‘Sad Reax Only’: Undressing UC Berkeley meme culture

Illustration of person looking at meme page
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

When the PG&E outages impacted UC Berkeley students and led to canceled classes for four instructional days in October, the Facebook group UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens, or UCBMFET, saw a surge of images about the evolving scenario. A midmonth earthquake fueled further natural disaster memeing. And at the beginning of November, it was a “large group of high school students fighting on the campus” in the West Crescent region that sparked another meme-break. These incidences changed the narrative, if only briefly, of UCBMFET’s online presence, which is well-understood in spite of recent overhauls.

It’s simple — if you are one of UCBMFET’s nearly 200 thousand members, you have seen memes concerning depression and loneliness as they relate to the UC Berkeley experience. UC Berkeley “meme culture,” as perpetuated on Facebook, is dominated by candid images about anxiety, depression and various other mental health issues possibly stemming from studying at UC Berkeley. For those of you not on the page, I cannot stress enough (no pun intended) the overwhelming presence of images and commentary that promote hatred for all things UC Berkeley. Whether the posts target classes, students, competitiveness or just California in general, UCBMFET can help perpetuate stereotypes of depression and mental health discrimination that plague many of the students at UC Berkeley. 

One meme, for example, depicts a student sporting a UC Berkeley hat entering a party, as he says: “What’s up ladies! I’m single and ready to joke about my mental health and suicide until everybody is worried!” The post, captioned “at every party like,” received more than 4,300 interactions, more than 300 of which were sad reactions.  A similar post from March 2017, which captured more than 4,500 interactions, depicts a rejection letter from UC Berkeley. The caption reads, “guys I found out how to avoid depression and suicidal thoughts.”

Are these examples hyperbolic? Sort of. But not to the point where they’re outlandish or unbelievable, since mental health issues are that rooted in UC Berkeley culture.

One Reddit user posted a rather truthful forum in 2018 on the r/berkeley subreddit, titled “Am I the only one who’s actually really annoyed and depressed because of Berkeley’s social media and meme culture?” The user went on to explain that her perspective on social media, within the UC Berkeley community in particular, is now tainted because of the constant stream of negative posts on UCBMFET. “Social media used to allow me to express myself and to learn more about other people’s lives and undergraduate experience, and I miss having that connection to the community. I feel like that’s been taken away by this new culture of exaggerating depression and pretending to be cynical about everything,” she wrote. Another Redditor responded: “I’d find another outlet for your needs. The memes have been this way for a while, and it’s unlikely to change.” This is a fair suggestion. After all, engaging with the meme page is voluntary. But the advice neglects the patterns of social media addiction in the 21st century.

Moreover, alternative student Facebook meme pages often fit the same mold as UCBMFET on a different scale. “Overheard at UC Berkeley” and “Confessions from UC Berkeley,” which have more than 41 thousand and about 17 thousand followers on Facebook, respectively, are popular sources of a similar culture. Whereas UCBMFET primarily consists of images, these pages exhibit a more personal, on-the-ground UC Berkeley viewpoint that is still rooted in a culture of depression and loneliness.

“With Overheard, we do see more of the (UC Berkeley) meme culture come through because then we see the conversations people are actually having, which kind of go with the patterns of the memes that happen. With Confessions in particular, though, we get much more of a stream-of-consciousness out of students. … we can see what they are actually thinking,” said Spencer Hill, campus senior and founder and moderator of Confessions and Overheard.

With this more personal viewpoint, however, comes more personal stories of depression, ennui and loneliness.

“We see people talking in great detail about their struggles with depression, sense of belonging and impostor syndrome. Often people say they feel more alone now than they did before coming to Berkeley,” Hill said.

If posting such personal anecdotes of mental health issues and the overall dissatisfaction with UC Berkeley life is so common on these online forums, surely campus students are speaking with one another about these conundrums as well, right? Well, not exactly. One UCBMFET image post, which garnered more than 1,500 likes, explains the situation well. One column is titled “Talking about suicide,” which the post negates with “is awkward, stigma, weird looks, social cost.” The other side of the image reads, “Joking about suicide,” but lists, “is funny, is relatable, is free, no weird stares” and “are you joking? are you serious? nobody knows, but you!”

Overheard and Confessions function under a similar understanding yet promote discussion about depression and other mental health issues in a different way. Each page utilizes a Google form through which followers can submit posts of any kind without identification. By providing an anonymous forum, those who enter their commentary feel secure in the extent of what they can disclose. Sometimes, it reaches surprising levels.

“One of the things that has surprised me is how much people feel like they can’t say because the things people submit are things they feel like they couldn’t disclose. … they might feel like they don’t have a friend that’s close enough, or it’s just too heavy of a topic to talk about in person, but on the page, they are allowed to say those things, and it doesn’t get back to them,” Hill said.

For example, in a raging Confessions from UC Berkeley post from early November, No. 4148, the submitter outlined various reasons why they hate school, campus, how easy it is for computer science, as well as electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, majors to get jobs, etc. But there was one line in particular that stood out: “There are almost no Happy people.”

This, of course, is untrue. But the significance of this comment concerns the perspective of the submitter, whose false understanding is not unique. This perspective seems common among those who are on the page for hours a day, which 29.5% of Confessions users are, according to polling data compiled by Hill.

If UCBMFET, Overheard and Confessions are one of the first (and only) posts you see on your timeline, or if you find yourself glaring at your screen for hours and scrolling through the endless content the pages offer, you’re not alone. I will admit that I love memes of all sort but in particular those on UCBMFET. My time online, for a while, was dominated by a culture of the aforementioned sad reactions to memes, colloquially referred to as “sad reax.” I experienced UC Berkeley meme culture through a lens of toxicity. When you drown in a culture that promotes a hatred for school, for yourself, for EECS hygiene and for your peers, your life can become “sad reax only.” It’s stressful enough here, but if your phone (which I know you always keep in your right pocket, right pocket gang) constantly reminds you of the negatives, you can start to embody the negative culture. By keeping the page at bay, on the other hand, you can engage with the humor in a healthy manner and, in turn, feel comfort in a communal sense.

Hill, who filters each and every post submitted to both Confessions and Overheard, alleged that there are some people who reach toxic levels of engagement with the pages.

“I do worry about the people who are so into it that way. Obviously, I’m happy that they enjoy the page, but I know from my experience going through every post and filtering them that it can wear on you, and you can feel like it’s overwhelming,” Hill said.

This is not to say that these pages are entirely negative fixtures. In fact, with their anonymous forums, they can offer a sort of mental release regarding certain issues. Hill, who is in his final year at UC Berkeley studying applied mathematics, wants a positive legacy tied to the pages.

“I hope (the posts about mental health) show the people who are submitting, you know, this is an OK thing to feel,” Hill said. “What I’ve learned is that a lot of people are going through this. I read all these, and I see the similarities — people are going through the same struggles here a lot of the time.”

It’s OK to push bad thoughts out of your mind and keep your composure around your friends and peers, but if your primary system of addressing your mental health is through a Facebook page, you should reconsider speaking with someone close to you. If you’re a UC Berkeley student, it appears you might just find that they understand what you’re going through. 

For now, we will stick with power outages, earthquakes and high school fights to fuel our student Facebook pages. But when pure UC Berkeley meme culture dominates again, we must ask our three-dimensional friends for help: We all understand.

Contact Ethan Waters at [email protected].