The Harvard Meme Scandal

“Don’t email anything you wouldn’t want printed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.” That’s the advice the compliance people were telling us in the early 2000s. When 20-somethings still read or were at least aware of newspapers. 

But then, the internet was changing everything beneath our feet. The same warning wouldn’t matter in the same way to the kids of those days. Like the kids who got un-admitted from Harvard in a national scandal involving memes.  

It’s a story worth keeping around. 

Kids do dumb stuff. Usually because of the bubble adults have raised them in. And adults do dumb stuff too. Usually because they’re acting in bubbles they can’t step out of to see. Until, of course, the bubble pops. 

The bubbles the internet has brought us are more numerous than any market-related bubbles or manias we can imagine. 

Stories like the Harvard meme scandal contain multitudes of lessons. About how we get sucked into bubbles, trapped in their temporary safety, and then have to count ourselves lucky while being smart with any opportunity we get to rebuild when we’re back on the outside, usually covered in sticky soap. 

I had a conversation with a teacher friend of mine who was giving high school kids a lesson in digital literacy (in 2023). He vaguely remembered the Harvard meme scandal after we started chatting about it and was sure his students had never heard of it.* Not understanding the existence and fragility of bubbles… he couldn’t understand why a history teacher would have to teach digital literacy, but as we started talking about it, it made more sense to each of us. 

How do we see these thought-bubbles or experiential product bubbles in real time? Take a listen to this Hidden Brain episode, “You Can’t Hit Unsend” and let me know what you think

Ps. from the episode, my favorite part is at the end when the kid they feature, William, has gotten accepted to a new college and decides to take a class on memes. A friend who ended up at Harvard comes to visit him and joins him in the class one day and this happens:

VEDANTAM: William is still active on social media, and despite all the trouble memes have caused him, he still likes them. When we were out on the golf course, he told me that during his freshman year, he couldn’t resist signing up for a class he saw advertised on campus. It was about memes. One night at the meme class, an old friend of his was visiting. She happened to go to Harvard and was in the same class William would have been in had he not been kicked out. He invited her to the meme class.

WILLIAM: So walk in and I introduce her. I’m like, hey, guys, this is my friend from Harvard. So we sit down. We’re going through the class. The week’s topic was college meme pages. But they threw in a slide about the Harvard meme scandal (laughter). They didn’t know. They didn’t know. And my friend from Harvard was there, and I had introduced her. And then they’re like, oh, yeah, you’re from Harvard. Do you know anything about this? And she’s like, kind of.

VEDANTAM: William finally fessed up.

WILLIAM: I said, so remember at the beginning of the semester when I said memes completely changed the course of my life? And then all their jaws dropped. They’re like, do you want to teach the class right now?

*I had never written a post about this episode, but a 2019 note was stored and ready to pull up in my phone when it came up in conversation at my niece’s 3-year-old birthday party. I keep saying it, I’m building a library of these references you can search too. Hit the search bar on the website OR drop me a line if you need a good story for anything. 

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