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Monday, April 15, 2024

From the meme page to a UC Davis-themed viral TikTok, how students are using social media during the pandemic

Students share their thoughts on memes, mobile apps, websites in light of COVID-19, social distancing

As with any unprecedented event, memes about COVID-19 and online classes are abundant and highly popular. The Facebook group “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens,” formatted in the style of other college meme pages and created on March 11, has over 510,000 members at the present moment and is described as a “meme page for college studs stuck doing online courses in closed universities.” 

On Instagram, users are participating in a variety of challenges that include drawing carrots on their stories and tagging friends, posting ugly pictures with the caption “until tomorrow” and sharing a list of people who inspire them. According to a Business Insider article, TikTok was approaching 2 billion installs as of March 13 and was the most popular non-gaming app worldwide — something the publication attributed to “bored users impacted by the virus […] logging daily life under quarantine and social distancing.” 

Third-year electrical engineering major Gauruv Virk uses Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Wildfire and YouTube on a daily basis, and he posts to his YouTube channel once a week. Virk said that in a time of crisis such as this, it’s crucial that social media put out as much accurate and helpful information as possible. 

“I think it is important that the public is at a place where they can trust the information they receive in order to make informed decisions for themselves and those around them,” Virk said via email. “I’ve also always valued humor and entertainment, and during times like these I think it’s important for social media to provide as much of it as possible as a way to keep people distracted and at ease.”

Virk said the pandemic is currently being addressed all over social media — pointing to examples of YouTube videos that depict people in group settings appearing alongside disclaimers stating that these videos were filmed before shelter-in-place took effect.

“The influence of meme pages and trends can’t be ignored in times like these,” Virk said via email. “They are the new way of conveying topical information to an incredibly impressionable and media-driven population, and so to dismiss them entirely would be a disservice to anyone that is trying to stay informed in today’s world.” 


Second-year cell biology major Mehrab Hussain downloaded TikTok last summer when he was studying abroad. 

“I downloaded TikTok solely to watch one creator,” Hussain said via email. “I had seen some of his videos posted on Instagram and really loved him, but refused to download TikTok, as I was going through the phase that everyone initially goes through regarding the app: it’s stupid, cringe and a waste of time. I eventually caved and downloaded the app, only following the creator who I wanted to see and limiting myself to that. That didn’t last long though, as I fell down the rabbithole of downloading TikTok casually or as a ‘joke,’ then becoming addicted and finding myself scrolling mindlessly for hours on end.”

Last month, “around the beginning of when the world started to fall apart,” Hussain made a Davis-related TikTok that went viral. His TikTok, which references the tornado that touched down in Davis in late September, the WarnMe notice alerting students to a man armed with a machete seen on campus in early March and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, was posted on the UC Davis meme page on March 10 and received over 1,000 likes. After that, he saw it go viral on TikTok, receiving more than 270,000 views, 34,000 likes and 200 comments.

“We were coming up on finals, COVID-19 was still serious, but not serious enough to [move Spring Quarter online] yet and it was a time of great uncertainty, fear and confusion,” Hussain said via email. “There were just so many crazy events going on at the time, and during the school year for us Aggies […] that I figured why not do something that would lighten everyone’s spirits.”

Even though the TikTok took a while for Hussain to put together and involved many outfit changes, the idea came to him all at once — probably while he was zoning out in one of his classes, he said. 

Friends from out-of-state and people he hadn’t talked to since middle school reached out to tell Hussain that he was on their “For You” page — a customized page curating specific content for every TikTok user. 

“To me that was the craziest thing, somehow being everywhere and having all my friends, both local and from other states, and thousands of strangers hype me up and support me,” Hussain said via email. “My sister in high school even texted me saying that I had been the first video to show up on her For You Page. It boggles my mind how many people it reached, and how many of my own friends and their friends from all over somehow saw me.”

Hussain said the most shocking incident was when someone walked up to ask if he “was the guy in the TikTok” video that she had loved and reposted. 

“I found out that she was actually in my class, but we did not know each other and she somehow recognized me and remembered seeing my face in class,” Hussain said via email. “I was in shock after, just about how someone actually recognized me on campus from a video online. To top it all off, she asked me after class if I could take a picture with her! At that point I was just so at a loss for words and shook, to put it simply.”

Hussain has noticed changes to TikTok since the outbreak of COVID-19, notably through the content on the app. Not only are there more hashtags and memes, but there are also videos with preventative tips and even a “warning” about the virus, which his video received. He also shared his thoughts on how COVID-19 and social distancing are impacting creators. 

“We’re confined to our homes and forced to stay inside, obviously for the better, as the only way to slow this virus down is through social distancing,” Hussain said. “I think in order to entertain themselves, more and more people have given up the preconceived negative notion of TIkTok and downloaded it. Ever since the quarantine, I noticed a lot more smaller creators and videos that had not amassed thousands of likes, which I found really cool since this meant more people were creating content and the app was constantly getting saturated with more and new videos.”

Facebook meme pages

There has been quite a lot of activity on the UC Davis Memes for Egghead Teens page on Facebook — some, but not all, of which has to do with COVID-19 and related changes to instruction and administration.

Third-year computer science and economics double major Julie Deng and third-year computer science major Jason Lin made the Davis Purity Test “out of quarantine boredom” and posted it to the meme page on March 28. The website describes it as “an unofficial purity test designed to satirize the ‘ideal’ experience of a student at UC Davis, inspired by the Rice Purity Test and the Berkeley Purity Test.”

 “Everyone was reposting the UC Davis bingo on their Instagram stories,” Deng said. “So we figured that we wanted to do an extended version of that and just had the Davis Purity Test as the result.”

They noted that the test looks similar to the original, as they used the original template accessible on GitHub, made changes to formatting and background and changed the questions, with the help of some friends, to be UC Davis-specific. Deng said she asked a few of her friends for some of the “21 plus questions” because she is underage and wanted their input about bars.

“It was interesting to see people tag all of their friends, and they thought it was pretty impressive,” Lin said. “We didn’t really put that much time into making it, so it made us feel pretty good.”

Another popular meme in the UC Davis meme page, created by fifth-year design and electrical engineering double major Karli Ching, has the text “when you realize Canvas is the coronavirus in disguise” with a side-by-side comparison emphasizing the similarities between the Canvas logo and the visual representation of the COVID-19 virus. The post received over 1,000 likes. 

This was Ching’s first meme — she was reading about COVID-19 and happened to go to Canvas immediately after. 

“Many of us, including myself, often joke about how Canvas and school are evil,” Ching said via email. “I saw the Canvas logo and thought it looked like the virus image that I had just seen in the article I read, and decided to make the meme.”

Ching thinks that viral memes can “help clue people in to significant events,” something that Virk and Hussain also mentioned. 

Since people have been adhering to social-distancing and shelter-in-place, Ching said meme content relates to these new norms, but the memes themselves don’t really change. 

“I think memes are a humorous way for us to face reality, and I think humor is a way for us to also find relief in stressful situations,” Ching said via email.

Written by: Anjini Venugopal —  features@theaggie.org



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