Why Are So Many Memes about College?
The idea of treating Internet memes seriously and academically is funny in part because so many memes poke fun at the project of school. Even within one tiny part of meme culture, image macros (that is, photos with superimposed white Impact text with a black outline), teachers come off rather poorly: “Unhelpful High School Teacher” makes cringe-worthy blunders from her place by the blackboard. “Engineering Professor” is woefully unconcerned about students’ pocketbooks, difficulties, and limited time. And “Humanities Professor” is as condescending as his sneer suggests. Not that students fare better, of course—from the ingenuous, gung-ho “College Freshman”, to the selfish and impossibly uninformed “Stupid Grad Student”, to the “Over-Educated Problems” man, who stares mournfully out the window of his broken dreams and student loan debt.
But it’s also funny in a less ironic, more problematic way. Even though the Internet has long been touted as a bastion of free speech, open access to literacy and education, and democracy in action, the Digital Divide is shrinking less slowly than we all hoped. And a recent Pew Research Internet demographics survey tells a troubling story about education: 53% of American adults without a high school diploma are not online, along with 32% of American adults who make less than $30,000 per year, 27% of Hispanic American adults, and 26% of African-American adults. Meanwhile, nearly 100% of graduate and undergraduate American students are online. Given that the web gained traction primarily through universities (we are still in the Eternal September, after all), this is not terribly surprising. With this understanding, the enormous percentage of memes that are college-related makes some sense.
Yet the sites that tend to start memes are even more homogeneous than the web as a whole: over 70% of Reddit users are male, as are approximately 65% of 4chan users. Knowing this leads me to wonder how Internet culture may be implicated in reproducing its own race, class, and gender dynamics. And then I have other questions: What is it about these sites that spawn image macros that makes them so uniform? Why are the dynamics so different on Twitter, which is 25% black and 19% Hispanic, or on Pinterest, which is mostly women? I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions, of course—but I do think that by looking at the demographic data, we can get some insight into the workings of the meme culture symbol system.
So, What Is the Pew Internet and American Life Project (PIALP)?
Funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, a non-profit established in 1948 by the children of Sun Oil (now Sunoco) founder Joseph Pew, the PIALP is a self-proclaimed “fact tank” tasked with researching the way people use the Internet. PIALP strives to be balanced and apolitical, presenting research for the benefit of academics, media, and the interested public. They conduct frequent online and phone surveys as well as more in-depth qualitative research. These surveys offer insight into who is online, how they’re online, and what they do when they’re there. The latest survey, for example, examined how US adults use the Internet for health information (evidently college-educated women are more likely to be online diagnosers, which means that my symptom-Googling habits make me a cliché, aw shucks).
The Social(ly Awkward Penguin) Semiotic
So, the PIALP reveals a much less varied and dynamic socioeconomic picture of the active Internet population than I originally expected, but it explains some things about meme grammar. The complex symbol system of image macros works in part because of that homogeneity—the vast majority of content creators have a shared context of race, class, and, importantly, educational status. This helps create a community where “Senior” clearly means “someone in the last year of a four-year university education”; where “Professor” means “someone that teaches at a college or university”; where a blackboard, a whiteboard, a bookcase, a university sweatshirt all signify quickly and relatively unanimously a depicted person’s role in the educational system. Thus, a shared educational status affords the vast number of educationally themed memes—it allows symbols of education to be used with what Gunther Kress calls “discernable regularity, consistency, and shared assumptions about their meaning-potentials” (59). That is, in an image macro, “freshman” never means “high school freshman,” and if you see a whiteboard, you know the meme won’t be commenting on office culture.
And so, I’m arguing, images of education function as a mode in meme culture, according to Kress’s definition of mode: They have an ideational function, representing the state of the educational system. They have an interpersonal function, often depicting the dynamics of the teacher-student or student-student relationship, sometimes speaking back to the power of the instructor in a backstage, socially acceptable fashion. And they have a textual function—the way the classroom is illustrated is coherent within a given image macro and relatively consistent among image macros.
In a personally disturbing sense, I’m beginning to recognize just how much my academic interest in memes is reflective of my own social location (I’m white, middle-class, college-educated, blah blah blah). But that’s also probably why some of them hit so close to home.