As you scroll through your Instagram feed, in the stream of pictures from sorority formals, aesthetic weekend excursions to South Street, club event notices, and perfectly manicured photos posted by official Penn accounts, you come across a long caption under a photoshopped image of Amy Gutmann. If you’re familiar with the content of @pennmemes, you know you’re about to be launched into the head of the anonymous person who graces your feed a few times a week with relevant memes—and occasionally, a long stream–of–consciousness caption.
“Meme culture itself is Penn culture,” says Penn Memes, the auteur behind the @pennmemes account on Instagram. Part meme account, part diary of an anonymous student, part antithesis to the sheen of “Penn face,” part repository of satire and cynical edits poking fun at what we call “Penn culture”—according to the Instagram bio, @pennmemes is “the unofficial Penn meme page” that is “dismantling Penn face one long ass caption at a time.”
She believes that her “work,” which is how she refers to the account and the content she posts, has become inscribed in the culture of Penn’s campus. “It's very difficult for me to comprehend who the student body sees me [as] versus the person I am in real life because I keep my identity private and separated,” she says. Anonymity is at the center of her work—while the memes she makes are driven by her distinctive voice, she refuses to make her identity known to her nearly 8,000 followers and has no intention of going public anytime soon.
Since early November, I’ve sat down for several interviews with @pennmemes, trying to understand the person behind the account. The transcripts of our conversations are long stretches of her speaking, only a few guiding questions from me, no room for me to get a word in. My questions are just lead–ins for her soapboxes, long rants about the theory behind her work, conversations as she sprawls out on my living room couch waxing poetic about her meme world. If it isn’t evident from her captions, Penn Memes has a lot to say. She cares about her account deeply and thinks about it incessantly.
Penn Memes didn’t come to the Ivy League to run a meme account. @pennmemes was born out of a group of students in the Class of 2024, who, going into their first years of college online, wanted to contribute to the social media space that in large part had taken the place of the physicality of Penn’s campus. @upenn.memes, another popular meme account, had recently become inactive after its administrator, also a former member of the 2023 Class Board, used a racial slur in a group chat—there seemed to be a gap in the world of Instagram comedy for Penn students, especially at a time where Penn culture was defined by remote learning and disconnection.
When she heard about the project, the current administrator of Penn Memes, who is now the lone auteur of the account, couldn’t stay out of it. In high school, she had run another successful meme account, one that had national reach, though she refuses to share its handle with me. She first posted on @pennmemes in mid–September of her first year, but after a few weeks, she realized that the other people running the account, none of whom ever actually posted, weren’t nearly as invested as she was. She got permission to become the sole administrator, changed the password and associated email address, and claimed the account as her own. At that point, not even a month into her first year, she estimated that she had a reach of about 100 followers.
“I take my memes to the next level—I'm a writer, a content curator," she boasts. What started as memes about Zoom classes soon grew to a larger critique of Penn culture. Since the account’s inception, her world has been consumed by creating Penn–themed jokes and growing the account’s following: find templates, create jokes, respond to DMs, monitor the comments. “You become your own PR agent,” she says.
One of the biggest moments for Penn Memes happened in November of 2020. After making a post, she noticed a new follower, a verified follower. It was @uofpenn. “I was screaming so much,” she says. “I fried my vocal chords that night.”
It was one of the moments where she felt like her content was something important, something worthwhile, something that positively contributed to campus life. “This is the entirety of the University of Pennsylvania saying, ‘We approve of this account,’” she says, “I'll look it up sometimes and just stare.”
Since then, @pennmemes has consumed her life. “What I do is so lonely,” she says. Though she makes a point of remaining anonymous, a handful of people—trusted friends—do know her identity. She’s afraid that if people knew who she was, if she didn’t hide behind her mask and the @pennmemes handle, that she would become some sort of “microcelebrity.”
It was the spring of her first year when Penn Memes realized the account had really begun to gain traction.
On March 1, 2021, she made a post revealing her gender—that it was a girl behind the account. It was a major step, though some followers are still surprised when she makes comments that reference being a woman.
“It's so weird that I've had so many conversations with people assuming I'm a man,” she says. DMs she receives in response to her posts and stories often call her “dude” or “bro.” She maintains that being a woman is integral to her comedic voice and the role that @pennmemes has on campus. “I think that humor is so important for women. We can poke holes in the structures of society,” she says.
Beyond running @pennmemes, generally navigating the online meme space as a woman poses its own challenges. “I've been harassed, I've been sexualized,” she says. “This one guy added me to a group chat just to talk about how much he wanted to fuck me.” As she describes the toxic banter among meme account admins, she seems nearly immune to it—it's part of her life. She’s seen the hateful sides of this online community, the tiny corners of the internet where racist, sexist, and homophobic ideologies flourish. It’s a dark but inevitable element of her work. Though she seems far removed from that world, she speaks with a certain knowledge of the cadence of online culture; the world of memes has its own lexicon, and it’s inevitably a part of her personal vocabulary as well.
In April of 2021, a month after revealing that she was a woman, she made another revolutionary decision that would shape the future of the account: She posted her first long, epistolary caption. It became a pattern—the captions expressed her most private thoughts and attempted to show people her internal world, breaking down the mask that is “Penn face.”
Penn Memes knows that you’re not okay. And she wants you to know that she’s not okay either—it's part of the ethos behind her long, vulnerable captions.
“When I'm writing my captions, I'm writing to you,” she says. “I'm trying to write to the people who need to hear things like that the most because they feel isolated. … I'm trying to break that bubble and say, ‘Don't worry, I understand how you feel. It's valid, it's okay. And you don't need to pretend.’”
In spring of 2021, she decided she wanted to post a picture of herself—without revealing her identity, of course. “I wanted to make the point that there are actual human beings running meme accounts. Every meme you see online is posted by a person who had an intention.” There was one catch—she had to figure out a way to post a picture of herself, to humanize her account, without revealing her identity.
What could be better than a comedy mask? She specially ordered one on Etsy. Dressed in a tight corset, face well–disguised in her new mask, and posing triumphantly at twilight, she posted a series of pictures from a photoshoot she had done at Cira Green. Her first year in college had just come to an end, but @pennmemes was just beginning.
As she’s gained more followers, her confidence has also grown—and allowed her to develop the signature @pennmemes style that blends satire, vulnerability, and biting critique of campus culture. But at the same time, behind the memes lies deep care, tireless commitment, and a lot of anxiety. “I have nightmares sometimes that someone will knock on my door and just kick me out,” she says. She tells me this during our third interview. We agree that to really tell her story, I should get to know her over a series of conversations.
Earlier that day, I had run into her in Van Pelt Library, and it was evident she was having a rough time. On top of the general stresses of being a student and running a meme account full–time, she's also recently been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, which constantly permeates her thoughts. Now, she’s once again lying on the couch in my living room, recounting a difficult week. She makes a comment likening the way we’re positioned, me sitting straight in a chair, her sprawled out across from me, to a therapist’s office. “You’re going to put this in the article, right?” she asks.
“Am I allowed to put it in the article?” I ask. She nods. “Then I’ll put it in the article,” I reply.
She goes on about the anxiety she’s been experiencing lately. “It’s my worst fear,” she says when I ask her if she’s ever been afraid of someone exposing her identity. “I’ve literally had panic attacks about this.” She tells me she had a panic attack just earlier that day—@pennmemes related. She had made a post poking fun at a capella groups using a Spotify Wrapped template and received backlash in the comments. Any time she gets pushback on her content, paranoia sets in that someone could be lurking, waiting to tear down all the work she’s done.
“Every day, I wake up with the fear that someone's going to reveal who I am to the entire campus, meaning that I basically can't do my job anymore, because it's going to put my safety at risk.” It’s a fear that people won’t like her, or that someone will be out to get her, or that @pennmemes, something she cares about so deeply, will be taken from her.
Having her identity exposed isn’t an unfounded concern. In February of 2021, the former administrator of the @upenn.memes account was trying to intimidate her, sending her messages and slandering her posts—she was afraid that he was going to expose her identity. In the past, they had conversations via Instagram DMs, and she was pretty sure that he knew who she was. “I was fucking terrified.” She was concerned the situation was headed into “blackmail territory.” She ended up making a post about it and then laying low. Ultimately, it didn't amount to anything tangible—but knowing there was someone harassing her who also knew her identity left her on edge.
But her need for anonymity is rooted in something beyond maintaining her privacy and safety. “The real reason I keep my identity private though—it’s all of the safety things too—but first and foremost, it’s because I’m embarrassed,” she says.
She explains to me that her love of memes and comedy comes mostly from a place of low self–esteem. “I'm embarrassed that if I go to class, and people just see me as ‘the meme account girl,’ they're not going to actually listen to what I have to say,” she says.
While she’s proud of her work, at the heart of everything she does is a deep need for approval, to be liked, to be accepted. She’s placed herself at the center of Penn culture, one finger on the pulse of campus, offering commentary on every major event in University life and every idiosyncrasy that can only be understood by those who trek up and down Locust Walk each day.
But at the same time, everything she does is deeply overthought, a means of self–protection, and ultimately she can hide behind the guise of her anonymity. “Every single post you see online was posted by somebody who has their own complex life or feelings. And I feel like I try to make my posts like a love letter to the internet,” she says.
Suddenly, she turns the questions to me. “What do you think of me, now that you’ve met me? Am I what you expected?” I don’t know how to answer. When I started this, I don’t know if I had any expectations at all. I certainly wasn’t expecting to become so immersed in this world—I didn't even know there was a world this deep to begin with. I guess I thought she would be a completely different person than the persona she portrayed online, a Penn student who just posted memes now and then. But @pennmemes in person is more or less exactly how she is in her captions: meticulous, careful, and wholly consumed by the world of Penn.
The last time I sit down to interview Penn Memes, she’s supposed to be on a “break” from her account, a decision encouraged by her therapist. But then the United States Senate confirmed Amy Gutmann as ambassador to Germany and she resigned from the Penn presidency—it was too much fodder for good memes to remain offline.
“The action of posting takes a lot out of me,” she says. She tries to go offline for a few hours after she makes a post. But then she’s consumed with worry about the comments that might be coming in, analytics, who’s liking her content. Truly taking a break would mean going several days without posting at all. “Working online means that you always have to stay on,” she says. Like many of us, Penn Memes is a workaholic. And in her line of work, there’s no taking breaks.
As she speaks to me, I grow to realize that Penn Memes is trapped in a bubble where the whole world revolves around her account, her “work.” In her mission to deconstruct Penn face, she too has become devastatingly trapped in the subculture of our university.
She once stumbled across @yungbenfranklin, a Penn meme account of yesteryear. The first post dates back to May of 2016; the most recent, February of 2017. With over 3,000 followers, the account didn’t even seem to last a full school year. But it’s been a major source of inspiration for @pennmemes. “It was beautiful. The formats were so outdated, the editing software—so bad. There were references that don’t even make sense anymore,” she says. She realizes that maybe, just maybe, @pennmemes is a piece of Penn history in the making, a time capsule for future generations to remember this particular moment at Penn, the four years she called this campus home.
Sometimes, it’s not clear where @pennmemes ends and the person behind it begins. She claims to separate her “work” from the rest of her life, but at the same time, it seems to permeate everything she does. Her dedication to @pennmemes has instilled in her a sense of duty—as if without her, campus would be worse off. The more I get to know her, the more it becomes apparent that she’s just as confused as any of us, trying desperately to make her way in the world and on this campus and figuring herself out in the process.
Penn Memes is a planner to the bitter end—always plotting her next move, her next big post. When she’s in class, she’s drafting captions. As she walks up Locust, she’s planning her next big project, or a “scheme,” as she calls it. Once, she left class altogether to make a post—she had to be one of the first to break the news that Liz Magill would be Penn’s new president starting in July.
“I love how I take myself seriously. I love how I won't let anybody stop me from taking myself seriously. This is fun. And it feels good to know that I don't let anybody sway me from my work,” she says. Though her identity is a secret to her peers, memes are her profession—her administrator status of @pennmemes is something she proudly displays on her resume.
Through our conversations, I too become consumed by the online world that is Penn Memes. But I’m still left with questions: Do people care anywhere near as much as she does? Is @pennmemes just something we scroll past on our Instagram feeds, occasionally texting screenshots to our friends? It’s hard to say. But there’s a person behind the account, a person who cares an awful lot, whose world is consumed by followers and comments, the culture of campus, and of course, memes. At the heart of that obsession with creating comedy out of life at Penn is a deep care for the university and culture that we all call home.
Of course, when we finish what I thought was the last interview, it’s not really the end. There’s still one more scheme remaining—I do see Penn Memes one more time. We’re on our way to do a photoshoot for this very issue at none other than the third floor of Van Pelt Library. She has a personal photographer, a trusted friend she uses any time she needs to take a picture for the account. Last spring, it was a Cira Green photoshoot; in the fall, she dressed as Amy Gutmann for Halloween. Now, it’s this. She insists I come—I've seen this story from the very beginning, and she wants me to be there to see the project through. Under her sweatshirt, she sports a corset, a key piece of the costume that allows her to transform into Penn Memes.
“Comedy, especially for women, is hypersexualized. [Wearing the corset] is a way for me to make a statement that I can look like this and still be just as smart, funny, and valid as any Penn student, because the way I look doesn't really affect my comedy.” In many ways, the corset is a metaphor: She’s in complete control of how you perceive her, how confident she feels. But she’s also constricted by the labels and persona she’s created for herself, the anxiety and obsession she has around every piece of content she posts, every statement she makes. She’s breathing, but just barely.
After pulling off her sweatshirt, she pulls her iconic gold–embellished mask from her bag, right in the middle of the Van Pelt stacks. She places it over her face and puts her hands on her hips. The camera clicks as I keep watch to make sure that no one will walk into the small corner of the library she’s claimed as her photoshoot set. I realize I have been fully inducted into the cult of @pennmemes.
If one thing’s certain, it’s that she takes something that many people don’t find very serious almost comically seriously. And she sees the irony in that. “Some people will say, ‘It’s just a meme account. Who cares?’ I care, I care. And it's me, and I do it for me,” she says.
Say what you want about Penn Memes. She’ll get the last laugh. Ultimately, humor is her best friend. “Every day of my life, I will laugh,“ she says. “Isn’t that a beautiful thing?”