Does the Northwestern meme page exacerbate toxic productivity habits?

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Illustration by Grace Luxton

Grace Luxton, Reporter

Content warning: This story discusses mental health and the SAE sexual assault case.

In “Northwestern Memes for Technically Top Ten Teens” — formerly “Northwestern Memes for Networking Teens” — a Facebook group made for students to post and bond over jokes about NU, there’s always something to talk about.

The group acts as a mirror to Northwestern’s undergraduate culture, having recorded each joke du jour since its founding in March 2017. Through the common tropes of the meme page, an outsider can catch a glimpse of what it means to be a Northwestern student. (Many prospective students now join meme pages to get a sense of where they want to go to college.) But at what point does reflecting the Northwestern experience through memes turn into the group telling students how to behave? Can a meme page rooted in humor and lightheartedness be partly blamed for reinforcing toxic elements of Northwestern’s culture?

“There was a meme posted that asked, ‘Did you eat today? Did you sleep?’ and then a response that read something like ‘No, that would be against what Northwestern students should do.’ I responded to it,” said Weinberg senior Deborah Shoola, “because people were laughing at it, hearting it, and I thought, this is not normal.”

Shoola, who joined the meme page in its infancy — the group now has nearly 16,000 members — is critical of the insidious messages at the root of some of its popular content.

“There’s always a competition of deprivation at Northwestern,” Shoola said. “Someone said, ‘I didn’t sleep until 1 a.m.,’ and then someone else said ‘I didn’t sleep at all,’ and that second person is seen as someone doing really well, which isn’t really true all the time.”

Since the page’s founding, members have laughed together about everything from the cockroach infestation of Joy Yee to the yearly migration of Canada Geese. But a few topics have become a constant drone, said Communication senior Julia Tesmond: notably, Northwestern’s work-hard, play-hard culture.

“The memes are all recycled, fifth-use memes that have been around for weeks and weeks, which is decades in meme time,” said Tesmond, former editor-in-chief of campus satirical publication Sherman Ave, “just to perpetuate sayings like ‘haha when you haven’t had a sip of water in 12 days because you’ve been in the library’ next to Pikachu with his mouth open. It’s not particularly funny — it just makes you feel like you should be doing that. If you don’t know any better, especially if you’re a freshman, watching those memes makes you internalize those narratives whether you believe them or not.”

One trope born from, or at least exacerbated by, the meme page, is interschool rivalry. Jokes often center around ranking majors in terms of difficulty, associating STEM majors with intellect and success while punching down “easier” curricula like those offered in the School of Education and Social Policy and the School of Communication.

“The whole SESP vs. McCormick dialogue that happens every week on there is kind of related to the deprivation culture,” Shoola said. “The idea is that if someone is studying something else they’re not working hard enough. Because they’re not up late all night or they’re eating, so their work isn’t as valued as the people doing those things.”

For seniors like Shoola and Tesmond, the tropes put forth by meme-posters online are not indicative of reality at Northwestern. But in reflecting on their college experiences, they weren’t always so comfortable ignoring the noise. During her freshman year on campus, Tesmond felt immediate pressure to overextend herself.

“Things are going on all the time, so you don’t really have to take a break if you don’t want to,” she said. “Coupled with people telling you that you shouldn’t take a break, it’s really easy to lose sight of the need to take a break, even though in your head you know that it’s true. Even if you don’t believe them, they’re in your head and you’re acting accordingly.”

Psychologists call this the sleeper effect, said Weinberg Prof. Renee Engeln. “You’ll often remember a message but forget the source. If initially it came from an unreliable source, or from a joke, you might forget where you heard that thing but remember it anyway.”

The phenomenon suggests that when students encounter a barrage of messages that tie success at Northwestern to constant stress and over-productivity, they may internalize that lifestyle as the norm on campus — and eventually aspire to it — regardless of where those messages came from.

“We think more people are engaging in negative behaviors than actually are,” Engeln said. “When you keep seeing the stress memes, it can give you a sense that the norm is to feel terrible all the time.”

Though Engeln thinks humor is one of the healthiest ways for students to cope with feeling stressed and overwhelmed, she said it’s important for them not to idealize those negative habits.

Shoola agrees.

“There’s a very fine line between using jokes to cope with your situation and normalizing very unhealthy habits,” Shoola said. “At the end of the day, the moderators have to distinguish what they consider to be a meme and what they consider to be just forcing narratives on Northwestern students.”

Weinberg junior Evelyn Roth is a member of the five-person team that manages “Northwestern Memes for Technically Top Ten Teens.” In this role, she filters requests for membership into the group, maintains a respectful environment, and, most importantly, accepts or denies memes that students request to publish. Unless a meme request is blatantly hateful or irrelevant, she said, it gets approved.

“We try to help people be more mindful by suggesting posters add trigger warnings or content warnings to their content,” Roth said. “If someone requested to post something alarming in a mental health sense, I would reach out to them, but that’s never happened.”

As a transfer from the University of California, Berkeley, Roth’s previous college experience colored her opinion of Northwestern’s meme page culture. Poor mental health on campus, Roth said, “is not as prominent (at Northwestern), but it’s still an issue. The memes definitely draw attention to it. In some aspects, memes destigmatize it.”

Talking about stress and its effects on mental health can reduce the shame that often surrounds psychological illness. For Shoola, the difference between a meme that helps reduce instead of reinforce stigma is whether the author tries to generalize their experience to the entire student body.

“It comes down to the line between talking about your own experience versus trying to project what you think the Northwestern experience should be,” she said.

For Tesmond, whose list of Northwestern comedy credentials is becoming too long to enumerate, memes are a way for the community to grapple with systemic injustices on campus. Recalling the sexual assault allegations against Sigma Alpha Epsilon in 2017, Tesmond remembers students’ frustration towards administration feeling “like a collective rallying cry, a catharsis in some ways. Some of the most biting comedy came out of the collective issues Northwestern students felt really passionate about.”

“I always try to satirize whatever is upsetting to me,” Tesmond said. But there’s a caveat: “It’s about attacking the concepts, and not perpetuating them. The implications of your words still exist when you make comedy. The joke still has a seed of truth to it. You have to be careful about what message you’re ultimately sending to other people.”

Tesmond and Shoola recognize most people who post memes won’t be doing so to change the culture at Northwestern. Perhaps that was never meant to be their role.

If The Daily is a mirror to Northwestern’s culture, “then the meme page would be a funhouse mirror,” Roth said.

“It definitely emphasizes the things that everyone can relate to and that you can draw humor from, but it’s not necessarily going to be a direct reflection of everything,” she added. “Some memes acknowledge stress but don’t give good tools for how to deal with that stress. But I also don’t think people come to the meme page looking for tools.”

If “Northwestern Memes for Technically Top Ten Teens” has a role in promoting toxic elements of Northwestern’s culture, might it be the place to reverse that culture?

Shoola isn’t so sure.

“If people are more open about challenging those narratives, we can have more of a conversation about the culture,” she said. “That conversation is not going to happen in the meme page.”

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Twitter: @graceluxton

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