Image Description: An illustration of the ‘Cambrian explosion’, with multiple trilobites moving along the floor. Text reads “Wild Green Memes Paleozoic month”.
By Cate Tweedie
Wild Green Memes for Ecological Fiends is a meme group on Facebook dedicated to Ecology-based humour. It recently reached 200 000 members, and consistently maintains a humorous, wholesome and factual environment with members from all around the world, composed of professional scientists, enthusiastic amateurs and people who are just interested to learn more and have a laugh.
Cate Tweedie spoke to some of the team behind the group: Rhett Barker, the founder, Curtis Sarkin, a group admin, and Iona Hennessy and McKenzie Toth, both moderators, to find out just how it works.
Where did the idea for the group come from?
Rhett Barker: There is a meme page for University of Florida students called Swampy Memes for Top Ten Public Teens, which was just a fun group for anyone who went to University of Florida to make jokes about the experience. My friends and I were all in it, and, being ecology nerds, decided we wanted that, but for nature! I made the group, invited some of those friends to join, and it spread from there.
How did you first come across and get involved with Wild Green Memes?
Iona Hennessy: I joined the group in October 2017 as a member just a few months after it was created. I was an active participant in the group and submitted memes, and after the first Charity Battle in late 2018, Rhett asked if I wanted to be a Moderator and of course I said yes. Rhett and I had actually met once before in school but hadn’t really interacted until Wild Green Memes.
Curtis Sarkin: I joined the group in 2018 (I think a co-worker at a nature non-profit invited me?) and loved the overall vibe. I decided to make them a cover photo to show my love of the group, and the mods liked it so much, they let me come on as a moderator. I didn’t know any of the mods before then, as most already knew each other through University of Florida whereas I went to University of Massachusetts Amherst. I didn’t meet any of them until last year, but they’d already become some of my closest friends by then despite our friendships existing online.
What do you do for a ‘day job?’
McKenzie Toth: I am graduating from veterinary school very soon, and I will be working as a veterinarian for small and exotic companion animals starting this summer. Prior to now, I’ve been a fulltime student like the majority of the moderators.
IH: For the past four years I’ve been in school to get my bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, and now I’ll be starting an internship as a technician doing research and animal care.
RB: I have a Bachelor’s in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation like Iona and am in grad school now for an MFA in Science and Natural History Film. So, currently I’m a student, and when I finish my degree next year, I’ll work on nature documentaries.
How much time do you generally dedicate to Wild Green Memes group-related tasks and what do they include?
MT: I typically dedicate about twenty to thirty minutes on average to WGM-related tasks per day, but this can increase to one or more hours when special events are occurring. I mainly operate the Instagram, so I typically look for original content that’s been popular in the group, ask the creator for permission to post it, and then create a post. At times when we have bigger events happening, like our recent announcement of our non-profit, Wild Green Future, the time commitment will increase. Something that I very much enjoy about Instagram in general is the creativity you can use in captions as well as stories, and on days where I am excited about an event or a specific topic I can devote a lot of time to our Instagram story rather than creating multiple posts.
What has been your favourite meme trend in the group, and why?
Curtis: Hard to pick, but a recent one comes to mind. People starting texting “would you still love me if I was a worm?” and sharing screenshots of confused responses. Like many of our trends, it didn’t start in our group, but it grew and flourished there. It’s now a TikTok trend, Buzzfeed wrote an article, and the singer Halsey tweeted about it.
(Meme by Curtis Sarkin)
Image Description: Spiderman sits with Mary-Jane (MJ) looking directly at the camera with a nervous expression. Texts on Spiderman reads “the group asking if they’d still be loved if they were worms”, and text over MJ reads “the members who joined five minutes ago”.
What, in your opinion, makes the group stand out from other science-related meme groups?
CS: Ecology is such a vast topic, so our memes have the potential to be as diverse as life on Earth. One week the trend could be dolphins, the next week it could be moss, while the content of, say, a primatology meme group would be a lot more limited. The groups that are a bit more niche can be great and fun, but I think Wild Green Memes attracts people from all ecological fields, as well as people who are just super enthusiastic about wildlife.
Do you think the group and its community has an impact beyond a meme culture?
IH: I think it does. Often memes contain a kernel of truth which is part of what makes them so funny. And if that truth is a fact about the environment or conservation, then people can enjoy a joke while also getting some information. Especially in the format of a Facebook group, where people can share posts to their own timelines where they can reach people outside of the Wild Green Memes bubble.
How much does environmental and climate change awareness come into the group’s activities? Do you think the group has evolved at all through a time of serious climate activism? Have highly visible events like the ‘School Strike for Climate’ affected the demographic of members and the types of posts in the group?
RB: I wouldn’t say the (much needed) rise in climate activism has affected the group much in any way. While climate is the subject of a lot of the group’s memes, we tend to stay out of the political aspects of the issues and focus on the scientific and the silly. Political action is necessary in the grand scheme of things, but we normally promote non-confrontational and humour-based communication in Wild Green Memes, both to maintain a friendly atmosphere within the group and, to a smaller extent, as a potential route to reaching some people who would be put off by more confrontational communication strategies (not to say that anyone’s actions to help solve the climate crisis are disposable!).
What do you think it is about the group that has brought over 200,000 people together?
MT: I believe the success of our group is due to the combination of a wide variety of humour and the positive atmosphere that we want to cultivate. While ecology is the thread that unites a majority of our members, the content of the memes varies from more widely relatable humour (like the slapping bags of soil trend) to more niche humour about highly specific groups of organisms. To enjoy our group, one simply has to enjoy the natural world and they can find humour they can relate to. In all the content we approve, we try to keep the subject matter (as well as the comments) light or education focused, as we want the group to be an enjoyable place for everyone which I believe does not go unnoticed by our members.
(Meme by Curtis Sarkin)
Image Description: A pile of soil bags stacked on one another. Text overlaying it reads “Yeah I like soil. S – Slapping O – Bags I – of L – Soil”
How do you decide upon group standards? Has the prospect of being ‘Zucced’ impacted on the way the group is run?
IH: The basic standards are to be nice to people. Any kind of demeaning speech isn’t allowed. We definitely are cognizant of getting “Zucced”, but we aren’t as worried about it. People can report posts if they are breaking the rules which alerts the moderators, and we come in and sort the problem. We also read the posts and comments as we’re scrolling, keeping an eye out for anything that might go wrong. We work to maintain a welcoming and wholesome environment where everyone can enjoy some ecological memes.
Have you seen any major changes in the way the group functions given the current global COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of things like an increase in contribution, inability to work in the field, the environmental impacts of industry shutdowns, etc.?
IH: There has definitely been an increase in member activity, in both member requests and member submissions. Part of it is that the group is growing every day but now it’s also because people are inside more and spending more time on the internet.
CS: As people began to stay at home, we began to offer games like indoor nature bingo, and photography contests about wildlife in the window or invertebrates living in houses. Many mods also offered live streams of bird feeders and ecosystems in their areas, allowing people who can’t currently access natural areas to have little glimpses into the outdoors. We have made an effort to keep people entertained and connected to nature.
What is one ecological aspect you wish more people knew about?
CS: The impact of non-native and invasive species. I’d love to see a world where people favoured diverse native plants that help native pollinators instead of grass monoculture lawns.
Cate Tweedie would still love you if you were a worm.