No matter what, I will always be able to tell my children that I watched Martin Shkreli invade a college meme Facebook group. Though, the truth is, I didn’t even realize it was him.
This was back in April, when Columbia Buy Sell Memes, the unofficial official meme page of Columbia University, was in its prime and — despite only being created a mere five months ago — boasted well over 20,000 members. Shkreli, the infamous pharmaceutical entrepreneur and Wu-Tang auction-winner currently on trial for fraud, published a basic text post that read: “are columbia women better looking than barnard or is the premise of the question disgusting plz discuss.”
I assumed that it was a parody account meant to stir the pot — I mean, surely Shkreli himself had better things to do? As it turns out, no. As the day went on, one post turned into 20; 20 posts turned into a series of livestreamed AMAs; AMAs eventually led to a confusing attempt at a counterrevolution from within the group itself. It had became impossible to ignore the facts: The real Martin Shkreli had invaded a college meme group. And, weirder still, this wasn’t the first time this sort of thing had happened.
It turns out that nearly every elite academic institution in America has a booming Facebook group dedicated solely to the creation and sharing of school-related memes — and Martin Shkreli has somehow invaded almost all of them. Membership figures range from the respectable 30,000 of Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Tweens, to the almost absurd 102,000 of UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens.
I first got into these groups late last year, when — after receiving countless screenshots of “totally hilarious” posts from Columbia Buy Sell — I caved and sent a join request of my own. That’s when I realized that this seemingly low-key meme-sharing group was actually a fascinatingly complex operation. I became obsessed with the logistics of it — How did this all begin? Who were these 20,000 members? — and started tracing the lineage of the collegiate Facebook meme group back as far as I could, in an attempt to find some answers. But, as I fell deeper and deeper into this (poorly Photoshopped) rabbit hole — which involved groups with names like Princeton Memes for Preppy AF Teens, Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens, and Official Unofficial Penn Squirrel Catching Club — the number of questions I had about this secret world of strangely popular, semi-public Facebook groups only grew. Where did they come from? How did they get so popular so quickly? And where the hell did Martin Shkreli fit into all of this?
The Great Collegiate Meme Rush of 2016
Unlike most actual memes on the internet, the trend of elite college meme-sharing groups (and Shkreli’s subsequent invasion of them) has a surprisingly easy-to-find beginning. All roads lead back to one group: UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens and its founder, Chris Tril.
Tril, a Berkeley student, created the group back in May of 2016 after growing frustrated with his friends’ lack of understanding when it came to memes. He wanted to create a community where he and other like-minded Cal students could share quality content without having to anonymously navigate through back channels of the internet, like 4chan and Reddit. The group began with just a handful of members — and, for a while, Tril was essentially the only active poster — but within just a few short months, it grew to become one of the largest meme-sharing groups on Facebook.
By 2017, UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens had grown so famous that it began to attract thousands of members from outside the UC bubble. Students from other colleges, like Stanford and UCLA began to flood the group with join requests. Then, one fateful Sunday evening in February (10:37 p.m. on Sunday, the 19th, to be exact), the unthinkable happened: Martin Shkreli joined the group — and then promptly left.
Tril and his team of moderators went into overdrive as they realized the bounty of possible meme opportunities they were missing out on. Pages like UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens thrive on the chaos and drama of online conflict, which attracts more comments, shares, and submissions, and Shkreli was as close to the human embodiment of a meme as one could get. He had already achieved widespread notoriety, and his name alone incited the sort of infighting that drove comment chains into the hundreds. They quickly changed the title of the group to RIP IN PIECE MARTIN SHRKELI (1983–2017) in the hopes that it would prompt him to rejoin. To their delight, it did, and after he was re-added to the group, they decided to capitalize on the absolute absurdity of the situation: They promoted Shkreli to moderator, changed the group’s name to UC Shkreli Memes for Edgy Teens, and sat back to see what would happen.
What followed were the most insane 24 hours in the group’s history, during which Shkreli used his mod powers to completely remake the group in his image. He deleted posts that he thought were lame, and pinned Shkreli-approved content to the top; he gave out his phone number to the thousands of members who participated in the group, and actually accepted the majority of calls they made; and he did a series of AMA-style livestreams where he took questions from commenters, told stories, and even brought out his nunchakus and a guitar (though he refused to play “Wonderwall”).
Today, UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens has over 100,000 members, but it is fair to say that the Shkreli Incident was one of the group’s catalyzing moments. The news of his reign caused a huge membership spike, and it is this impressive level of growth and fame that spawned the birth of nearly every other large collegiate meme group on the market today. (University of Pennsylvania’s Official Unofficial Penn Squirrel Catching Club is the sole page that can’t trace its lineage back to Tril’s group, as it was actually started three months earlier by then-sophomore Anton Relin, but the group didn’t gain a sizable following until after the Great Collegiate Meme Rush of Late 2016, so it can’t be considered the true founder of the movement.)
What does it all meme?
However, shedding some well-needed light on the origins of the elite collegiate meme craze does not fully explain the bizarre nature of these groups’ sustained popularity. Why do so many students flock to these dedicated groups to share such oddly specific memes publicly when more well-established platforms like Tumblr, Twitter, or Reddit exist? Why haven’t supergroups like UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens died out over the past year — or at least stopped growing — like every other thing on the internet eventually does?
I reached out to a number of the admins and moderators of some of the most popular collegiate meme groups to see if they had any insights. And to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much — clear logic and memes don’t exactly go together — but, surprisingly, nearly every response I got mentioned a similar trend.
“My friends and I always say that memes come from a place of stress and anxiety,” said Ephraim Sutherland, co-founder of Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens. “There’s definitely the tropes in college, especially at Yale, that everyone — even if it’s not true — complains about their GPA, struggling in classes, and getting too little sleep.”
“Well, of course, the more relatable [your meme] is, the more successful it is — that’s true for all of the pages,” said self-declared memelord of Columbia Buy Sell Memes, Rafael Ortiz. “In schools like Columbia, the ones that do the best are definitely memes about sadness or stress.”
“We do have a large issue with mental health at our university,” said Relin, the founder of Official Unofficial Penn Squirrel Catching Club. “And I’ve found that people actually like to use the page as a way to comment on [it] and a wide range of other issues.”
While this penchant for memes that come from an obvious place of depression and anxiety could easily be dismissed as being mere jokes, or overexaggerations — especially in rigorous institutions like those in the Ivy League — it’s worth noting their likely connection to recent events: Within the last academic year alone, Columbia University was rocked by a disturbing wave of suicides, and mental-health-related issues have been on the rise for college students nationwide.
Inside these hyperpressurized, rigorous academic environments, students often lack an outlet through which they can channel their stresses. And while the idea of collegiate Facebook meme groups (of all things) filling this void may seem a bit ridiculous, in practice, they’ve actually become surprisingly fitting platforms for discourse.
“Before the page, I had never seen anyone get together and talk about these issues,” Tril of UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens recalled. “Now, I feel like people aren’t afraid to talk about them out in the open. I like that the page gets the conversation going, as I don’t think it would have even started without it.”
The fact that these types of important conversations are taking place through the posting of memes — a comically named, online cultural fad — doesn’t matter. For the young adults who frequent these platforms, memes aren’t merely a niche, sometimes-funny by-product of the cultural whirlwind that is the internet, but rather, a legitimate, respected mode of communication that these students are using to talk about difficult subjects.
And interestingly enough, when making these sorts of posts, people aren’t hiding behind usernames and throwaway accounts, they’re actively tying their name (and their Facebook page) to this surprisingly intimate form of expression and shoving it into the faces of 30,000 of their closest peers. The startling lack of anonymity found here runs contrary to the very conditions that the form of expression was created under. For essentially all of meme history, the posting and sharing experience has been an unabashedly impersonal one. On sites like Tumblr and Reddit, the identities of posters and commenters alike are hidden behind the veil of usernames, and on 4chan, there isn’t even that — users are instead assigned a random string of numbers to distinguish one post from another, and there’s no archive of data to look back on.
This was all meant to be equalizing — a way to liberate content from the uncomfortable weight of titles and identity — but it has also been neutralizing. When we think and talk about online activities, like posting memes, there’s this tendency to construct some distinction between the “real” and the “virtual” self — to think of digital actions as disembodied in one way or another — yet this could not be more wrong, as the social situations users find themselves in online are, in many ways, just as real and valid as those offline.
By eschewing anonymity, members of supergroups like UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens prove their innate understanding of this false assumption. To borrow a quote from Bane: While others may have merely adopted the meme, this generation of students was born in it — molded by it. Memes and the internet culture from which they spawn have been present in these young adults’ lives for the majority of their formative years — and it shows. The distinction between the on- and offline self has disappeared, and in its place rests a refreshingly authentic reclamation of personhood.
However, this carries with it its own complications. The Harvard Memes for Horny Bourgeois Teens debacle — which resulted in ten pre-frosh students losing their admissions offers after posting some extremely distasteful memes — is only the most recent example of the real-world consequences of losing this distinction. Introducing accountability is difficult — especially in a sphere that had previously been defined by the opposite. Yet, the longevity of these groups and their ever-growing popularity seem to suggest it’s more than possible.
It’s hard to not see this as progress. If this tendency toward a more holistic form of online expression — one that publicly displays our worst digital habits alongside our best — spreads outside the confines of these seemingly irrelevant groups, a new system of behavior could arise: one where users everywhere consider their online actions to be just as meaningful and reflective of their character as their physical ones. Yes, most people would probably end up Milkshake Ducking themselves. (We are all, more or less, terrible, shitty people online.) But eventually, (hopefully) people would learn the same lesson that the students of these collegiate meme groups did: If you don’t want to be thought of as a shitty person, stop doing — and sharing — shitty things.
As for Shkreli, he seems to be doing more than all right in this new world. His popularity in Columbia Buy Sell Memes led him to temporarily rent out a burger joint on campus (which — according to those who attended — was quite popping). And his presence in groups nationwide only continues to grow. As strange as it sounds, I find it kind of comforting to see Shkreli’s face pop up from time to time — just another face in the sea of competing posters. Although, he’s probably more than a little preoccupied at the moment … It turns out, not even memes can get out of their day in court.