Culture | Mockery of the memes

Ben Poirier investigates the sober side of campus comedy

This fall semester, students at McGill hit a digital funny bone. Since September, our web browsers and news feeds have been characterized by an intriguing process. Humour in social media, more than ever before, has become a locus for student identity and dialogue. An increasing number of the collegiate set became invested in popular media devices and used new, novel techniques, such as the enigmatic “meme,” to ROFL on the web. Digital fora became host to multi-faceted interactions and discussions within a parallel universe  of our campus. These began to penetrate higher-arching topics of race, sexuality, class, and gender. And, often manifested with a comedic overtone, the resultant proliferation of stereotyping seems problematic when considering that a lot of what is in these forums is not only provocative, but perhaps also offensive.

Stereotypes have long been used and abused by comedians, whether they reign on their rightful stand-up routine or as part of a social interactions. Categorical humour to some degree unavoidable; it appears to act cathartically in reconciling the material difference that set us apart from one another, allowing us to feel a little bit more comfortable with the unpredictability and individuality of human nature. However, conversing through stereotypes reinforces common misperceptions and leaves many people feeling undermined by commonly perceived defining factors such as the colour of their skin or their place of worship. This type of communication can be particularly potent in a campus environment, bolstered by our addiction to social media.

Integral to this process are a number of Twitter and Tumblr accounts. Figures such as Tiffany Leacock and @McGillProblems gained notoriety for their unique spice of commentary, as they interpreted the life of a McGill student and its accommodating features in the succinct snippets of their medium. On another front, McGill Memes also came to prominence by displaying campus-themed captions over-layed on on a picture of Redpath Museum. It then began accepting submissions, effectively becoming an outlet for not only the people running the site, but for any one of its subscribers. These agents spread quickly throughout campus, gaining the attention of a large part of the student body and causing a trail of copycats.

What this invigoration and repurposing of social media represents, beyond the opportunity to relay humorous commentary, is the ability to reach a wide audience. The puppeteers behind the Tumblrs and Twitters are pursuing the entire community of McGill. This can be seen in the subject matter to which their content is directed – we wouldn’t expect a student from Queens University to understand our brand of comedy. However, even within the campus demographic, subject matter must be more or less universal in recognition for it to be successful, which is where stereotypes come so distinctly into play. In order to bridge the gap between a wide spectrum of different people on campus, comedians often rely on the galvanizing power of generalizations.

These new forms of social media represented extensions of dialogue already common on the McGill campus, as even the most mundane conversation can be characterized by generalizations. However, these new, powerful, pervasive formats exacerbated these already prominent stereotypes. As these Twitter and Tumblr accounts evolved, they rehashed many of the common misperceptions held among the population of McGill, but in a way that distracts us from their influence. The cynicism and brevity of the meme or the tweet restricts our ability to scrutinize its implications. Furthermore, many of these perceptions manifested in explicitly offensive ways, showing aggression towards specific individuals and social groups on campus.

It is unclear if this novel form of comedy is actually harmless or just the manifestation of inane misperceptions. Some of the comments made can be deemed offensive to certain people, and many more than the subjected parties have expressed their opposition toward these kinds of humour. It’s positive that there are people who have discerned the negative implications of this media, and as such, will continue to refuse to subscribe to their typecasting. Whether or not this represents a lasting social trend, it is undeniable that stereotyping has been given a new and improved outlet.