Finding a Meme for the End of the World

The Gen Z makers behind Facebook group Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens believe they have a “social responsibility.”

Gen Z is finding a way to make Facebook relevant again. Despite the generation’s affinity for sleeker outlets like Tik Tok, the kids are flocking to their parents’ favorite social media giant for one specific reason: the memes.

Facebook meme groups are an outlet for nihilistic humor, a byproduct of growing up in a recession and coming of age during the Trump era and a global pandemic. One of the latest Facebook meme groups to sprout up is, in every sense, a result of the coronavirus crisis: Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens was started on March 11 by Mehul Agarwal and Shreyan Bakshi, students at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Like most college students, they had their school year cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, a collective experience that united about 400,000 members on the Facebook group in its two week lifespan.

A screenshot of the public Facebook group, Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens.

The cover photo for Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens seems pretty inconspicuous at first. It’s a minimalist illustration of two guys sitting six feet apart in a hot tub, created by Danielle Faust. 

But this simple drawing has history: In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Twitter user @DiscreetLatino tweeted out the photo with the caption, “truly ahead of their time.” In an instant, a photo about straight men desperately trying to prove their heterosexuality took on a whole new meaning, something that author Aysha U. Farah (@ayshaufarah) called “referential millennial dadaism. this joke requires knowledge of a separate work, knowledge of current events, and a grasp of observational humor. truly a work of art.”

In other words, it’s a meme — one that particularly resonates with a younger generation that’s had a pretty interesting transition into adulthood. But it’s one of many — approximately 50,000 in Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens. That’s about how many posts the Facebook group has had in the course of its extremely short lifetime.

Using humor to cope isn’t new, but Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens exemplifies a generation-specific coping mechanism. The mediums that Millennials and Gen Z-ers have been equipped with are rapidly evolving, allowing for prolific creation and dissemination. It’s a way of “democratiz[ing] inside jokes,” according to moderator and CMU student Lucas Moiseyev.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s happened in the past two decades that a lot of us don’t know how to handle,” moderator Victoria Huynh, a student at the University of Washington, says. In the background of her Zoom videochat is the dog in a room on fire meme — fitting, considering the context. “Social media gives us a way of handling that by expressing that through meme culture.”

For example, students have taken to posting on the Facebook group about the shared experience of now going to “Zoom University” after many colleges closed down campuses and made the switch to online classes.

“It’s kind of fun to have everyone relate to a certain event — over something funny,” moderator Rachel Wang, a UC Berkeley student, says. “That’s why memes pages and memes about apocalyptic events have been really popular just because they’re super relatable.” 

Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens isn’t the first of its kind. In fact, meme groups’ origins goes back so recently to 2016, with the start of the OG meme group, UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens. Since then, meme groups have become a normal facet of social media, a way for somewhat witty users to make their claim to fame with each edited photo. Sometimes the best performing posts are just screenshots of other people’s tweets, a conversation about intellectual property that no one knows how or cares enough about to approach. 

Of course, meme groups are absolutely not without their controversy. The moderators and admins behind Zoom Memes at the very least, acknowledge their own privilege, and are trying to pay it forward using their strength in numbers. It’s a “social responsibility,” according to Agarwal.

“The idea behind all of it is to catalyze on all of this community building and almost therapeutic effort of not taking this sitting down,” Moiseyev says. That’s why Zoom Memes is trying to fundraise through the Facebook group to donate to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 response fund. As of March 27, the group has raised $3,136 from 299 donors. 

Aside from fundraising, the admins and moderators behind Zoom Memes hope that they’ll at least function as a kind of support group for the rest of their peers. Zoom parties, a Discord Server, and collective meme-making all contribute to that effort of resolving the isolation of social distancing.

“This community building helped ease out that sort of loneliness,” Agarwal says. “We’re all social distancing ourselves, but on social networks we’re bridging that distance back together. 

Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com.

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