus began to panic, hoping that we would not follow in Harvard’s example.

How wrong we were.

On the evening of March 11, the University confirmed that students would be required to leave campus and continue the second half of the semester online. Princeton is just one of thousands across the globe that has sent its students home to continue some semblance of a structured learning experience.

And, in light of these life-altering events, never have I seen such complex, crafty, and community-minded memes be published at this quick of a pace.

Needing a break from all of the packing and tearful goodbyes, I spent more time on Facebook and scoured more memes. I even saw one made by The Daily Princetonian’s own Ben Ball that struck a chord with me. It involved him dubbing a Marvel scene in which Thor is taking the perspective of a Princeton student, and how can he maintain the quality of his education without full access to Princeton’s resources (in the original, Thor is talking about his hammer).

Somehow I joined more groups: the larger, already established, Ivy League Meme Consortium, where I tried not to laugh at all of the jabs made toward Cornell, and a shiny, new page that seemed to be gaining traction, Zoom Memes for Self-Quaranteens, which, as of today, is the grandmaster of them all.

Comprising college students all across the country trying to adjust to taking courses online, Zoom Memes for Self-Quaranteens has consistently produced comedic content and has been a beacon for me in the bleakness of isolation. I know that every time I log into my Facebook page, there is at least one photo with a clever caption that resonates with me so strongly that I have no choice but to give it a thumbs-up.

The general consensus is students are stressed, missing their friends, lacking motivation to continue classes, and, interestingly enough, baking bread. Some people branched off and started a virtual fraternity-sorority for students who were involved in Greek life on their campuses. Others capitalized and began selling merchandise to boast their enrollment in “Zoom University.” All desired an escape from the social limitations of quarantine and found it in sharing laughs with like-minded strangers.

The memes aren’t the only developments to arise in the midst of the confusion. I have also perceived instances of student activism that have been crucial in terms of protecting the communities that they represent. The week of March 11, two Change.org petitions were distributed by Princeton students to prevent peers from being harmed by University COVID-19 policies. As if the mandatory evacuation was not already stressful enough, it just so happened to also occur during midterms week, when people were intensely studying for exams.

Thus, one of the petitions called for a reevaluation of grading of midterms in light of all the emotional and physical turmoil involved with sudden relocation. The other advocated to not force students off campus who would be most vulnerable in terms of housing, food, transportation, and Internet insecurity, as well as other unsafe and precarious living situations. Students from first-generation and low-income backgrounds began to aggregate resources, in terms of food, storage spaces, and even places to live, for students who would struggle the most with these rapid changes.

More notable examples include the ‘Prince’ Editorial Board calling for a universal mandatory pass/D/fail grading option, citing the drastic locational and economic disparities that place certain students at a much greater disadvantage when attempting to continue their education away from the University. Even more recently, a features piece described the ways Princeton residents are aiding undocumented immigrants whose lives have been disrupted during quarantine, who will not receive economic relief checks from the government. In the Zoom Memes page, there is a link to join a pen-pal-style COVID-19 relief project to connect with other college students.

Pictures of pets with relatable text printed on them and spreadsheets with numbers to call in the case of emergency may seem like they are worlds away from one another. In many ways, they are. As people lose their living spaces, their loved ones, and their lives, I will not pretend that meme pages are the saviors that will make everything better. But I do think there’s a distinct connection between memes and social mobilization that is indicative of the larger culture of Generation Z.

Our generation grew up in a globalized, interconnected social landscape. We seem to value relatability, equality, and parasocial interactions. In this sense, the rapid production of memes during a time of social isolation and worldwide panic can be seen as extensions of our desire to remain connected to one another. Seeing thousands of likes and comments on a post about how someone accidentally slept through a Zoom lecture reminds us that the daily struggles we are encountering are not being endured alone.

Similarly, our personal histories with loss, living insecurity, and any other adversities we have had to overcome motivate us to work together to build up those who are being broken down at this moment. In memes and advocacy, I see conduits for empathy, for community building, and ways to make people feel better, in variant but parallel methods.

If you squint, tilt your head to one side, and pretend that the words “global pandemic” are really not that serious, you may, like me, figure that a bright side to quarantine life is more time available to spend on social media. It has certainly aided in keeping me sane after over a month of lackluster WiFi, attending class from my bed, and eating way too much takeout.

While this more stationary style of living is objectively more unhealthy for me, I am grateful for the frequent notifications from the various meme groups that I have joined. The sense of community, the feeling of belonging to a larger global network of people who know what I’m going through, cannot be understated.

More so, as a first-generation, low-income student, knowing that I have peers who will aid me when the plights that come with living during a pandemic arise gives me a strong sense of comfort that I will always value. And, if you were to ask me how I could want to laugh while recognizing the pain the COVID-19 has inflicted, I would respond with “why can’t I do both?”

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