Aesthetic in Equilibrium: a History of Esoteric Meme Groups at Swarthmore

Many (if not most) students are familiar with Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens, the de facto Swarthmore meme page that supplies 2,259 content-hungry members with fresh memes every day. But for those consumers looking for more refined, particular, or artisan content, there exist alternative Facebook groups that more than make up for their small size with quality (or garbage) posts produced for and consumed by a devoted tight-knit following.

The development of these tertiary meme groups is intertwined with the history of the main meme group — they have always cohabitated in a shared closed system, where seismic shifts in either one lead to reverberations in the other and vice versa, maintaining equilibrium in the system as a whole.

The beginning of Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens was a confusing time. It was founded in September of 2016, in the wake of the demise of the previous meme page (Swarthmore Dank Meme Stash) and during a time when another meme page (Swarthmore College Dankest Memes Society) was also active, having been founded just a few months before, in July. 

“It was a turbulent time the meme page was super normie, mostly just for casual memers,” said Dakota Gibbs ’19.

By the end of the semester there was a group of students that wanted to post more niche, obscure content but felt like such posts would not fit well in the Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens atmosphere.

“There was a subset of people who wanted to post some really weird stuff, really funny stuff that the Swarthmore campus community wasn’t ready for at the time,” said Gibbs.

This need led to the creation of a new meme group called “Swarthmore shitposting.” Founded by Mohammad Boozarjomehri ’20, who at the time was the lynchpin of the Swarthmore meme scene, the group provided a new environment for devoted memers to post content that might not have appealed to the large majority on Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens.

Thus began a continuing ebb-and-flow dynamic between the main meme page and the secondary meme page. Users would occasionally switch from one to the other as the quality and type of content changed and evolved in each community, thus only increasing the population exchange and furthermore changing the dynamics of which type of content was posted to each group.

Smaller communities are conducive to users creating a more cohesive, thematic collection of posts. While the line between Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens and the niche groups is sometimes blurry, there is a general unspoken guideline that describes most of the posts in each respective category. Most posts on Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens make a clear distinction between form and content. These memes use a certain recognizable format to convey a particular (typically relatable) experience. For example, a recent meme by Cielo De Dios ’21 features a screenshot of Spongebob waiting apprehensively, superimposed with “Me waiting over an hour for the McCabe scanner.” On the other end of the spectrum, memes on Swarthmore shitposting blur the lines between form and content. They are shitposts — they are not meant to be enjoyed at face value. The layers of meaning are what give these memes value. 

“There’s an aesthetic, there’s a shitpost/anti-shitpost aesthetic at the same time,” said Gibbs. “It’s a shitpost since it’s on the weirder side but also anti-shitpost because they are meta shitposts, they know that they are shitposting. But the thing tying them all together is really being into it, it’s highly specific, and it has a theme they try to stay within.”

Aesthetic is obviously an actual field of philosophy and art history, but in the realm of the internet it is a movement born of Tumblr blogs and “mood boards” wherein a collection of posts comes together to create a feeling, a vibe that might not be describable with words but is nevertheless palpable. 

Such a particular kind of aesthetic posting requires its own isolated community, so Swarthmore shitposting was fertile ground for people looking for an aesthetic environment.

“Swarthmore shitposting grew over time and basically became a second Swarthmore meme page,” said Gibbs. “All the big memers in my sophomore year [2017] moved to Swarthmore shitposting, which only made the main meme page worse.”

But as Swarthmore shitposting became more prominent, it opened up to more (“normie”) students and naturally became less niche, losing that vital culture that made it so unique in the first place. “All meme groups eventually become normified, and that’s what happened to Swarthmore shitposting.” said Gibbs. Additionally, group administrator Mohammad Boozarjomehri ’20 deactivated his account, changing the culture of the community (Nora Hikari Shao ’19 and Byron Smith ’19 became administrators of the group in his stead).

Thus eventually, by late 2017 and early 2018, the tables turned again as the once-fledgling, lawless Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens over time established itself as an organized community for quality posts, attracting users back from Swarthmore shitposting.

“The meme page [Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens] became more established, with an organized system of content moderation, so Swarthmore shitposting started dying out because the memers there were finding their home on the main meme page,” said Gibbs. 

In addition to the increased organization and moderation, Gibbs credits users such as Shani Mahotiere ’21 with changing the culture of Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens, opening the doors to more “shitpost” style memes that would otherwise be confined to Swarthmore shitposting. 

“Some of [the memes posted by Mahotiere and others] bordered on raunchy or shitposting, which injected a lot of meme diversity to the group so lots of other people started posting memes that didn’t have to be Swat-related,” said Gibbs.

Having become an administrator of the group by this time, Gibbs, along with the rest of the moderation team, was faced with the question of whether to allow such content on the group. After a poll on the group showed that most users prefered Swat-specific memes, the moderators made a decision to nevertheless allow general interest memes and most shitposts, as long as they are posted by Swatties (and under harsh scrutiny to ensure that the character of the group is preserved).

“What matters is that you are a Swattie, not that you post about Swat,” said Gibbs.

By the end of the 2017-2018 year, Swarthmore shitposting was no longer an active group, but users began again to ache for smaller, niche communities to post and engage in. This desire led to an explosion of new smaller groups, each built around a highly specific theme or vibe that tied all of the posts together. Most of these fizzled out fairly quickly and never reached a large audience, but even in their brief lifespans these groups fostered spaces for quality niche content. Among these was a socialist meme group, a feminist meme group, and a “beach community” group (for a particular genre of memeing known as “Jim posting” that seeks to emulate and make fun of Baby Boomers online). 

One cannot discuss Swarthmore niche meme groups without recalling the history of the “can’t opener.” On the Summer 2017 Facebook group, one student kept asking for various things all summer long. One day they asked for a can opener, and on impulse Gibbs responded “Sorry i only have a can’t opener.” They reacted in visceral annoyance, which Gibbs found entertaining because the two were acquaintances and he knew that they were not usually liable to such outbursts. So, for the rest of the summer, Gibbs commented that on every one of their posts, and a few other people joined in as well. He decided to keep this meme confined to the summer group, so when the semester began, he stopped commenting in this way.

By the time the Summer 2018 group was in full swing, the tale of the can’t opener had traveled far and wide, and people were eagerly anticipating its return. So Gibbs brought it back, commenting “sorry i only have a can’t opener” on various posts asking for items. It blew up and became its own hugely popular meme — people even subverted the format by making posts asking if anyone has a can’t opener.

But all good things must come to an end, so Gibbs brought a stop to the can’t opener meme at the end of the summer. That is, until someone brought it to the Swarthmore 2018-2019 group, where it spread like wildfire, like a stowaway animal brought to a new land with no natural predators.

“Once it made it there I had to keep doing it,” said Gibbs. “It became a big thing, I had to comment it on other people’s stuff. Freshmen would look at me and say ‘Oh you’re the can’t opener guy!’”

When Gibbs set out to create a personal meme page for himself (an honor reserved for only the worthiest memers), he knew there was only one thing he could name it. Thus on October 21 2018, Gibbs created “sorry i only have a can’t opener.” Like many other niche meme groups, the can’t opener group focuses on a particular aesthetic theme. This group also serves as a “tagging group,” meaning that users tag the link to the group in the comments of posts on other groups (such as the main school page, or Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens). No longer needing to type out the full “sorry i only have a can’t opener” response, users can simply tag the group.

“The theme was that it was only memes that I would like and understand,” said Gibbs. Though the group was just meant to be a curated collection of memes that Dakota Gibbs might enjoy, it ballooned in popularity until eventually boasting over 270 members.

“People would come up to me and say ‘yo your memes are so relatable!’ But it wasn’t meant to be relatable. It was just supposed to be for me, and everyone else was along for the ride,” he said.

Eventually the can’t opener brand became so ubiquitous and solidified that it itself fueled new content for the group. It spawned an entire genre of “can’t-opener-ism,” syntactically just the noun form of the concept of can’t opener memes, but in reality something between an art movement and a religion. 

These memes spilled over even to Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens, most prominent among them being a meme made by Gibbs himself of Bruce Banner/Hulk saying “that’s my secret Captain, I’m always angry,” with the text changed to “sorry, I’m always only having a can’t opener.” 

“Sorry i only have a can’t opener” is still active to this day. Similarly, “Pictures of Keanu Reeves and/or Whoopi Goldberg,” founded in May of 2018 by veteran memer and meme group administrator Amorina Pierce ’19, continues to be active community where 53 members still post pictures of Keanu Reeves and/or Whoopi Goldberg.

Niche shitposting has enjoyed a renaissance all throughout last year, a trend which continues to this day. The mantle is being carried by recent newly formed groups such as “Tag yourself: I’m sad,” which was founded by Chase Smith ’22. The group, where “Posts must be sad” as per rule #1 of the group, has been a home to 104 active members since May 2019. Similarly to “Sorry i only have a can’t opener,” “Tag yourself: I’m sad” is a tagging group as well.

These groups are living, breathing organisms, multicolored coral reefs built by dedicated communities of people, each contributing just a few individual memes that come together to create an ingenious quilt. Like any living system, these groups experience natural fluctuations and changes. Normification might be as inevitable as entropy, but it does not necessarily doom the entire system to a gradual decrease in creativity. Every meme group is an open system, exchanging users and creativity with other meme groups and brand new meme groups as well. Their beauty is in their spontaneity, the carelessness and thoughtlessness with which they come into being and disappear from existence. Perhaps writing this article breaks the fourth wall, thrusting these groups out of the shadows and into the public eye, an environment for which they are not suited and in which they would not survive. Will this speed up the process of normification? Will it ruin the finely tuned climates that exist in these microbiomes, upset the gentle balance of vibes that memes thrive in? It is possible, but nature will correct itself. Will there be a massive influx of new users? Probably not, because most people don’t care. But for those who do care – the groups mentioned here are just the tip of the magical iceberg of secret Swarthmore meme groups. Go out and find them, pursue these obscure communities, peruse their posts, identify each individual aesthetic, and build on it just a bit more.

[Editor’s note.: this article was updated at 1:03 AM on Friday, September 13th to correct an error. Swarthmore shitposting was founded by Mohammad Boozarjomehri ’20, not by current administrators Nora Hikari Shao ’19 and Byron Smith ’19 as the article originally stated. Additional information on Boozarjomehri was added, as well as information on Amorina Pierce ’19, and links to previous Phoenix articles by Boozarjomehri, Gibbs, and Katherine Capossela ’21.]

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