Peter Hamilton (COL ’20) thought posting a dating advertisement for his older brother on the “subtle asian traits” Facebook page would earn a few laughs from some close friends. But then the likes started rolling in by the thousands.
The dating advertisement for his brother was the beginning of Hamilton’s viral success, having received thousands of likes on multiple posts in “subtle asian traits,” which focuses on the experiences of Asian immigrants’ children growing up in Western culture.
Meme pages like “subtle asian traits” have grown in prominence in recent years, accumulating massive followings. The pages started as online platforms, often Facebook groups, to share humorous images calling on shared experiences among users. The groups have now become forums where contemporary social issues often find platform for discussion, from complex questions on identity to the happenings on college campuses across the world.
As a meeting place for diverse ideas, meme pages not only have the potential to highlight important social trends, but also the ability to bring users of different backgrounds and beliefs into conflict.
Culture Made for Consumption
Specifically created to become viral content, memes have been popularized because of their relatability and ease of consumption.
Memes resonate with so many because they cater to the fast-moving pace of our culture, according to Leticia Bode, an associate professor in the communication, culture and technology master’s program at Georgetown University.
“We are a very busy society right now,” Bode said. “Memes are very appealing because it’s a snapshot: You consume it in the moment, and then you’re done with it and move on with your life.”
Though many definitions of memes exist, the general consensus is that memes, at the most basic level, use visual media to communicate humorous ideas online. Memes grew in popularity as people spent more time on social media, leading to the rise of Facebook pages devoted entirely to memes. These meme pages provide a virtual space for users to discuss common interests.
Memes’ appeal lies not just in their quick consumption, but also in their tendency to touch on common experiences that can be understood by many, according to Stephanie Yuan (NHS ’19), who founded Georgetown’s unofficial meme page on Facebook, “georgetown memes for non-conforming jesuit teens.” (FULL DISCLOSURE: Yuan is a former senior photo editor for The Hoya).
“A meme format can super easily resonate with a large group of individuals because they’re just so easily digestible and relatable as well,” Yuan said. “Especially like the earlier memes were — a lot of them were super generic, super easy to get.”
A Community Rooted Online
Whether they point out “subtle asian traits” or target “non-conforming jesuit teens” at Georgetown, meme pages provide new platforms and opportunities for young people to interact with each other and create online communities on a campus or global scale.
Georgetown’s unofficial meme page on Facebook features memes posted by students that highlight major issues at Georgetown, such as the university’s massive rat population, intense stress culture and socioeconomic divide. Other Georgetown meme pages specialize in specific problems, such as the Instagram account @georgetown.hotmess, which focuses on the university’s problems with facilities.
Meme pages for colleges have become increasingly popular in recent years. Over 14,000 members belong to “georgetown memes for non-conforming jesuit teens.” More than 25,000 Facebook users are in the “UChicago Memes for Theoretical Midwest Teens” group, while “Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Tweens” has amassed almost 57,000 members.
Students use the meme page as an opportunity to articulate their frustration about Georgetown. These memes are not necessarily intended to spur activism, but meme creators often find comfort in knowing other people deal with the same problems, according to Karina Chan (COL ’20), who created several viral memes in “georgetown memes for non-conforming jesuit teens.”
“Very rarely in life you have a situation where thousands of people will understand this very specific niche environment,” Chan said. “It makes it easy for you to know that a bunch of people are going to understand you.”
This outlet for expression of collective experiences helps individuals strengthen community and create a common identity for students, Yuan said.
“Having a meme page just kind of solidifies the identity of being at Georgetown together,” Yuan said. “No matter if you have never talked to them before or if you’ve been in a class with them or if you’re best friends with them, you just all go through similar experiences.”
Meme pages can also serve as a focal point for communities that lack mainstream representation or a strong geographic concentration.
The group “subtle asian traits,” started in 2018, has quickly grown to over a million users spanning across multiple continents. Posts related to experiences of the Asian diaspora regularly receive hundreds of comments and thousands of likes, becoming enough of a phenomenon that The New York Times profiled the page in December 2018.
The demand for a defined second-generation Asian experience helped “subtle asian traits” become a viral sensation, according to Chan, who is also a member of the group.
“As someone who is of Asian heritage in a different country, it’s weird because there’s no prevailing Asian American culture you can point to,” Chan said. “That’s why so many people feel so strongly about this meme group. I think it helps further define that.”
Memes on “subtle asian traits” highlight many hallmarks of growing up in an Asian family in a Western culture. One such meme displays a picture of a confused child with the caption: “when you see those white kids who made fun of your packed lunch during middle school eating at a korean restaurant 8 years later.”
These memes in the Facebook group help further define the Asian American experience, according to Hamilton.
“Asian American communities struggle with public representation, for both external and internal reasons,” Hamilton said. “The ‘subtle asian’ Facebook groups have helped put a face and a voice to the community that did not exist before.”
More Than a Meme?
Beyond the amusing images and clever captions, serious topics give many memes the edge of truth that produces their popularity.
For some, “subtle asian traits” has evolved into a collaborative journal beyond the traditional meme format, in which second-generation Asians can share the ways they appreciate their parents’ strength and resilience, especially in the absence of mainstream representation of these kinds of stories, according to Chan. The standard memes still exist, but this new type of meme fills a gap left by a lack of representation in mainstream outlets, Chan said.
“There are two types,” Chan said. “One is where people get really sentimental. It’s not actually a real meme. It’s a deeper political discourse on the Asian diaspora. I think that narratives like that become really popular because there is not a lot of storytelling or media about the Asian American experience in the world.”
While memes usually strive for humor, the serious topics that memes can also emphasize attract many people who want to participate in meaningful discussion as well as people who just want to laugh, according to Hamilton.
To some, meme pages can serve as a platform to draw attention to contemporary issues in college communities, according to George Iskander, a student at Yale University and an admin for Yale’s unofficial meme page.
“People have highlighted issues important to them,” Iskander wrote in a message to The Hoya. “For example, people have made memes to raise awareness about climate strikes on campus. A couple of years ago, people made memes about a particular dining hall entree (cape shark) they disliked, and I don’t think I’ve seen it since. It is a force for change.”
However, some users vent their political beliefs on “subtle asian traits” in hopes of connecting with other like-minded people but instead find people of similar cultural backgrounds with different ideological beliefs, according to Hamilton. As a result, meme pages better serve as an outlet for expression rather than a platform for in-depth discussions on identity, Hamilton said.
“I don’t think that it’s a productive platform for intense and needed discussions on identity, and I think some people try to treat it that way, but I don’t think that’s the right way to treat it,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think memes are social commentary. I think they’re sharing comedy and humor with one another.”
Digital platforms, however, have become increasingly important in public discourse because of the popularity of social media. The potential for online forums to serve as debate platforms has been recognized by even the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which upheld a ruling that held that President Donald’s Trump Twitter feed does constitute a public forum and barred him from blocking users.
Posts in meme pages have led to consequences outside their Facebook groups for college students. Ten students from Harvard had their acceptances rescinded in 2017 after they shared racist memes with each other in a private group chat, and a freshman received backlash this year for posting a meme this year disparaging members of the Georgetown’s Community Scholars Program.
However, meme pages, by design, provide certain obstacles that make discourse more difficult on such a platform, according to Bode.
“They have made certain issues more accessible to more people, which in general I think is a positive outcome,” Bode said. “The caveat to that is that some issues are too complicated to be a meme.”
Because memes simplify complex issues to create digestible punchlines, the exposure they provide may not make dialogue more productive, according to Bode.
“It’s a double-edged sword that, on the one hand, people are maybe exposed to more issues that are important to them, but boiling down those issues into the nugget of truth that you can fit on a meme may not serve deliberative discourse very well,” Bode said.