Scripps senior Tess Williams takes a seat at the dining hall breakfast table, seemingly more awake than the other college students in the cafeteria. In fact, she has been awake for three hours due to her 6 a.m. cross country practice, and while other students are still asleep, her day is well under way.

Waking up early is not the only way in which Williams has a head start on her peers, though. As the manager of the online hub for Internet memes for her home city of Davis, California, she is also at the forefront of viral Internet content, which college students everywhere consume and share on a daily basis.

Williams, 22, started her own Facebook page called Davis Memes in 2012, which has since garnered nearly 6,000 likes and started hundreds of conversations among fellow residents of Davis, a northern California city of 65,000 about 11 miles west of Sacramento.

Williams displays an air of nonchalant intelligence, just as memes carry more intellectual weight than they convey at first glance. She says that she had no idea the page would gain such traction, but appreciated the attention given to her project.

“I made the page for a project in my Intro to American Politics class,” she says. “The professor wanted us to use social media to bring attention to an issue, so I made a meme page. I started it with one serious meme to bring attention to an issue I saw as important.”

The initial reaction to Williams’ inaugural, more political meme was largely negative, and prompted comments from page users accusing her of having an agenda. Williams has deleted that meme, which addressed the City of Davis educational system, and has since chosen memes to feature based on user submissions.

Despite giving up her mission of featuring strictly political memes, Williams says even the most humorous memes posted on the page have an undercurrent of social significance, and start valuable conversations in the comments section. For example, she receives meme submissions that humorously criticize the predominantly white, privileged demographic of Davis, and these initiate valuable conversations from residents of the Davis area and beyond.

Davis Memes is only one small corner of the vast world of viral content, and its main product originates in pre-Internet times. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, coined the term “meme” in 1976, and used it to refer to the role of replication in the spread of information. He believed that the most important and resonating ideas replicate in the same manner as in biological evolution, and used the term as a substitute for “gene.”

Now, in the Internet age, a “meme” is more of a combination of key elements: a replicated image, a witty catchphrase, and the support of thousands to millions of Web users to share the content.

Memes are important because they reflect popular opinions in concise, quippy, digestible content.

Williams thus unknowingly created an outlet for Davis residents to vent and interact about important issues via a type of content largely associated with younger, less politically active citizens.

She has also given the medium more credibility in the eyes of older citizens, and has successfully motivated her fellow Davis residents to discuss issues of importance to the community.

(Written by Anna Balderston; edited by Terril Y. Jones. Sept. 17, 2015)

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