- © dreamstime.com/Antonio Guillem
Katie Corrigan really just wanted a place to kvetch. It was the spring of 2017, and Middlebury College was all over the national news.
On March 2 of that year, social scientist Charles Murray, who had written "widely discredited race-based theories of intelligence," as the New York Times put it, visited campus for a speech. Student protestors derailed the speech and surrounded Murray as he left the building afterward. A Middlebury professor was diagnosed with a concussion after a protestor pulled her hair.
The condemnations came like a tidal wave. The Atlantic published an op-ed titled "A Violent Attack on Free Speech at Middlebury." The New York Times editorial board called the protestors "thoughtless agitators."
Under this outside scrutiny, the college disciplined 67 students for participating in the protests. Administrators and professors faced a public relations nightmare and a tense campus climate. Some students felt the administration had dismissed their concerns, kowtowed to Murray and punished them unfairly for protesting.
Corrigan, who was at the time a sophomore studying sociology and anthropology, stood firmly with the protestors. "Honestly, nowhere I've ever been in my life produces controversy as quickly as a liberal arts campus," she said.
Corrigan had recently visited a friend at the University of Pennsylvania. In Penn's meme group on Facebook, established in 2016 and called the Official Unofficial Penn Squirrel Catching Club, she saw students using memes to joke about the inadequacy of the school's mental health services.
Corrigan envied the Penn students' platform for satire and venting — then realized she could make her own. She founded the group Middlebury Memes for Crunchy Teens on March 26 with 24 original members, mostly her friends and people from her first-year dorm. The first meme she posted was a simple combination of two screenshots that expressed anger over what she regarded as a Middlebury professor's disparagement of her students and colleagues.
To people who grew up in an analog world, online memes probably seem like an odd — and unfamiliar — vehicle for student political protest. So what is a meme, exactly? Pronounced "meem," it's a bite-size package of meaning that often carries enough invisible baggage to fill a dump truck. It's a way to distill a complicated thought or debate down to a shareable, visual form.
Patrick Wallace, Middlebury's digital projects and archives librarian, defined a meme as "an image, often from some type of pop media, that is combined with original text in order to convey an original notion." (The result is often called an "image macro.") Then he clarified: The meme is not the image or the text alone but "the idea expressed through that combination."
A meme is also something that any online-literate person can create. The Vermonters who create memes include students like Corrigan, Bernie Sanders supporters, people selling sandwiches and people who just think memes are funny. But they all have in common a commitment to pithy, easily transmissible grassroots expression.
A place to share their feelings about the entire college experience was what Corrigan and her fellow students wanted. "We need a platform to talk about the BS that happens here," Corrigan said. Starting the meme page, she said, "had a tremendous amount to do with how I believed that the administration was handling Charles Murray coming to campus poorly."
The meme group blew up. Today, Middlebury Memes has nearly 2,600 members. Middlebury College's total enrollment, according to U.S. News & World Report, is 2,500. While the group includes some alumni, it's safe to assume a sizable portion of current students participate, because the group is closed to curious outsiders. Before new students are allowed to join the group, moderators crosscheck their names with the student directory.
In early 2019, Corrigan got an email from Wallace, the librarian, and Nellie Pierce, a library fellow. They wanted to start archiving the memes in the library's special collections.
"I just, like, laughed," Corrigan said. "I just think it's funny, you know. But also flattering."
The Knock-Knock Joke of the Online Era
- Katie Corrigan’s first meme in the Middlebury Memes for Crunchy Teens group, equating professor Allison Stanger’s New York Times op-ed to an anime betrayal
How does a meme work? Corrigan's first meme in the group started with a screenshot of a New York Times op-ed by Allison Stanger, the professor who got a concussion during the Murray protests. In the piece, titled "Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury," Stanger lamented the events at Middlebury as "a renunciation of reason and celebration of ignorance" and said she was "troubled" when some of her fellow professors joined in the objections and protests.
Corrigan combined this image with a screenshot of the title bar of a YouTube video called "Top 10 Anime Betrayals," so that the op-ed headline now appears to be the YouTube still image.
By associating the editorial with a "betrayal," Corrigan expressed her belief that Stanger was unfairly distancing herself from Middlebury College and its students to her own benefit. The meme format Corrigan chose turns her opinion into a shareable image that plays on a confluence of potentially humorous topics — YouTube, listicles, anime and more. The "Top 10 Anime Betrayals" caption comes from WatchMojo, a YouTube channel with more than 21 million subscribers that deals in pop culture-related video listicles. (A few others include "Top 10 Most Dangerous Cults in Gaming" and "Top 20 Hilarious Impressions Done by Celebrities.")
The format of Corrigan's meme is common enough that the social media platform Reddit has given it a name: a "smooby," defined as "a screenshot of a video in which the title of the video or still image shown has been edited to make the screenshot as a whole humorous."
The thing about a meme, though — as the previous analysis illustrates — is that, if you have to explain it, it's probably not going to be funny.
A good meme is just a template, the knock-knock joke of the online era. A knock-knock joke wouldn't be funny if you'd never heard one before; you have to know the script and play along, anticipating a punny punchline.
Some memes aren't funny unless you can decode their complicated cultural references. But it's not always that deep; others are just pictures of cats. And the term itself originated long before most people were online — in 1976, in a book called The Selfish Gene by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins chose the word "meme" because it sounded similar to "gene." He used it to refer to any unit of culture, such as an idea, style or joke, that passed from person to person.
"Just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes," Dawkins wrote. He theorized that memes, like genes, mutate and evolve in response to outside pressure.
The first use of the word to describe an internet trend is attributed to Mike Godwin. Writing for Wired in 1994, he described a troubling tendency of all online arguments to devolve into comparisons of one's opponents to Nazis. The "counter-meme" he invented to try to stem the trend became widely known as "Godwin's law."
In today's online culture, the term "meme" can refer to a catchphrase, a video, a dance move or even just a manner of speaking or typing. Rick-rolling — or the practice of tricking people into clicking on a link that leads them to the music video for Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" — is a meme. The Harlem Shake was a meme, as was planking.
Some memes are phrases that embed themselves in the internet's collective consciousness and bounce around until they shed all semblance of meaning and are replaced by newer, even more bizarre obsessions.
In the fall of 2018, there was a brief period when it seemed like everyone on the internet was saying, "They did surgery on a grape." The phrase had no discernible meaning beyond its original use to caption an Instagram video of surgical equipment being used to peel a grape. If you try to research its origin, you'll find only joke articles from online news outlets and a confused and sad piece in Forbes that begins with trying to understand the origins of the meme and ends by explaining the grape-peeling technology and calling it a day.
That's a meme.
To confuse things even more, internet memes don't always stay on the internet. This summer, a Seven Days reporter at Sterling Pond on a Saturday afternoon observed several kids, roughly between the ages of 9 and 13, threatening to "yeet" each other into the water. For this generation, the verb "yeet" is all but interchangeable with "throw." Why? The secret lies in a viral video posted in 2014 on the app Vine, in which a young woman hands her friend a soda can. Realizing it's empty, the friend hurls it down a school hallway, yelling, "Yeet!"
Meme culture lives all over the web. Many memes originate on Twitter, but screenshots of them reach vast audiences on Instagram. Reddit remains a consistent home for memes, and teens are turning to the video platform TikTok in massive numbers. The website Know Your Meme, the closest thing that exists to a library of memes, traces various meme formats or online trends back to their original sources and explores their evolution.
A more localized form of meme evolution is what Wallace hopes to chronicle by archiving Corrigan's Middlebury Memes page.
Corrigan has seen the remnants of Middlebury student life that are preserved in the college's archives, such as scrapbooks from the 1930s and '40s. "It's all just postcards and cocktail pamphlets and corsages," she said. To her mind, such collections don't evoke how it felt to be a Middlebury student back then.
That's exactly the problem that Wallace hopes to correct. He's responsible both for digitizing Middlebury's current archives and for archiving new cultural artifacts that exist only online. The latter range from emails sent and received by senior Middlebury administrators, to Facebook pages for student groups, to a Tumblr dedicated entirely to pictures of broccoli from a Middlebury dining hall.
Wallace, 37, has been online since before the internet as we know it existed. He sees digital archiving as a way to create a more holistic view of life on campus and open up the archives to a broader range of voices.
"The web archive really came from the idea that most student socialization happens online," Wallace said. "Preserving voices that are critical, or that are dissenting or that maybe don't show their experience in the best light, is very important."
Both Wallace and Corrigan said they like the idea of Middlebury students 100 years from now seeing the archived Middlebury meme page and understanding their peers from this age a little better.
Big Meme on Campus
- Courtesy of Lexi Kravitz
- Make UV Groovy Again meme using the popular “Who Would Win?” format to criticize UVM for spending money on free sweatshirts for first-year students instead of on trashcans.
College meme pages like the one at Middlebury have sprung up across the country since 2011. Many of them have names that riff on a Facebook group created in 2015 called Dank Memes for Edgy Teens, according to Know Your Meme. Some of them grew rapidly. The group Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Tweens has almost 57,000 members. UCLA Memes for Sick AF Tweens has more than 64,000.
But the winner, by far, is UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens, which is home to more than 193,000 members. In the fall of 2018, the University of California, Berkeley had slightly more than 42,500 students.
The creator of the UC Berkeley meme group, Chris Tril, wrote in the Daily Californian that "memes were a mistake." He compared himself to the inventor of the Keurig K-Cup, who has publicly lamented the waste brought on by the disposable pod coffee revolution he sparked.
Corrigan doesn't regret her creation to that extent. But she's quick to say that the Middlebury Memes page has become something she never expected or planned.
"This is my private Facebook group that I made three years ago that kind of got out of hand," Corrigan said. "I, like, unleashed a monster in a way I totally didn't realize I was going to. Not that anything serious or bad has happened," she added.
And "serious or bad" things can happen. In 2017, the Harvard Crimson reported that at least 10 students admitted to the Harvard University class of 2021 had had their admission revoked after they posted racist memes and memes about sexual assault and child abuse in a group chat that was titled, at one point, "Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens."
Corrigan and Torre Davy, who took over the Middlebury page when Corrigan graduated, haven't had to deal with anything of that nature. The posts they take down, Davy said, are usually reposts or memes unrelated to the college.
Davy said he takes down fewer than one in 10 posts. He noted that, though the meme page was created for students to respond satirically to the Charles Murray situation and air other grievances, many of the memes are lighthearted.
"It remains, to me ... a very unique forum for Middlebury students," Davy said. "It's not quite like anything else."
When Middlebury special collections started archiving the page, the library made an agreement with Davy and Corrigan to embargo the archived memes for five years before making them visible to the public. The goal is to protect students from potential fallout while they're still on campus. The library also only sweeps the page once or twice per semester, giving students plenty of time to remove posts they might regret.
At the University of Vermont, senior William Wuttke founded the group Make UV Groovy Again in April 2017. MUGA, as it's called, lacks many of the restrictions of the Middlebury group. Everyone is welcome, not just UVM students, and many of the memes are reposts from other pages or unrelated to the college experience. The group gained 2,000 followers within a week. Now it has about 5,800.
The meme page can be a place to debate campus issues, Wuttke said. For instance, in the fall of 2017, a student posted in the group that UVM was littered with cigarette butts, even though it was ostensibly a "smoke-free campus." Commenters were quick to attribute the problem to a lack of trashcans on campus. One pointed to a petition for more cigarette butt receptacles, created the year before. A 2018 Vermont Cynic article confirmed that UVM's waste supervisor had deliberately removed trashcans from campus, both for aesthetic reasons and to encourage students to be more "responsible" with their waste.
Not everyone in the meme group agreed about the trashcans, but the topic spawned a few popular memes. And in February 2019, the Student Government Association passed a resolution supporting more campus receptacles for cigarette butts.
Wuttke pointed to this outcome as an example of how the meme page exists in synergy with off-screen discussions of campus issues. He said another topic that has sparked debate on the meme page is the process of choosing the new UVM president, Suresh Garimella.
But not all campus memes are serious, and any minor gripe can be turned into a meme.
"Dining hall memes do very well," Wuttke said. "Suddenly it's exciting to get a bad meal at a dining hall."
Maple Syrup, Unpredictable Weather and Hating Rutland
- Vermont Department of Memes logo
Students aren't the only Vermonters passing memes back and forth. The Vermont Department of Memes Facebook page has more than 9,700 likes. The page's logo is fashioned to resemble a state seal with a trio of images in the center: a jug of maple syrup, a turning maple tree and Bernie Sanders.
The page is run by Matt Power and Alex Naccarato, a pair of 20-year-olds from Springfield who now live in Burlington. "As teenagers, our generation is always on the internet and always reading the news," Power said. "I'm looking at memes, like, all day and sharing them with my friends."
The Vermont Department of Memes page launched with an image of Burlington's Church Street overlaid with the text "Vermont: A mountainous region of small villages in which hippies and rednecks coexist more or less peacefully." Combining an irreverent statement about Vermont's quirkiness with a bland shot of one of the state's most iconic tourist destinations, the meme was a Facebook gold mine. It was shared more than 3,200 times and got 57 comments.
"I think we stole that one," Naccarato said with a laugh.
The two aren't really concerned about where their memes come from. Their most popular meme to date is a pair of screenshots from the TV show "Family Guy" with labels that transform them into a joke about the superiority of Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire to Massachusetts. Power said a friend sent it to him. The meme has 3,700 shares, 1,000 reactions and 422 comments. (It's an example of a common meme format, referred to as "You Guys Always Act Like You're Better Than Me" on Know Your Meme, which is actually based on a misquote of a "Family Guy" scene.)
- Courtesy of Vermont Department of memes
- Meme commenting on the state of Vermont roads
While Naccarato and Power admit to having appropriated others' memes, most of their content is now original, and they don't like having their own ideas replicated. Once, just hours after posting a joke to the page, Naccarato noticed a similar joke had popped up on another Vermont-themed Facebook page, he said. Now Power and Naccarato watermark their original memes. Common themes include maple syrup, unpredictable weather and hating Rutland. They're currently gunning for 10,000 likes.
Memes Fought the Law, and So Far Nobody Won
Just as memes live at the intersection of many different strains of humor, they're also affected by many different aspects of the law. Memes routinely use copyrighted images, from stock photos to paparazzi images of celebrities to screenshots from movies and TV. And, of course, memes copy other memes. To what extent does the First Amendment protect their creators?
"Copyright law is an anti-free-speech law, in a sense," said Oliver Goodenough, who's a Vermont Law School professor specializing in intellectual property law and a special counsel at Gravel & Shea PC in Burlington. Goodenough has studied how the law works in terms of digital technology and, in his words, "the mismatch of technology and the regulatory structures around technology."
Anyone who takes a photo owns that photo, just as songwriters own their lyrics and melodies and NBC owns screenshots of scenes from "The Office." Those owners have the right to demand payment for use of their work, whether in print or online. If, however, someone has significantly transformed the work, whether in appearance or in meaning, then they can argue "fair use" of the copyrighted image, a legal defense.
Do memes count as transformation under the "fair use" doctrine? Using an image to comment on something else isn't the same as transforming its meaning, Goodenough said. Memes are sometimes called parody, which was established as fair use in famous cases such as that of the Gone With the Wind parody The Wind Done Gone.
While a parody specifically mocks the work it appropriates, however, memes typically use that work to mock something else. In the example from Vermont Department of Memes, for instance, the shots from "Family Guy" are used to mock not the show itself but the denizens of Massachusetts.
Goodenough said he expects that Congress will need to re-examine fair use laws in the digital age. Copyright law, he noted, was formulated back when copying was a relatively difficult and expensive process, requiring resources such as a printing press or audio equipment. Today, anyone can copy nearly anything at the touch of a button.
A person who makes a meme from a copyrighted image, Goodenough said, is "at least opening the door to a fair bit of legal risk. And the question is, does the risk come through the door and bite them?"
It would be neither practical nor particularly lucrative for copyright owners to go after every teen who shares their image in a meme. But publications and businesses, which have deeper pockets, are more vulnerable. The owners of Grumpy Cat, for instance, successfully sued a coffee company for more than $700,000 for selling unauthorized Grumpy Cat-themed T-shirts. Wondering why this story doesn't feature direct reproductions of many online memes? You've got your answer.
Eat Sandwiches, Not Tide Pods
- Kountry Kart Deli meme
Copyright issues haven't stopped businesses from getting in on the meme game. Sometimes they become memes themselves: Arby's, Slim Jim and MoonPie are a few national brands whose online presences are deeply embedded in meme discourse.
In Burlington, Kountry Kart Deli has been posting memes on Instagram since January 2018. It all started with a simple image that capitalized on online trends to sell the deli's signature breakfast sandwich, the Shiner. The meme read "Tide Pod: Bad. Shiner: Good."
Two longtime employees, Adrea Lichols-Neach and Carlton Yost, are behind the deli's meme renaissance. Before them, the Kountry Kart Instagram page was mostly populated with photos of the deli's sandwiches.
"It's hard to get good pictures of sandwiches," Lichols-Neach noted.
Originally, the point of the memes was to boost morale among the mostly young staff, Yost and Lichols-Neach said. The posts weren't based on any kind of marketing strategy — but the owner, Mike Williams, liked them.
When the pair took over the Instagram account, it had about 200 followers. Today, it has more than 1,600. Recent memes have featured Keanu Reeves, White Claw Hard Seltzer and Area 51. Yost and Lichols-Neach even held a meme contest and received more than 70 entries. Williams encourages them with bets, like challenging them to get mentioned in 40 Instagram stories over a weekend. Yost and Lichols-Neach pulled it off, and Williams had to wear a wig while working the register. This spectacle, of course, was also 'grammed.
"People seem to be very into it," Yost said. "I'm very surprised more businesses don't do it, considering it's just not challenging."
- Kountry Kart Deli meme
Kountry Kart has received little negative feedback, the pair said, beyond the occasional customer asking for an explanation of what a meme is. Once, Lichols-Neach posted a meme using the ubiquitous "distracted boyfriend" stock photo of a man walking with one woman while looking over his shoulder at another. (You know, the one on our cover.) She labeled the girlfriend "oatmeal" and the distracting woman "Shiner." Someone commented that the meme was "kind of sexist."
"How is this sexist? It's about breakfast," Lichols-Neach said. Regardless, she messaged the commenter to clarify the post's intentions and smooth things over.
"Most people probably think that we're one young dude," Yost said. He's 29, and Lichols-Neach is 37.
"Whenever we get messages, it's like, 'Hey, bro.' And it makes me laugh really, really hard," Lichols-Neach added.
Bernie Sanders and the Memes of Production
- Know your meme/obviousplant.tumblr.com
- VARIATIONS ON A MEME: This 2016 meme format pitted Sanders against Hillary Clinton on various pop-culture topics. Critics said the memes were sexist.
The power of memes has been displayed on stages much larger than Vermont. In 2016, the Washington Post declared none other than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), then in the midst of his first presidential run, "the lord of 'dank memes.'" This was thanks to a Facebook group called Bernie Sanders' Dank Meme Stash, founded in 2015. The Post wrote that the group had 300,000 followers in 2016. Today, it's closing in on 400,000.
"You've heard that many voters chose George W. Bush in 2004 because they thought he'd make the best drinking buddy; 12 years later, as we approach the most-memed election in U.S. history, it may very well matter which candidate makes the best image macro or remixed Pepe," wrote Post reporter Caitlin Dewey. (Pepe the Frog is a cartoon character created by Matt Furie that the alt-right has used in memes to repurpose into a mascot.)
Sanders' campaign wasn't the first to deal in memes, and he wasn't the first candidate to be meme-ified. In 2012, Barack Obama's reelection campaign shared a Mean Girls GIF to promote a presidential debate, and a comic-style drawing of Obama known as the "'Not Bad' Face" dates to 2011, according to Know Your Meme. But the massive online grassroots community that formed around Sanders — often independently of his campaign — was a testament to the rising power of social media in politics.
In December 2013, Aidan King cofounded a subreddit called /r/SandersforPresident. This was long before Sanders actually announced his candidacy. King, originally from Montpelier, and David Fredrick of San Jose, Calif., had bonded over their disdain for Wall Street bankers and their shared admiration for the Vermont senator. They almost named the subreddit something like /r/BernieSanders, King said, but decided "it should be more idealistic than that."
Before Sanders announced his candidacy in April 2015, the subreddit had about 10,000 members, King said. That meant Sanders already had a decent-size online base ready and waiting for him. Within a week of the announcement, membership ballooned to 60,000. The page was home to calls to action, fundraising efforts, donation requests, discussions of news articles and, of course, plenty of Sanders memes. King and Fredrick were later named to Wired's list of "20 Tech Insiders Defining the 2016 Campaign."
"[Sanders] obviously had a message that was resonating online," said Georgia Parke, senior social media strategist for Sanders' 2020 campaign. "He was speaking the same language."
Parke, originally from Stowe, is part of a team of Sanders staffers who constantly seek out new corners of the internet in which to spread the campaign's message. The campaign is now on Twitch, a video game live-streaming site. Parke's next project is a Bernie Sanders TikTok account. To the campaign staffers, Sanders' success on platforms such as Reddit is a sign of his ability to reach people who might not otherwise engage in politics.
"We want to reach people where they are," said Josh Miller-Lewis, Sanders' digital communications director. "Bernie's mission is to bring more and more people into the political process."
For King, running /r/SandersforPresident eventually translated into a real job as one of two members of the 2016 campaign's social media team. Creating shareable graphic images was what they did every day.
Some memes, King said, suggest an evolution of the political cartoon. Take, for example, the viral video of Sanders running down an escalator to catch a train, with his suit jacket flapping and his signature shock of white hair. In the hands of meme makers, that imagery becomes a vehicle for a message such as "Bernie will sprint down an escalator and out the door if he heard that some Wall Street CEO was about to get off easy in a court case," King said.
Do memes actually translate into increased civic engagement? King thinks so.
"It's a really easy way to kind of share political ideas with people, and to share political commentary or political observations. It's formatted in a way that's kind of designed to reach a lot of people," he said. "Once you have someone following your page because they liked a meme ... that's when you can follow up with your more explicit asks."
King doesn't think this online momentum is limited to Sanders. (He doesn't work for the Sanders campaign anymore — he's with Middle Seat, a consulting firm that's running online advertising and fundraising for Beto O'Rourke's 2020 campaign.) While King acknowledges that a lot of "incredibly talented and borderline weird" supporters — this is a compliment — flocked to Sanders in 2016, he called such people the engine behind any successful campaign.
"I would hope that 2016 was kind of eye-opening in terms of how important and how valuable the internet was as a tool for building awareness and generating support for a candidate," King said. "It certainly did wonders for getting people involved who otherwise would kind of tune out the election process, or kind of watch it go by from the sidelines."
Living in a Meme World
- Courtesy of Vermont Department of memes
- Meme about law enforcement in Vermont taking maple syrup very seriously
Wallace, the Middlebury digital archives librarian, spends a lot of time thinking about the impact of digital memes on culture. He doesn't feel like he has concrete answers, and there's relatively little academic study on the subject. Are memes just regurgitating consumerist pop culture? Or are they reclaiming it? Are they critical of their source material?
Memes were born of the internet because they're the perfect vehicle for information online — concise, visually appealing and able to make viewers feel like they're on the inside of the joke. But they can have offline consequences, both for those who create them and for the world at large. And once a meme is out there, it's not always easy to take back.
If there's anything Wallace rues about the way the internet has evolved, he said, it's the end of anonymity. He's uncomfortable with the idea that a Facebook page can stand in for his actual personhood and that everything he does online is somehow associated with his real identity.
Some meme makers seem to be recognizing the value of privacy and anonymity. Young Instagrammers often create "finstas" (shorthand for "fake Insta") where they post more off-color or off-brand content for friends' eyes only. Memes are shared more and more frequently through private direct messages and message groups.
One UVM student, who declined to be named for this story, anonymously started the Instagram account @uvmwoes to criticize the UVM administration and poke fun at campus life. The account has gained more than 1,000 followers since February, but the student said it isn't something she wants to be known for in real life.
Anonymity on the internet allows a young person to try on different identities, Wallace pointed out.
"That's my old-man-yelling-at-cloud moment," Wallace said with a laugh, of his doubts about online culture. "Old man yelling at cloud," by the way, refers to a popular screenshot from "The Simpsons," often shared online to indicate someone is fighting a losing battle of minor consequence.
In other words, it's a meme.