Inside the Meme Thread, a Growing Forum for College Students Nationwide

June 05, 2017

Harvard University’s reported decision to rescind the admissions offers of at least 10 people for posting offensive memes sheds light on a lesser-known student forum: the meme thread.

In the past year, Facebook groups featuring college-specific jokes and memes, have gained popularity at universities like Cornell University, Princeton University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Southern California.

At Harvard, an offshoot of the original group, "Harvard Memes for the Elitist 1%," was found to have students posting racist and sexually explicit memes involving minors, The Harvard Crimson reported Sunday evening.

The offspring chat, "Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens," is described as a trove of "Offensive stolen memes for white, rich, hetero, cisgender, depressed with sucidal [sic] tendencies males." The group had more than 100 members.

A spokeswoman for Harvard, Rachael Dane, told The Chronicle that the university does not comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants. (Yale, Cornell, and Columbia Universities declined to comment on how their respective admissions offices determined what online behavior was grounds for an acceptance to be rescinded. Neither Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth, nor the University of Pennsylvania had responded to a request for comment as of Monday evening.)

Some student administrators of similar public meme pages at other colleges said they agreed with Harvard’s decision. "I think the students, honestly, they had it coming," said George Iskander, an administrator for Yale’s meme group. "The stuff they posted was really blatantly offensive. It really is in the truest sense of the word obscene."

“You're never anonymous. You should do everything on the internet with that in mind. You are never hidden.”

The pages are normally home to jokes that are specific to the creator’s campus and primarily feature pictures with captions — referred to as "memes" — pertaining to local politics or school-specific inside jokes. One of the first was created in 2016 at the University of California at Berkeley by Chris Tril, who graduated this year. The Berkeley meme group, originally named UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens, was intended to be a communal area for students with similar senses of humor to post relatable content, Mr. Tril said. The page was renamed Monday evening as "Not-Harvard Memes for Rescinded Teens."

"I thought that people didn’t like the same stuff that I did, but as it turns out, other people do," he said. "So we made a little community just by doing that."

The group now has more than 95,000 members. Karina Pauletti, a current admin on the Berkeley group, said the page attracts 500 to 1,000 new members every day. By comparison, Harvard’s main meme page has just over 30,000 members.

For many of these groups, there are no restrictions on who can join the page and post memes — people unaffiliated with the college can do so — but each new member must be approved by a page administrator, the user who runs the page and decides if a contentious post is deleted or stays. Many groups also have moderators, who screen comments and posts for inappropriate content.

The role can be relatively time consuming, given that moderators must manually accept the hundreds of requests to join the page, as well as review any memes that may be offensive. While some administrators on meme pages with several moderators and administrators said the workload was easily balanced among them, others with fewer said they needed to set aside a few hours a week to moderate.

Chirag Bharadwaj, a co-founder of and administrator for Cornell’s meme page, said he sets aside roughly two to three hours a week during the school year to moderate memes. Yoon Ko, a page administrator for Duke University’s meme group, said he spends one to two hours a week screening comments and posts.

But when it comes to controversial posts, page administrators said that it can sometimes be difficult to define a clear line between funny and inappropriate, and that there was a trend toward posting "edgy" content in an attempt to be funny. It’s "the idea that, in order to be funny, sometimes you have to be kind of offensive, you have to kind of overstep boundaries that might piss some people off," said Brinda Gurumoorthy, an administrator and co-creator on Cornell’s group. "People don’t know where to stop with that sometimes."

Ms. Gurumoorthy, a rising senior, said she doesn’t want to police the page too much, but that there is certain content that is clearly inappropriate. "We do draw the line at things that are explicitly racist, sexist, ableist, so we try to pull down things that are in that category," Ms. Gurumoorthy said.

Elise Vondra, co-creator and administrator of the University of Southern California’s page, said her logic is simple. "If we’re on the fence, we take it down," Ms. Vondra said.

Page administrators interviewed by The Chronicle said that they have only occasionally dealt with contentious posts, but that members of their meme pages have pushed back against bans on certain content.

One post that caused trouble in Southern California’s group depicted an all-white sorority pledge class with the caption "we value diversity." Ms. Vondra said she decided not to remove the meme because it was social commentary, not derision. "There’s a line between irony and satire and rude, crude, offensive shock-value stuff," Ms. Vondra said. "The stuff that they posted was beyond the line of humor. That was just offensive and if I was at Harvard, I wouldn’t want that to represent our university."

Ms. Vondra, a rising sophomore, said she fully supported Harvard’s decision. "That just shows who they are as a person, that they think that’s OK," Ms. Vondra said. "With college applications, they want to see what kind of person you are. If someone put that on their application, they wouldn’t accept it."

By and large, students don’t expect to be held accountable for the things they post on the internet, Ms. Vondra said. "You’re never anonymous," she said. "You should do everything on the internet with that in mind. You are never hidden."