If you haven’t yet heard of “Official Unofficial Penn Squirrel Catching Club,” where have you been? The infamous meme group changed its privacy settings from “Closed” to “Public” two weeks ago, and its membership has more than doubled in the past month—to 4,000 people (at Penn and elsewhere) and counting.
Though many students found out about the group only recently, “Official Unofficial” was originally created over a year ago under the name “University of Pennsylvania Class of 420AD.” (It only became “Official Unofficial” last fall.)
Last February, friends Anton Relin (C'19), Tristrum Tuttle (E'19) and Owain West (C'19) found themselves in New York City, waiting for a train to a hackathon in Montréal. Suddenly, Tristrum realized he needed a place to post a spicy meme he'd just come up with.
Anton had previously created a group called "Penn Meme Cuisine," but according to Tristrum, the group had "devolved" to the point that the memes posted in it were "no longer specifically Penn–related." The rule for this new group: the memes had to be relevant to Penn.
"We had a few good [Penn–related] meme ideas between us," Tristrum said. "So Anton made this new group, added me and Owain, and put up a cover photo of the Quaker Oats dude looking shifty."
At its conception (and for several months afterwards), the group was less than one percent of its current size. It comprised about 30 members, all of whom the three current administrators—Anton, Tristrum, and Owain—knew in real life and had personally added to the group.
Originally, the group (as the name would suggest) consisted of spoofed specific posts in the Class of 2019 Facebook group: photos of found PennCards and descriptions of lost keychains and jackets abounded, as well as propositions for new clubs. When the new school year began, memes about various issues in Rodin College House (elevators, hot water) began to appear.
“It was very different,“ Owain said. “We were just posting memes for ourselves, so there were a lot of in–jokes.”
However, the dynamic changed completely one month ago, when someone—the admins can’t remember who—linked to “Official Unofficial” in the “CIS@Penn” Facebook group. Membership jumped by 1500 people in two weeks, and the memes became accordingly more general interest.
The rapid, unexpected growth caused the admins a few issues—they recently added four new moderators to the team to help them deal with the sudden influx of memes—but these memes have also made them famous around campus. Anton recounts a time at Pike last week when “...two bros came up to [him] and were like, 'BRUH, YOU MADE THE PAGE!' ”
“I was like, this is my legacy,” Anton said. “I don’t think my parents have ever really been proud of me... and I don’t think this is going to help.”
THE MEANING OF MEMES
Despite their self–deprecating attitude towards their role in creating the “Official Unofficial” phenomenon, the admins all recognize the central role that memes have come to play in the lives of Penn students.
“Memes are really cathartic,” Owain said. “[When you post a meme], you feel like part of the community, but you also feel like you’ve made something that’s worthwhile. Even though it’s just a stupid Internet meme, you still feel proud of it.”
Anton points out that “Official Unofficial” is also a place for social commentary. Many of the memes tackle issues including, among others, the College’s sector requirements, CAPS funding, Amy Gutmann’s salary, and the gentrification of West Philadelphia.
“It kind of takes off Penn Face,” Anton said. “Looking at something like this, you realize that [these issues] are common to a lot of people. ”
WHAT MAKES A MEME ‘QUALITY’?
“It’s funny, it’s relatable and it makes a good point,” Owain said. “And that’s hard to do with small text and a grainy image.”
The admins have had numerous discussions regarding what exactly they want to police on the page and came to the consensus that they would not police memes on the basis of quality—they usually only remove 1) irrelevant posts, such as the technically–termed shitposts and 2) “outright weird racist trash propaganda,” according to Anton.
“We are not a shitpost page,” Anton said. “I know this because I’m on a bunch of shitpost pages, and it’s bad. It’s not relatable content.”
Another essential concern in determining whether or not a meme is “quality” is whether or not it’s an instance of “OC”—original content, as opposed to a repost. According to Know Your Meme, a repost is “any user–submitted content that has been posted before,” while original content is a meme created by the poster.
“If you’re reposting something, it’s not as quality because people have seen it before,” Owain said. “Also, we can’t respect your ingenuity.”
Of course, memes are derivative by definition, but any given meme is “original content” if the poster came up with what makes the content funny.
“You’re all intelligent, smart Penn students—except for all the terrible Harvard students who have joined the group—so, you smart Penn students, come up with OC,” Owain said. “Do it for the good of humanity.”
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
What Owain describes as “the elephant in the room” is the presence of the notorious Martin Shkreli in “Official Unofficial.” Shkreli, the 32–year–old businessman known for jacking up the price of a certain AIDS medication by 5000 percent, has previously infiltrated similar groups, such as “UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens.”
“He’s been in the group for a while,” Owain said. “Even before it got really big.”
The admins remain unsure whether or not to ban him from “Official Unofficial.”
“It’s a controversial topic. We’ve talked about it,” Anton said. “He’s kind of a dick.”
As is the case with anything that becomes popular overnight, some original members of “Official Unofficial” have grown disillusioned with the direction in which the group has gone since becoming “mainstream.”
The admins aren’t too concerned about this, maintaining that the group will go where it will go—and that their job is simply to ensure that members are having a good experience.
“Memes are transient, so who cares?” Owain said. “If it grows further, then we will do our best to make it a free and safe space for everyone. We’ll see what happens.”