The exact date of the internet’s advent continues to be debated by scholars, but the origin of one of the internet’s most popular content mediums can be traced directly back to 1976, and the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. It was in this book that Dawkins first proposed the concept of a “meme,” which he defined as “a unit of cultural transmission.” Dawkins offered nursery rhymes, catchphrases, and fashion trends as examples of such transmissions. A couple of decades later, in 1994, internet scholar and attorney Mike Godwin proposed the idea of an internet meme: “A ‘meme,’ of course, is an idea that functions in a mind the same way a gene or virus functions in the body. And an infectious idea (call it a ‘viral meme’) may leap from mind to mind, much as viruses leap from body to body.”
Early examples of internet memes—units of cultural transmission created by and for the internet age—include the late-90s phenomenon of “the hampster dance” and “all your base are belong to us. In 2020, memes might be a certain joke format, a viral “challenge,” or, most popularly, a photo with text laid on top.
While once mostly found on insular internet communities, today memes are the dominant form on content you see on the internet. Memes generally start on Reddit, 4chan, and sometimes Twitter and go viral from as they cross the borders of social media platforms. Demographic-specific groups, long a part of Facebook’s core ecosystem, began to form for the purpose of creating and sharing memes. During the 2016 election, for instance, “Bernie Sander’s Dank Meme Stash” became a repository for political memes about the presidential candidate.
Law School Memes for Edgy T14s is one of those groups. (T14 is shorthand for “Top 14,” referring to a law school’s ranking, though members come from a multitude of variously-ranked law schools all over the country). With more than 70,000 members, Law School Memes has become a social media hub for discussion both serious and frivolous; who is more virtuous, prosecutors versus public defenders, for example. “There’s a space—a very important space—that memes occupy,” Benjamin Burroughs, assistant professor of emerging media at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, told the Washington Post. “They speak in a language that people have grown up with on social media … which can make them very articulate and very poignant.”
CTLJ briefly chatted with Alex, a third-year law student who helps moderate the group, about what it’s like to maintain a social media community of law student, and what makes a good meme.
CTLJ: How did you become an admin for this page? What did that entail?
A: Like any young child, it was always my dream to be an admin of a highly popular meme group. Some other law students from Berkeley Law started the group and I just did what everyone should do to get ahead in life: shit-post constantly.
CTLJ: What’s the most interesting part of being in charge of this type of community? Do you think memes can help foster a sense of community?
A: There are a handful of us who moderate the group. The most interesting part is probably just dealing with the weird interactions in private messages and in real life. For me personally, I’ve gotten the full gamut of vague death threats, fan mail, and sexual propositions. All of the moderators have, at one point or another, dealt with strange (sometimes good, sometimes bad) interactions with people on and offline. It’s a weird vibe. I think the community is really great and generally everyone likes to have fun and has a good sense of humor. Considering how many people participate actively on the page (in the last thirty days we’ve had nearly a million posts, comments, and reactions and we have about 70,000 active and regular users) it’s pretty amazing the environment isn’t way more toxic. In terms of fostering community, I think it’s less about the memes and more about it being a place to share the common experience of being miserable in law school and even miserable as a practicing attorney.
CTLJ: Why do you think some posts perform better than others? What makes a good meme?
A: Being current is pretty key, that’s the way to flourish in the meme economy. Your memes gotta be fresh baby. You also need to establish that your content isn’t bad or in the very least, build an audience of people who will consume it and appreciate it. There are plenty of people on the page who hate my existence, myself included. But you’ve gotta remember, haters are losers (myself included). You’ve also gotta be willing to delete your bad content. I delete basically anything I post that doesn’t break 120 reactions in the first 60 minutes. It’s brutal out there.
As far as what makes a good meme? You may as well ask Mozart how he wrote The Magic Flute.
What makes a sunset beautiful?
It has to speak to the very soul. In the very least, it has to make some say “heh” and press a button on their phone to give my brain the good chemicals.
All of this also makes me seem like an insane person, which I am.
CTLJ: What’s your favorite meme from this year? From last year?
A: Way too early in this year to pick out a meme, in my opinion. Some years have some incredible late entries. Last year my top was probably Storming Area 51, in a dead heat with “Are you in the right headspace” text.
CTLJ: Do you think the virality of memes in general is a good or bad thing? What about their ephemerality? Do they foster or hinder good discussion?
A: Memes have been a thing well before we were all extremely online. If you sat around quoting the movie Anchorman, or if you and for some reason every person you know knows the words to “The Krusty Crab Pizza” or the “F.U.N.” song, you’ve participated in meme culture. Life is ephemeral, I see no reason to be alarmed if forms of artistic expression are any different.
CTLJ: Has the group ever received a takedown notice from a copyright holder? What do you think about the legal position of memes in terms of intellectual property?
A: We’ve been safe so far, and typically we’re protected by Fair Use. Who is intellectual property? I don’t know her.