There is something very serious about memes. If Jonathan Swift or Martin Luther were alive today, I can assure you that they would be meme aficionados. Memes are very often didactic in purpose, using a popular trend to articulate a quite serious political opinion. Other times they really are just for laughs. Either way, they have become a new mode of expression for our generation. Like any content, they say something about the people who have created, shared, and reacted to them.
I’m delighted to learn that a host of candidates for the leadership race are seeking credit for their meme activity. They are absolutely right to do so, since people of student age are by far the biggest consumers and creators of meme content. Being able to reach and engage students is a serious skill in student politics. It’s probably more initially useful than a deep knowledge of legislation, funding issues or college policy. You can learn policy and procedure, but it’s harder to learn memes. In that regard, I’ve taken a look at the meme pages that have served as an unlikely platform for three candidates in this year’s elections.
I’m a big fan of this page. If I recall correctly, it has its genesis in the glorious “Proposed Logos for TCD” page, which responded and parodied College’s ham-fisted approach to revamping the Trinity logotype in 2014. One of the reasons cited for dropping the drastic proposed changes was that students had fatally undermined the rebranding exercise with memes mocking the exercise. We were told that the College had intended to open the rebranding up to a “submit your ideas” public engagement exercise, unaware that students were already running a competition to submit the most ludicrous mockery they could think of. Memes can and do change the world.
What I like about this page is that its admins clearly understand something of the power dynamics in College. There’s a Rubberbandits-like quality in how this page’s style of humour reveals a decent level of insight into how college works, and how students think about it. It’s the kind of page whose content reveals to you an opinion that you always held, but could never quite articulate in the same words. That’s as true of its posts about Provost Patrick Prendergast and Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) as it is about everyday student experiences.
Candidates in students’ union elections and voters in students’ union elections share an important quality: they’re all students. That may sound obvious, but how often have you seen a candidate suddenly assume the character of a world leader while pitching for votes? The best candidates for students’ union elections are invariably those who understand the issues facing students, and can articulate their thoughts and solutions in a way that’s relatable to other students.
Regardless of the roles for which they’re running, the primary task of those who are elected is to convince College of how students feel. Networks of representatives and student committees exist to give you some insight, but there’s no substitute for the insight that you build up over four years in a classroom and in broader student life.
That’s what I like about this page – its content is irreverent, but very smart. It speaks to admins who have their finger on the pulse and know and understand a lot more about college life and students than perhaps they’d like to admit. You have to speak to and listen to students to understand how students feel. You have to understand how students feel to produce good content like this. Maybe that’s what makes it so funny.
Memes and Things
Maybe I’m just out of touch, but it’s hard to understand why pages like this build any kind of popularity. After all, there are thousands of pages churning out the same low-grade content. It’s unclear what precisely is involved in running a page like this, since someone else creates most of the content and captions. It strikes me that a huge proportion of its recent content is either explicitly shared from other pages, a basic screencap of an amusing tweet, or just plain unoriginal. That’s not to say that the content isn’t funny, just that however funny it may be confers little credit on the page admins.
Building a page with a huge audience is an achievement in and of itself, but how does it transfer to a role in student politics? The short answer is that it doesn’t. Stale, recycled memes may make an impact in terms of short-term entertainment, but trying to engage students as a students’ union officer is another task altogether. All of a sudden, you’re just one of many organisations – societies, college, course admins, employers – competing for limited attention, time and funds. In this context, originality is key.
In short, this page is no great credit to the election credentials of its admins. I’m sure the candidate in question, Niall Harty, has some great qualities, as do most people who put themselves forward for these roles. My real difficulty is in understanding why they felt this page enhanced their credibility – scratch below the surface of some impressive audience figures, and it’s all a little underwhelming.
Trinity College Doggos
Woah, where has this been all my life? There’s something so beautifully simple, and yet delightfully communal, about the whole concept. Dogs memes are a unifying factor across humankind, and Cian Rynne has clearly done a good job of creating a community vibe in College around that.
This group is not the place to come if you’re looking for edgy, intertextual content undermining and interrogating the powers that be in this world. But not everything has to be like that. For all its wildly successful student-led organisations, you often get the sense that Trinity is lacking in a proper community vibe that unites students as a whole. There are lots of communities, but what unites such a diverse student population under the singular banner of being a Trinity student? There are worse things around which to unite than wholesome content such as this.
Running a group is a different challenge to running a “like” page, in that the admins are a lot less responsible for creating content. In that sense, the fact that content is not usually original is much less important. But keeping a group fresh, especially with such a narrow range of relevant content, is a lot tougher than it may appear. Running a group like this is almost never as simple as sitting back and watching the sweet likes roll in – you need to have a sense of purpose that makes you work to keep it fresh and wholesome. Having read some interviews with Rynne on the success of the page, it’s clear that he had that in mind for the group. I’ve always believed TCDSU could do more to create a sense of community in Trinity, so it bodes well that this is a clear priority.