Perhaps you’ve heard of @ecuadmemes.
Perhaps a colleague, fellow student or friend has laughingly shown you one of the account’s prolific posts. Maybe you yourself are a follower, and have opened your feed one day and thought, “Ouch,” or “Yikes,” or “YES!”
For the uninitiated, @ecuadmemes is an anonymous Instagram account which takes an unsparing and unrelenting inventory of all things ECU. As per its moniker, its format is simple; mashing up pop-culture visual references with vernacular content.
In the case of @ecuadmemes, vernacular content means everything from the power disparity inherent in relationships between students and an educational institution, to the sometimes overwhelming feeling of futility that accompanies being an artist in one of the least affordable cities on the planet, to the self-important personal narratives some artists are only too happy to share.
In other words, @ecuadmemes isn’t shy about letting the barbs fly. Its commentary can be acerbic, funny, brutal, subtle, exacting, dark, and often disquietingly true. Not even the account itself is spared the knife.
So, what kind of a person turns a critical lens so ferociously — though anonymously — on themself and their community? I was curious. So, I reached out to see whether whoever runs @ecuadmemes might be willing to chat. To my astonishment, they said, “Yes.”
And I’m here to tell you that, whoever it is you’re picturing when you imagine the person behind this searing meme account, you’re wrong.
(The moderator of @ecuadmemes will remain anonymous in this article, although they did identify themself to me. I will refer to them as “E.M.,” for the remainder of the story).
E.M. is indeed furious and grim, as well as keenly and darkly funny. But they are also someone who has fought for every single thing they've achieved. And rather than emerging embittered, they've transposed their hardships into a commitment to equality and social justice. Rather than dwelling on their adversity, this young person is almost painfully aware of how their own ordeals are actually reflections of much broader, older inequities. And it’s in the spirit of laying bare apathy and contempt — both systemic and interpersonal — that E.M. began the @ecuadmemes account.
“I feel like it’s a part of my personality to make light of difficult things,” E.M. told me. “But it’s a surprise for people to actually be paying attention to it.”
E.M.’s surprise stems partly from their lifelong status as an “outsider” — a person “without a community.” They were born stateside, on a reserve with no running water, growing up between homes in the urban Upper Midwest and the rural Midwest United States. They describe a life characterized by few family connections and fewer opportunities. On graduating from high school, they found themselves peering into a future without form. They signed up with a non-profit to build houses for impoverished communities in developing countries.
Remarkably, this move didn’t come from an impulse to run away, but rather, from the kind of self-searching that many people far more privileged hesitate to take up.
“I was feeling powerless, and I thought, ‘What kind of privilege do I have that I think I can’t help others?’”
What E.M. found was that millions and millions of people all over the world were struggling with worse conditions than E.M. had ever known.
“I think about how much injustice I feel, and what’s happened to my ancestors,” they said. “My cousins still have to go to the bathroom in a bucket in the woods, and they were on the land first. But then I think about people who have nothing, who don’t have voices at all, kids who are abused; how are they going to ever bridge to doing something they want to do? There’s folks out there who would look at me and think, [they have] running water, [they’re] tall and strong.”
In being humbled, E.M. discovered a continuity of human experience within which they could locate their own. And in doing so, they began to discern a purpose.
“I would literally sell my soul to help those kids I’ve seen playing in trash, who don’t have a meal,” they said. “If humans helped each other instead of exploiting each other for material gains, I feel like we’d have a better world. But I can only examine myself deeply. So, I try to live out what other people should do.”
With a laugh, E.M. acknowledges this is an absurdly grand purpose to attach to a meme account. But E.M. is also an artist, and is a person who has been touched by art; who has been made to feel less alone by something beautiful a stranger created. And this project of modeling an uncompromisingly ethical life infuses all of E.M.’s endeavours.
“Creating a space for others with art and music — it’s like a language that you can create the way no one else can,” they said. "No one else can use a brush like you, can play the piano like you, can create an atmosphere — and share that with someone else. That creates a space, can communicate god or existence to other people, some of the deepest emotions that English or Cree could never communicate.”
Part of the idea behind @ecuadmemes, E.M. said, is to acknowledge and make light of the shared pain of a very specific sphere of existence. And in doing so, to defang it.
“It’s important that people keep [making art], that everyone keeps doing that,” they said. “I want people at the school to keep making more stuff. It could help someone else. Because people just need encouragement. A little encouragement helps so much. If everyone did that, I feel like we’d have a lot better of a world.”
Calling out what they see as symptoms of institutional indifference, of course, is also part of the job.
“As students that are participating in this city and giving this school money to operate, it’s our talent that gets written about to get other people to come to school here,” they said, implicitly framing both the university and the city as participatory systems, rather than monolithic structures.
“Yet there are giant wooden beams on the ceiling [of the university] while some students can’t eat. I didn’t own a computer, then there was a fire, then there was COVID. And I’m expected to do my homework? I think it’s OK to push at some of these things.”
This perspective is earned, rather than adopted. In coming to school at ECU (a choice made because E.M. had a path to Canadian citizenship, and post-secondary in the U.S. is more expensive than in Canada), E.M. has struggled harder than most. For a long time, they were living in a car, since they had money for rent or tuition, but not both.
And yet, neither idealism nor outrage are the only fuel for @ecuadmemes; E.M, despite their keen awareness of their place in the world, is still struggling to find a community.
“As a person, I feel very overlooked,” they said. “I’ve come to this space where kids have so much opportunity and so much privilege, and so many of them just kind of waste it … I reach out to other artists, nobody responds to me, nobody participates. So, I have to package things in this funny envelope to get people to listen.”
@ecuadmemes, E.M. notes, was started on a whim, when they saw how much attention other meme accounts drew from fellow students. The attention @ecuadmemes swiftly gained within the student community brought E.M. closer to the feeling of affinity and rapport they’d been seeking. And it affirmed that the act of speaking their truth could be a powerful tool for affecting the change E.M. wished to see in the world.
“They’re hand in hand, being an agent of change and creating community,” they said. “I’m definitely frustrated and I think other people are feeling frustrated as well. But what’s wrong with just saying what you’re really thinking? It’s true to my experience. Some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had have been doing things I don’t want to do. So, when I push so hard into the uncomfortable, I believe it can change people’s lives.”