Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens is undoubtedly the epicenter of meme culture at Swarthmore. Like savanna animals flocking to a fertile watering hole, students converge on the group en masse to share and view memes. Yet in this place of unity, there is a pervading tension between the idea that the group should be an open market for students to post any (socially acceptable) memes, and the idea that it should be restricted to Swarthmore-specific memes. Kat Capossela ‘21 explored this tension in an article titled “The Inevitable Encroachment of Normie Memes,” published in the May 3, 2018 edition of The Phoenix. This remains a contentious issue, as the group continues to host both general and Swat-specific memes.
In an article on what makes memes so appealing, sociologist Nicki Lisa Cole, PhD, argues that “Memes that capture the popular zeitgeist are those that are most successful because they are the ones that will capture our attention, inspire a sense of belonging and connectedness with the person who shared it with us, and encourage us to share with others the meme and the collective experience of viewing it and relating to it.” A meme is not just a joke, the pixels themselves are not what make a meme appealing. What draws us to memes is that they inspire that sense of belonging and interconnectedness. In a way, they play on the in-group/out-group mentality, rewarding those who are in on the joke with the knowledge that it would be unintelligible to anyone not in the group. In fact the appeal of every meme (even the normiest of memes) is based on this idea, the in-group being young people involved in internet culture, and the out-group being other generations uninvolved in internet meme culture. But this is clearly the greatest common denominator — it doesn’t feel very gratifying to know that you are a part of a massive group of millions of idiots who spend their time sharing images online. But on the smaller scale, such as at Swarthmore, the sense of belonging and mutual understanding that one gets from appreciating a niche meme is extremely rewarding and satisfying.
Memes about college life strike a medium between general memes and Swarthmore-centric memes. For example, memes about lack of sleep, being overburdened by school work, and dorm living. These memes are surely more relevant and apply to a smaller subsection of the population. One could perhaps garner a certain sense of belonging from them, a comraderie with students across the nation and the world who also go through the same struggles and experience the same woes. But this isn’t a very powerful alliance, and it doesn’t feel unique at all. A meme about school being difficult just isn’t enough, and the divide between those who understand it and those who would not is not nearly tangible or evident enough to provide the gratification of being in an in-group.
It is safe to say that a majority of members of the page prefer Swarthmore-specific memes to general memes. Looking at posts from approximately mid-October to mid-November, the average number of reactions for Swat-related posts is 137.5, more than two times the average of 60 reactions for general posts. Every one of the most successful posts in the group, the posts that garner over 300 reactions, are Swarthmore specific. And the comments of these posts tend to also be a lot more lively than those on general memes, as students tag each other in larger numbers and talk about the references.
It might be safe to say that a majority of students prefer Swarthmore-specific memes to general memes. Gabrielle Henig ’22 expressed some disappointment in the saturation of general memes on the group, saying that the meme groups of other schools tend to be a lot more focused on school-specific memes, which cultivates a unique meme culture and in a positive loop strengthens the posts themselves.
Some students have advocated for an outright ban of non-Swat specific memes on the group, while others have advocated for such posts to be restricted to certain days. Though these solutions may definitely be viable, there are also concerns that with such restrictions, the amount of posts on the group will decrease. A decrease in posts might lead to a lack of engagement and activity, which through a negative loop would weaken the meme culture and lower the quality of memes. Some have advocated for a “free market of memes,” believing that members will understand that Swat-specific posts are more successful which will lead to the creation of more of those types of posts.
The fundamental question at the heart of this issue is whether the group should exist as a place for Swatties to post memes, or a place for memes about Swarthmore. Perhaps only time will decide, but until then the herds of animals fighting over this watering hole will continue to quench themselves with the water they so dearly need, no matter how stagnant it might be.