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The Bruno Brief: Is BrownUMemes journalism? We ask the man behind the curtain

We sat down with Chas Steinbrugge, the student behind the BrownUMemes Instagram account, which has attracted a spike in attention in recent weeks from students and parents alike for its humorous content and critiques of the University. Here’s what he had to say.

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Ben Glickman

Welcome back to The Bruno Brief, a podcast from The Brown Daily Herald and WBRU. I'm Ben Glickman.

The Instagram account @brownumemes has taken the campus by storm in recent weeks. Sophomore Chas Steinbrugge is a one-man meme machine. After the University announced new COVID-19 restrictions two weeks ago, Steinbrugge’s account has been vocally critical of the administration, and he's gained over 1,000 followers. His video of Public Health School Dean Ashish Jha explaining that students should eat outdoors, edited against the backdrop of a thunderstorm on Patriot’s Court, has racked up almost 2,000 likes. 

Ashish Jha (via @brownumemes) 

Let's not eat indoors for a while. So you can grab your meal because, obviously, you can't wear a mask when you're eating. Grab your meal, sit outside with friends, that's an extraordinarily safe thing to do. 

Ben Glickman 

And his paparazzi-esque photo of Christina Paxson unmasked at a football game has stirred up controversy on campus. Steinbrugge, who has been creating memes since early high school on a page called Trigomemetry, has garnered over 7,000 followers to his @brownumemes account. We sat down with Chas in the studio to learn more about his recent popularity.

First of all, can you tell me how I should say your last name? 

Chas Steinbrugge

Steinbrugge. 

Ben Glickman 

Steinbrugge? 

Chas Steinbrugge 

Perfect. 

Ben Glickman 

Get The Herald delivered to your inbox daily.

Chas Steinbrugge.

Chas Steinbrugge 

Yeah.

Ben Glickman 

Chas Steinberger. Welcome to The Bruno Brief. 

Chas Steinbrugge

Thank you for having me. Happy to be here. 

Ben Glickman 

Can you briefly introduce yourself to the listeners? 

Chas Steinbrugge

My name is Chas, I run a few meme pages on Instagram and TikTok and recently started one called @brownumemes that has been posting content about campus life. 

Ben Glickman 

Tell me a little bit about how you got started with this meme page, in particular @brownumemes. And then tell us also about your other page that you have. 

Chas Steinbrugge

I started the account before I’d even come to Brown. And it was originally just for the class of 2024. Because, you know, we weren't on campus and I wanted to try to create more of a sense of community for us. And once I finally got to campus, I thought, you know, this content applies to other grades, I might as well change it from Brown 2024 memes to @brownumemes. I originally started in memes my freshman year of high school with an account called Trigomemetry. The mission of the account was to combat meme plagiarism — not a super big issue to most people, but one I sort of took hold of. So I posted credited Tweets with the permission of the author. And also with the help of a follower of mine, created a website called memecitation.com, that let people cite their own memes in MLA format. So that grew over time. And that's sort of where I got most of my meme experience before @brownumemes. 

Ben Glickman 

Part of that first meme account was creating meme explainer videos as well. 

Chas Steinbrugge (via @trigomemetry) 

So I'm going to make a few quick videos to help educate you all on meme history. Squidward dabbing was a huge meme in 2016. And it comes from this Vine from the Universal Studios amusement park. 

Ben Glickman 

So how big a role do memes and your accounts play in your daily life? Was that something that you talked about? Maybe on your college applications or anything like that, like, was that a big enough part of your life that it made it there? 

Chas Steinbrugge 

I think it was the one good selling point on the application. Actually, my admissions officer sent me an email and was like, I really liked the meme website. So yeah, no, it's a big part of my life. And it definitely becomes more or less important, just sort of in phases, I guess. The past week, for example, as @brownumemes has gained a lot of attention and followers and things like that. I've definitely been posting more. But there are also periods where I'm busy with, you know, schoolwork or personal life where I am less focused on it. 

Ben Glickman 

I think that there's been a lot of change in the last week.  Tell us a little bit about that. What has your past week been like?

Chas Steinbrugge 

So basically, the University released new COVID guidelines, and having my platform with about 5,700 followers at the time, I thought it'd be a good place to voice the concerns of the students in, you know, a meme, a condensed format, so that people could voice their frustrations with the new guidelines and just have a shareable way to talk about the new changes on campus. The growth, especially in response to the COVID policies, has been significant. I've gained over 1,000 followers in the past week. So the growth has definitely been quick. And you know, I think a lot of people are checking the content pretty consistently. 

Ben Glickman

I think that your page is right now an interesting mix between some more traditional meme content and pretty, I think, explicit criticism of the administration. I wonder if you could give me a definition of what you think a meme is. And if you think that your page is doing that or it's doing something else, maybe. 

Chas Steinbrugge

So I guess my definition of a meme is really any humorous Internet content that can be shared or parodied online, I'd say. And I definitely post things that aren't memes, I would say. I concede that point. I definitely want that account to have a foundation in memes, because I think I wanted it to be a fun place for people to have a laugh. But you know, at certain points, when I saw inconsistencies in University policy and things that I wasn't happy with, I thought it was a good place to share my concerns. So I definitely have a few posts that I wouldn't consider a meme and were more of just an outright criticism. And I think it's a good platform to post both of those things in unison. I think people responded well to alternating between, you know, humorous content, and then some concerns of the student body that they can give input on and share with others. 

Ben Glickman 

Some students agree with this assessment. Senior Staff Writer Rebecca Carcieri spoke with @brownumemes fan Nathan Ramrakhiani, class of 2023, about the account’s impact. 

Nathan Ramrakhiani 

It serves two purposes, one being it kind of allows people to healthily channel their frustration into maybe a little bit more of a socially acceptable format. And then two, I think it does give students, like, a little bit of a sense of power in terms of being able to kind of get back at the administration and get back whoever is doing whatever they're doing.

Ben Glickman 

With these new followers, tell us about how you've been kind of promoting your account around campus. 

Chas Steinbrugge

So I promoted a bunch with stickers and things like that, I've handed out a lot of stickers to classmates, and people that are interested in the account. And honestly, I've done most of my promotion just by creating more content, like making memes, recently, that appeal to parents made it go slightly viral in the parent Facebook group and drove in some traffic. 

Ben Glickman

I liked the idea of something going viral in a parent's group. 

Chas Steinbrugge

It was an honor, I'd never experienced that before. 

Ben Glickman 

What do you think parents liked about that? I mean, have you gained a lot of followers from them? 

Chas Steinbrugge

So one of the biggest jumps in followers — probably I've ever had — was when my account was screenshotted, and posted in a parent's Facebook group. So I woke up and just saw, I was getting a lot of followers in sequence, which was kind of bizarre. And just looking at the profiles, I could kind of tell they were parents, maybe just created an Instagram account or something. They were clearly not students. So I think parents were angry about the new guidelines on Facebook. To have this meme account news source on what the school is getting wrong about the COVID guidelines, I think it was really helpful and engaging for them. Because you know, they only know what their kids are telling them in the short term. In the moment, like the night the restrictions came out, I posted, like, one or two times with a lot of content. 

Ben Glickman 

In the context that maybe some parents who are angry at the administration might be following, how would you respond to a critique that certain posts could be critical without any sort of productive element to it?

Chas Steinbrugge

Yeah, that's a fair judgment. The way I see a lot of the things I'm posting, it's like, should the student body know that this is happening? You know, I'm definitely interested in getting more involved in student government and things like that, and, you know, coming to solutions to these things. For now, I think it is important for people to know these kinds of things, you know, it's definitely critical, a lot of my posts. But giving people this information, you know, allows them to form their own opinion. And, you know, hopefully in the future, we can be more active in helping shape University policies.

Ben Glickman 

Yeah, I wonder, have you found that people are receptive to that? Are there people who maybe would prefer, you stick to kind of funny memes about campus life, that kind of thing? 

Chas Steinbrugge

So I think people are happy to have a place where, when the University does something they're not happy with, they know there's this social media account that will respond to it, call it out, maybe have a meme or two. But I think people like the instantaneous response, as opposed to other publications on campus that, you know, take a little longer to get news out. So I don't think there's been much negative feedback, just because I'm filling a niche, and two areas that previously weren't filled on campus. 

Ben Glickman 

Can memes be an effective new source? Nathan seems to think so. 

Nathan Ramrakhiani 

The memes are, honestly, part of the way I get my news in these cases, because I hear about them on @brownumemes before I hear about them in a published article. Memes are a very fast way of getting information out. 

Ben Glickman 

Chas, I think that you raise an interesting point about publications not being as instantaneous, as, say, a social media account like yours. Do you think that you kind of have some sort of ethical responsibility? Kind of as someone who's reporting these “news facts”? Or do you see yourself as separate from that? 

Chas Steinbrugge

I think because of how short my posts are, I'm usually reporting opinions in these criticisms that, you know, don't rely on that many facts that I need to check. Like, if I think it's bad, that they're like big mountains of trash around campus, I can just go out, take pictures of it and see it. I know that's true, and I feel comfortable making a post immediately about it. So I think when you're writing longer form content, you know, you need editors, you need a lot of people to look at it, because, you know, it's more fact-based content, whereas mine is humorous. It's a little more opinionated. So I think they're less it could just be me voicing my opinions. 

Ben Glickman 

We have student publications — the Brown Daily Herald, for example — and activists who try to hold the administration to account. How do you think you fit in with these other groups? Do you think that that brings some responsibilities to you, as someone who's doing that similar work, even though like you said, it might be on a shorter time frame? 

Chas Steinbrugge

I definitely have responsibilities, you know, making sure that things I am commenting on are accurate is definitely important. But I think I definitely have similar obligations in a sense that I need to bring up issues that are important enough to bring to the attention of the student body and other similar things, making sure I'm focusing on important issues within the University. But when it comes to, you know, other publications — and I'm not entirely sure what the Daily Herald processes are like, and other publications — but I think a lot of it comes down to the length of the content, and the amount of facts that are in the content and things like that. In the modern social media environment, when you're posting a picture and adding a one-sentence caption, I think it's okay to be faster when releasing that content, because it's presenting less facts and leaving a lot more up to the viewer to come to their own conclusions. 

Ben Glickman 

I wonder, have you had any contact with the University, maybe about some of your posts that were more critical or about the account in general? I do think it's kind of ironic that your memes played a role in you coming to Brown. And now you're kind of a vocal critic of the administration, if you are okay with me labeling it that way. 

Chas Steinbrugge

Yeah. So it's definitely a bit ironic that they accepted me based on memes, and now I sort of use them to critique the University. In high school, I ran my student council social media pages in a very similar way with, you know, memes and then more serious criticisms of the school. So I think I was honest in my application and my background on memes and interest in getting involved in student life. And no, I haven't been reached out to by the administration. But I'm always happy to talk to anyone who works for the school.

Ben Glickman 

So what kind of impact do you think your account has had on your class specifically? Because, obviously, you guys came here in unique circumstances with the COVID pandemic. You mentioned before that you wanted to kind of bring a sense of community? Do you think that you've done that for your class or for Brown as a whole? 

Chas Steinbrugge

I mean, I don't want to take too much credit. At the end of the day, it can only help so much and bring a sense of community. But you know, I've had people tell me that it's helped them feel connected to all these students, you know, when they first got here, and we all got here in isolation back in January. So I think it's helped a lot to just like, show students how much more there is at Brown, because, you know, during the pandemic, we can't have as big of gatherings, we can't be together as much. And so to be able to congregate online, and you know, share these funny stories and frustrations, and you know, all these emotions about the University. I think it's helping people feel at home when they come to this new place during such difficult circumstances. 

Ben Glickman 

Let's talk about some of your posts. I wonder if you have any favorite content you’ve produced recently? I know in the past day, you've been posting a few videos of skunks in various community buildings. So what do you think is your favorite content that you put out there? 

Chas Steinbrugge

Yeah, I have tons of favorites. Bringing up the skunks, one of my favorite posts recently is definitely the skunk that went into the Ratty. [Ambient noise from Ratty] Because I love light-hearted, not too controversial “news” that I can post. You know, a skunk walked into the Ratty, and we got a picture of it. So I said “breaking news,” sort of sarcastically. And I’d say that's definitely one of my favorite types of content to make. Like when Keeney got struck by lightning, and the chimney exploded, it was exciting for me to like, gather photos of that and post it immediately for people to see. 

Ben Glickman 

I want to finish with this question: How do you feel about what your page has become and grown to be over this past year of you running it? 

Chas Steinbrugge

It's gone way better than I could have expected. I'm really happy with, you know, sort of the niches I'm filling on campus and, you know, providing a sort of new form of campus comedy or even lighthearted journalism on certain issues. So, you know, I think just where things are headed, you know, in the entire country, having a meme account, you know, post things like this, I think is just representative of where social media is going and how students enjoy consuming content. So I think I'm definitely working toward things I'm passionate about with all my content and hopefully improving the information economy on campus. 

Ben Glickman 

Chas Steinbrugge, thanks so much for being on The Bruno Brief. 

Chas Steinbrugge

Yeah, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

Ben Glickman 

This has been The Bruno Brief. Our show is produced by Livi Burdette, Corey Gelb-Bicknell, Max Karpawich, Katy Pickens and me, Ben Glickman. If you like what you hear, subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts, and leave a review. Thanks so much for listening. We'll see you next week.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

____________________

This episode was produced by Olivia Burdette, Ben Glickman, Corey Gelb-Bicknell, Max Karpawich and Katy Pickens.

Music:

Denzel Sprak by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Palms Down by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Lesser Gods of Metal by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)



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