Inside the mysterious world of teenage “meme” culture

On Monday, Oct., 7, Millennium High School (MHS) principal Shannon Fierro sent a letter to the MHS community regarding racist memes exchanged between students.

Fierro’s letter detailed the recent event involving an MHS freshman who shared two anti-Semitic memes with other students on personal devices. Fierro wrote that the memes were brought to the attention of MHS staff late last week by a parent of a student who received the memes. (Editor’s note: Fierro clarified to the Exedra on Oct. 16 that the memes were not targeted at any specific student or member of the local community.  “As many memes do, they included an image of a know person or image, such as a celebrity or cartoon character, and unrelated anti-Semitic content.  In this case, the content was in reference to the Holocaust,” she said.)

According to Fierro, it is not known if the messages were sent or viewed by the involved students at school or outside of school, or if it occurred on their school accounts, but MHS staff worked with the reporting family, Jewish parents, leaders in the community, and district leaders to put together an appropriate response. 

This was not the first such incidence in the Piedmont district. Last year students at MHS and Piedmont High emailed anti-Semitic content and in 2017 there were reports of racist activity involving students at Piedmont High School (PHS).

MHS history teacher Ken Brown, MHS counselor Stefanie Manalo-LeClair, and MHS principal Fierro led discussions on meme content and anti-Semitism in a world cultures class shared by all 9th graders. Students submitted a written reflection at the end of the class.

PUSD superintendent Randy Booker told the Exedra that; “It is vital, as an educational institution, that we provide clear messaging that hate-memes are not permitted, funny, or acceptable in any way. We then must take the next step in helping students and families understand their context and hurt.”

Online culture is clearly a reflection of offline culture, but in response to the memes shared at MHS, the Piedmont Exedra decided to investigate meme culture in order to help the community understand how to better navigate this mysterious but busy space within teen life.

Meme Culture 101

Memes (pronounced “meems”) are digital images or videos originating on the Internet that take existing media — usually pop culture symbols and characters — and embellish them in ways to create new meanings. An easy way to understand what a meme is, is to imagine erasing the caption off a comic strip box and writing in your own. Some common memes include photos of grumpy cats, Hollywood actors, even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi clapping. Shared via text message and social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram, or Reddit, popular memes can reach millions of smartphones in minutes.

For teens and pre-teens, memes are a daily if not hourly presence in their digital feeds. In a 2018 survey of 542 students by PMS technology coordinator Adam Saville, about 61 percent said they have have shared or passed along a meme to friends or followers. Most often these memes are just observations, opinions, or humor. But sometimes they can unfortunately cross the line into messages of hate. In that same survey 52 percent of 6th graders said they have encountered a meme that could be considered offensive or hurtful, and nearly 63 percent of 8th graders say they have encountered similar memes. Anecdotal evidence says those numbers are all probably way too low.

52 percent of 6th graders said they have encountered a meme that could be considered offensive or hurtful, and nearly 63 percent of 8th graders say they have encountered similar memes. Those numbers are probably way too low

Why are memes so popular? For one because they are perfectly engineered to grab your attention — and to get a reaction. “We’re very visually focused and memes just fall right into that,” says Christine Elgersma, senior editor of parent education at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco organization which helps families navigate digital life. Part of the power of memes is that they are versatile, entertaining, easy to make, and work as a visual shorthand for jokes or comments that would take much longer to convey using words.

As exhilarating and fun as they can be, memes are a language of their own with constantly changing meanings — sometimes sincere, sometimes satirical, sometimes a little of both. Elgersma warns “that is where it can get more confusing for parents because they’re inside jokes that are based either on media like YouTube or video games or things that kids are into.”

Although it’s not only parents who don’t always understand memes — often it’s also the people who send them. A common pitfall is that memes can often have ugly histories or hidden meanings that the sender may not be aware of. For instance, in June the actor John Cusack apologized after inadvertently retweeting an alt-right political meme that he intended as a left-wing meme. On the other hand, says Elgersma, “there are memes generated from places on the Internet that are inherently racist, sexist, offensive, and full of bigotry. When those bubble up into mainstream culture, that’s another set of issues.” One such perpetrator is the President of the United States, who routinely traffics in offensive memes.

MHS junior and student body vice president Blaise Harrison believes the memes circulating at MHS originated in an online source known as Dank Memes. Dank Memes is a community within the giant online aggregator Reddit that is devoted to edgy meme content. Said Harrison; “My understanding of Dank Memes is that they express such extreme opinions about a topic that it’s hard to tell if the person who created the meme actually meant to offend, or meant to make fun of people who believe the offensive things.” Although it is unknown if the memes circulated at MHS were deliberately malicious or something else, that is a distinction that is of no comfort to anyone who goes online and is confronted with a meme that makes them feel targeted.

Digital citizenship taught in Piedmont schools

Work already being done in the Piedmont system correctly focuses on teaching students to be aware of context, and to exercise more care with memes. In presentations he made to the school community last year, PMS technology coordinator Adam Saville recalled how he organized small groups of students to discuss memes and meme culture. Students told him that meme-exchanging usually starts off as a joke between a trusted circle of people.

“I would ask them about sharing memes that someone might consider offensive,” Saville said in the presentation. “I would ask them how they would feel if someone was hurt by one of these potentially hurtful jokes. And for many this gave them pause. And some would also say people have a different threshold for what’s funny.”

One of the important themes that came out of these conversations is that intention matters to students. Saville asked students if they would change their feelings about the meme if they knew that it had been created by someone with the intention of hurting others and spreading racist ideology. The response he got was that additional knowledge would change their minds about sharing the meme.

“There are kids who are getting memes from sources that are inherently bigoted, and there are kids who are passing things around that they may not intend to be offensive, but are,” said Elgersma.

As with almost everything related to Internet life, digital citizenship is now more multifaceted and complex than it was just a few years ago. “We were trying to teach kids about being kind and safe online,” said Elgersma. “I think that the more we have delved into it, it’s not only being kind and safe, but I think also there’s an element of news literacy and an element of relationships and how you communicate with certain people.”

“It’s never too early to talk to your kid(s) about digital citizenship, being kind online, and calling out cruelty,” Saville wrote.

In the PUSD system, students receive instruction on digital citizenship at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. 6th through 12th grade students are also required annually to take a digital citizenship test before they can receive their Chromebooks. Topics covered are Internet safety, cyber-bullying and digital drama, information literacy, privacy and security, digital footprints and reputation, creative credit and copyright, relationships and communication, self image, and identity.

“It requires a community-based approach to help our kids thrive in this age,” said Saville. “It’s not just our kids that need the support, it’s our families too.”

While the Internet and social media can provide outlets for self-expression and creativity, Elgersma hopes users will pause and think before posting anything. “It’s an opportunity to talk about the hate speech that does exist online that kids will encounter regularly. I think teaching your kid about race and privilege early and often is important for them to understand, witness, and act in trying to make the situation better or using their privilege for good.”

As always, students who encounter hate speech and bullying can use PUSD’s online reporting tool, The Highlander Hotline, to report any number of issues or concerns. 

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