Memetic Warfare at NYU

Abigail Weinberg, Editor-in-Chief

Memes are no laughing matter — at least, not for the Tandon IT Center worker who, according to Tandon sophomore Arystan Tatishev, told him, “I would’ve killed myself if it wasn’t for your memes.”

The worker most likely didn’t mean it literally, but Tatishev does truly believe in the power of memes. In February, Tatishev created a Facebook group for NYU students to share funny NYU-related images. “NYU Memes for Slightly Bankrupt Teens” now has more than 3,000 members, seven administrators and five moderators. People recognize Tatishev when they see him in the park. He’s known as the meme guy.

But the largest active NYU meme group didn’t gain its life-saving power overnight. In fact, the current iteration of the page is the result of a truce that followed a prolonged intra-university Facebook meme group war.

Tatishev envisioned his group as an NYU version of University of California Berkeley’s infamous UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens group, which boasts more than 118,000 members and spawned copycat pages at elite colleges across the nation. It’s no surprise that NYU followed suit with a page that Tatishev originally called “NYU Memes for Slightly Overrated Teens.”

Last summer, LS freshman Sebastian Michael Paine started his own NYU meme group, called “NYU Memes for Bankrupt Teens,” which amassed about 700 followers mainly from the incoming freshman class at NYU London and posed a threat to the dominant upperclassman meme group.

“We started feuding, which I thought was hilarious,” Paine said. “At one point there were like three meme pages. It was like World War I. It was crazy.”

After several months of lighthearted battle, Tatishev asked Paine to merge the two groups. Paine agreed to archive his page and became an administrator on Tatishev’s page, which was renamed to “NYU Memes for Slightly Bankrupt Teens.”

“I got tired of the effort it takes to go to war,” Tatishev said.

Tatishev and Paine agree that memes have a peculiar way of uniting students, whether it be through rallying against a common enemy, like underclassmen, or commiserating over everyday struggles.

“They’re relatable,” Tatishev said. “Sometimes it’s very ironic and self-deprecating, but that’s what makes life fun, if you look at it in an ironic kind of way.”

Irony, it seems, brings out the best and worst of humanity over the internet. According to Time, in 2012, Mountain Dew asked the internet to come up with a slogan for the neon green drink brand. The winner? “Hitler did nothing wrong.”

Conversely, though, a team of memesters raised $164,102 through GoFundMe for the cancer treatment of Stefan Stefansson, who played Robbie Rotten on the children’s show “LazyTown” and blew up in the meme world in 2016 for his song “We Are Number One,” which amassed more than three million views on YouTube. Tatishev highlighted this act of internet goodwill as one of the greatest benefits of increased meme exposure.

“We can say that memes actually save lives,” Tatishev said.

Memes may be silly, but there’s actually something there, some nearly universal human appeal. Kashif Azam, a GLS and CAS junior and member of “NYU Memes for Slightly Bankrupt Teens,” sees the posts come up on his newsfeed and enjoys their irony.

“I do identify with it,” he said of meme culture. “It’s nonsensical a lot of the time, and it’s very meta, which is what I like about it.”

But memes no longer lurk solely in the dark corners of 4chan and Reddit. They’re ubiquitous on all forms of social media and have worked their way into the everyday lives of college students, at least at NYU.

“It’s a really interesting way of communicating ideas. It’s very versatile,” Paine said. “It’s a weird medium of human interaction that hasn’t been seen before.”

“Weird” may be the most apt way to describe the fact that Tatishev is recognized by fans of the page while walking in Washington Square Park. But it also describes the times we live in, when a reality TV star is president of the United States and the Patriots can bend the laws of time and space to win the SuperBowl and “La La Land” is not, in fact, Best Picture — bizarre events highlighted in a New Yorker article that theorizes we’re living in a video game simulation. Memes are weird, but they’re alluring. That’s why 3,000 NYU students engage in a nonsensical meme page, for better or for worse.

As for the fate of the page, Tatishev hopes that it becomes self-perpetuating, like an empire, and his leadership won’t be needed once he graduates.

“So far it’s been me being the powerhouse of the meme page,” he said. “As time goes, I feel like whoever owns the page, it won’t really matter, because the page will be driven by community rather than one person…People share their problems and common ground with memes.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 16 print edition. Email Abigail Weinberg at [email protected].