WHAT DO YOU get when you marry humanity’s obsessive compulsion for creation with an international communication platform?
Answer: one hell of a love child. Memes are jokes-- no, they’re social statements-- nay, they are the purest form of art. What is a meme? “It’s tricky to say,” explains Robel Daniel, founder and moderator of Stanford’s very own meme page-- “I would say, it’s some media or format that people share that usually has some cultural relevancy. The culture that it focuses on can be very different, but I think it usually all focuses on humor.” The web’s newest infatuation is the college meme-- usually a woeful image post expressing some sort of school-related despair. These make up the bulk of Stanford Memes for Edgy Trees. We asked Robel Daniel about the future of good ole memery, and what it’s like to mod Stanford’s meme page.
PULSE: HOW DID THE MEME GROUP START? WALK US THROUGH ITS GENESIS.
ROBEL DANIEL: It happened on the day of the finals of the world series last year. Immediately, it was just full of spam. The Berkeley meme admins [joined and] started posting pictures of cartoon bananas stripping.
P: DO YOU THINK ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE HAVE CHANGED AFTER STANFORD STARTING STANFORD MEMES?
RD: It’s kind of weird when I meet people and they already know me and I don’t know them.
I don’t want to be associated with only [a meme page] when I meet somebody. It kind of makes it harder to increase your social circle. People you’ll meet in new classes, new sections, new dorms -- some of them will be a little weird about it. Which is a little tricky to get around.
P: WOULD YOU SAY YOU'VE SEEN A CHANGE IN THE STANFORD COMMUNITY SINCE STARTING IT?
RD: It provides an escape from a pretty busy and stressful student life. Also, when somebody makes an actually Stanford-relevant meme, sometimes it sparks discussion. For example, like, when somebody’s criticizing the administration, especially in response to sexual assault, or when somebody is criticizing a specific Stanford Review article, in the form of a humorous meme, it’s pretty good for the community that people can actually talk about that stuff.
P: WHERE DO YOU SEE MEMES GOING IN THE FUTURE? AS OUR GENERATION AGES, WHAT ROLE DO YOU SEE MEMES PLAYING?
RD: I feel like we’re already seeing this now, but more so in the future-- they’ll be more co-opted by political movements and corporations. So, like, advertising for both campaigns and companies and things like that. Especially as the people who work for those campaigns and those companies grow up from our generation-- they’re more aware of what a meme is and how memes work. It’s probably the likely outcome 10 years from now of what memes are gonna be used for.
I think memes help build community, and sometimes that community is extremely distasteful. I brought up the alt-right earlier. People who would normally be isolated and not go out and act on their hate found people who supported their ideals. I think Trump’s election was one factor of that. The growth of boards on 4chan and racist memes also helped build off that community, and that boils over into actualized white supremacist rallies.
P: DO YOU THINK MEMES SHOULD BE POLITICIZED? OR USED TO FURTHER MESSAGES?
RD: In the general sense, sure-- make memes about whatever you want. I think them being politicized is inevitable and pretty useful to an extent. You can kind of condense a message and share it in a very clickable quick laugh.
I do get annoyed when I see a snarky meme about a political issue that tries to narrow it down into one sound byte or one catch phrase. Obviously, a lot of political issues are pretty complex, so I think memes should only be used to the extent to introduce an issue humorously, and not the sole form of political discussion.
P: HAVE YOU EVER INTERACTED WITH BERKELEY MODERATORS?
RD: One of them messaged me a while ago. I think there were people who wanted people who’d sexually assaulted them banned [from the Berkeley meme page.] [The founder] wouldn’t ban them because they were his friends.
And the other moderators were like, yeah, he’s kind of a bad person, so we’re trying to overthrow him. [They] were considering getting a bunch of meme pages to put up an anti- Chris Tril banner-- Chris Tril was the guy’s name.
Afterwards...he just stepped down. Apparently they, like, blackmailed him or something? I don’t know. They were having some internal moderator drama.
Occasionally you’ll see “Free Chris Tril” on the Berkeley page and stuff like that. And the mods are openly anti- Chris Tril.
P: WOULD YOU SAY THE SHIFT IN MEME CULTURE TOWARDS DARKER MEMES AND MORE MENTAL-HEALTH BASED MEMES IS A REFLECTION OF OUR GENERATION OR OUR AGE?
RD: I would say generation.
I think these kinds of memes have probably always existed, but they’ve become more popular, and it’s because nowadays it’s less stigmatized to talk about mental health. 10 years ago, I don’t think it was as acceptable to necessarily talk about things like depression in popular media. And now, some of the most popular songs we listen to are about mental health.
Sure, joking about it may not be that productive, but when people joke about it, you kind of realize that other people are going through similar things as you. At least that’s a nice perspective to have, which wouldn’t happen at all, if we tried to focus only on happy, unrealistic-type jokes and memes.
The origin of the word “meme” implies a cultural unit. “Richard Dawkins came up with it in some book about biology. It was supposed to build off the idea of a gene, except relevant to a unit of culture instead of a unit of DNA,” says Daniel. Indeed, memes have permeated and shaped the internet landscape as effectively as a genetic force. Viral is an apt nickname-- once merely a humble Pepe or two, memes have now infiltrated wider society, shaped politics, and will only grow more influential as time goes on.
From rage comics to Nyan Cat to vine compilations and beyond, it’s been a wild saga. Robel Daniel, and the rest of our generation, are babies of the internet. As such, we’re uniquely tapped into the web and its possibilities. As years go by, we’ll keep our eyes on that growth. Rick Astley could have never seen this coming. Thanks to Robel Daniel for the interview! Below are a couple of PULSE's favorite memes, and a couple of the page's top hits.
By: Annie Zheng
Photography by: Hannah Scott