What's Left Unsaid

By Serena G. Pellegrino

Memes and the Art of Nonsense

I believe in the importance of nonsense. More specifically, that a little bit of nonsense in life is very valuable. Nonsense, in this case, being internet memes.

Usually, I’m quick to criticize the internet. I have dedicated a significant amount of time to blaming it for many of our generation’s social conflicts. And honestly, contemplating social media and the web at large frequently leads me down a path of existential desperation. But memes are, for me, an exception. They are deceivingly relevant and their function is more profound than their shallow perceptions afford them. Of course, not all memes are funny, many are pointless, and offensive ones are unacceptable. But the concept of a meme is significant. It is an authentic, unfiltered expression rarely seen elsewhere online. It is a sign of humanity, something we often try to erase from our virtual selves.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Online

You know you shouldn’t but you do it anyway. Impulsively, you type that text message. You hit that tiny powerful arrow. Sent. Delivered. Time for the dread to set in.

We all know the feeling. One day you’ve reached your tipping point and you send an unwarranted and possibly irrational message. Or maybe you finally worked up the courage to shoot your shot only to get shot down. Or there’s a chance your excessive enthusiasm was matched with the ever disheartening “k” or a complete ghosting. No matter the situation, we have all experienced the sharp descent into self loathing when we can’t retract our awkward or miscalculated words.

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The Cult of the Gram

While our world seems all too dystopian in the era of COVID and the general chaos that is 2020, Instagram insists utopia is alive and well. We scroll through our feeds to see a world altogether different from our own, as if somewhere beyond, an alternate reality exists. Even though we see illness and unrest on the news, smiling faces and pretty colors in neat little squares are on our phones. It’s jarring, even grotesque, to notice this disconnect — to both observe and participate in a tacit whitewash of reality.

So why do we fabricate a world that is only half authentic? Evidently, we want to appear better than we are (likely) feeling right now. It’s a thin veneer and we’re probably well aware that singular posted moments of happiness and glamour aren’t entirely representative of our actual lives. However, the self-advertising appeal is unresistable, partly because we competitively seek to prove that we’re just fine despite the world falling apart around us. But also on some level, to console ourselves.

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The Plague According to Camus

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.” In his 1947 novel, “The Plague,” Albert Camus reaches the philosophical conclusion that life is random and absurd. And today, this sentiment resonates more than ever. Plagues have ravaged humanity for all of history, yet, it’s hard for us to believe that we are actually living through one of them.

Our behavior has changed because of the pandemic — or maybe our true natures have simply been exposed. Young people are acting out, and very often we don’t abide by the rules. It’s happening on our very own campus. Students are being dismissed for hosting indoor parties while others are congregating along the Charles River maskless. Beyond Cambridge, Instagram and Snapchat stories regularly document gatherings that are far too large. And in places like Kentucky and Alabama, people are abandoning responsibility completely, hosting “coronavirus parties.” It seems like we are acting careless to the point of illogical.

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Confessions Without Absolution

Post-campus eviction, there’s no better place on the internet for Harvard students to revel in college nostalgia than the Harvard Confessions Facebook page. Advertised as a place for “your deepest secrets,” the page allows students to anonymously post hopes, memories, regrets, frustrations, and anything else rant-worthy. Mid-lockdown, I started following the page, and feeling slightly delirious from isolation and likely overly sentimental, I admittedly found myself living vicariously through these angsty snippets of college life. Some posts told of moments from CVS or J.P. Licks and chance encounters in Harvard Square. Others mourned the loss of staring down dining hall crushes daily – crushes that posters claimed would have blossomed into beautiful relationships if only time had allowed. And some reminisced watching the sun come up from a Lamont Library window after a night of intense stress and study, which now in hindsight seems quite charming. These lighthearted recollections and other ironic, even nonsensical posts would make me laugh and uplift me – even if just momentarily – during dreary days of Zoom and banana bread baking.

But as I continued scrolling, other posts snapped me out of this romanticized Harvard. Posts recounting on-campus loneliness, isolation before quarantine, relationships or acquaintances lost to distance (but which couldn’t be recuperated for fear of looking “desperate”), academic failures, and social anxieties came up all too often. Some posters were angry that their political views were being dismissed, that beliefs they held weren’t in line with those of their friends, that they urgently needed to “shout into the void.” Some of the more concerning posts even expressed suicidal thoughts, descriptions of sexual assault, and abusive relationships. In all posts, though, what stood out most was that Harvard students were tremendously afraid to confess their truths and vulnerabilities without the safety of online anonymity. They didn’t want to speak directly to each other; they wanted to be heard free of judgement. And with a following of well over 3,000 people, the page is not just for a struggling minority. Our community members are paying attention — and they’re most likely relating to some of the content, too.

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