Facebook is generally seen as the social media platform of choice for boomers, but there’s one place on the rapidly aging platform bucking the trend: Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens, a Facebook meme group with over 873,000 members, many of them Gen Z-ers attending university at one of the most objectively weird times in human history to be a student.
When the pandemic started, the shift to online learning, virtual meetings and an increased reliance on Zoom provided ample inspiration for memes, like a Halloween pumpkin carved with the words, “Please wait the meeting host will let you in soon” and another meme that says “When I meet my instructor on campus and they don’t speak on 2X speed.”
Carnegie Mellon student Mehul Agarwal and graduate Shreyan Bakshi founded the meme page on the 12th of March, not long before the UK went into its first lockdown. Shreyan came up with the idea in a group chat with Mehul and some other friends. “I was like, “Oh, that’s a perfect idea,’” Mehul said. “And we were just thinking the maximum we could attract was like, 100 people.” But the group grew fast.
“I think it was like a lightning in a bottle situation,” he added. “I'm pretty sure if we hadn't created it, someone else should have or would have. And I think it was right at the exact moment that all the universities were going online.”
Meme groups were part of the student experience even before the pandemic, especially at American universities. UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens, for instance, which was founded in 2016, has over 196,000 members from several different universities. Though Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens (or “Zoom Memes” for short) caters to current students, many of the memes speak to the existential horrors of living through the pandemic and having to interact with others solely online. After all, which working professional can’t relate to the sinking feeling of realising you’ve somehow unmuted yourself when you thought your mic was off?
“Everyone realized we’re all going to the same university – even people who graduated [and] are actually working at jobs – we all are in this virtual Zoom university that we all share,” Mehul says. “And that was really cool, because I think people didn't realize how alike colleges and universities were in the sort of teaching that they do and the struggles that students face regularly.”
Part of Zoom Memes’ wide appeal and large following is due to the shared experience of being in quarantine. But it also has to do with the lack of limits placed on the group. Other Facebook meme groups are tailored to specific interests, political views or cultural backgrounds, so the content doesn’t always relate to everybody, but many people can relate to the problems of distance learning and technical difficulties with Zoom calls. “The more relatable, the better,” Mehul says. “That's basically the motto.”
While popular meme trends come and go, they all excel at capturing the absurdity of online interactions. One meme shows Jason Sudeikis from this year’s Golden Globes with the caption: “me looking at myself in the little Zoom box while someone else is talking.” Another has a picture of Bernie Sanders from the US presidential inauguration edited into a bedroom with the caption, “Lecturer: why isn’t your camera on?”
One member posted “Zoom Wrapped,” a riff on Spotify Wrapped, where the top artists included “professor talking on mute” and “surprise dog appearances.” The memes deal with life in the age of remote learning and working, but the group also serves as a time capsule of the past year, with memes referencing events from the Ever Given ship stuck in the Suez Canal to Redditors manipulating GameStop stock. As one meme says, “Damn… I’m kinda tired of living through these major historical events.”
But the group isn’t just for sharing memes. For its members, it’s fulfilling a lot of the social functions they’re missing out on in the absence of traditional university gatherings. There’s a post on the group about setting up pen pals, so people can email or send mail to new friends. Members have shared apps and extensions that allow them to interact with others online. A few have shared virtual escape rooms; some have shared their art. Students have recreated their universities on Minecraft; some even hosted a Minecraft graduation with 500 students in lieu of being able to attend their real ceremony.
“The biggest achievement for me is just how much we could form a sort of community when everyone lacked one,” Mehul says.
Early on in the group’s history, Zoom Memes hosted parties and activities, mainly on Zoom (obviously). Yale student Ari Miller volunteered to DJ interactive music sets, where he created improvised music on a Facebook livestream with topic suggestions from the audiences. But these were interactive in other ways as well: in one stream, participants could draw the background, on another they could join a Zoom call that served as Ari’s backdrop. He also hosted streams where he improvised music until he hit a fundraising target, raising money for organizations like Black Trans Advocacy Coalition, The Bail Project, National Black Disability Coalition and the Lebanese Red Cross.
“To me those were the coolest because they weren't just like me being an idiot on the internet,” Ari tells VICE. “They were me being an idiot effecting change on the internet.”
The group has been socially conscious from the beginning. In March 2020, Zoom Memes started a fundraiser that raised over $4,000 for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy's COVID-19 Response fund. A recent post explains ways to take action against anti-Asian racism – from making a donation, to educational resources, to what to do if you see it taking place.
Zoom Memes has even helped to improve the virtual learning experience for students. A tag called “sincerely struggling students” collates posts about mishaps students have encountered in the Zoom age of university, including ones detailing professors refusing to record the lectures for students in different time zones or blocking deadline extension requests. In one post with over 500 comments, a prof even asked for proof when students emailed saying their grandparents had been admitted to hospital or died.
It was posts like these that caught the attention of Sebastian Fuller, the academic director at Apsley Business School London. “Not being believed, I felt, was disgraceful,” Fuller said. ”A lot of these students, the lecturers were calling them liars. And I think that's outrageous.”
Based off of what he saw in the group and his own experiences as a student in online language courses and as a university administrator, Fuller posted on Zoom Memes in December 2020, outlining the changes his own institution had implemented and asking for further suggestions. The post now has 6,900 interactions and close to 300 comments.
“I was blown away. And what was also interesting was the fact that we hadn't done enough. There was some really useful feedback that we're taking into account,” Fuller says, like focusing classes on discussions where students talk while the instructor sits back and moderates, instead of the instructor lecturing the entire time. “Telling the teachers to start to shut up and listen was an important piece of pedagogy.”
As the vaccine rollout continues and the promise of normality beckons, you’d think that Zoom Memes’ time on earth is limited. People are already beginning to submit fewer posts than at the start of the pandemic, but the level of activity is still overwhelming for moderators.
“As you're approving posts, people are continuously sending them in,” moderator and Penn student Derek Nhieu says. “So it just feels like a race that you have to figure out when you want to stop running. But then when you want to run again, you can keep running.”
The future of the group might be undecided, but Mehul hopes, “that this group will exist not as a very distant memory of, ‘Oh, there used to be those times we used to spend like 12 hours on Facebook just scrolling through memes’ – but as a living and breathing community that just engages with each other.”