Finding a picture of Will Ye is a difficult task. The first-year student, who in his short time at Duke has amassed something of a cult following through the Facebook meme-sharing group “Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens,” has made invisibility a defining feature of his online presence. His profile video, a blurry childhood photo that alternately gyrates and zooms in on itself in a dizzying, infinite loop, has taken on iconic proportions within the group. For those who don’t know him personally, it’s the only evidence of a human behind the prolific sharing.
When I met Ye to talk about his modest celebrity status, I was struck by the humility of his demeanor in comparison to his online persona. The element of mystery, he explained, is a conscious choice—it keeps the Internet world separate from the real one, the way it should be. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, he declined to provide a photo of his face for this feature.)
“Once you take memes and you make them real-life, it’s kind of awkward. It’s not as funny. If you mention memes out loud, it’s kind of weird, actually,” Ye said. “I don’t want people recognizing me outside and being like, ‘Hey, are you the meme guy?’—and it happens often enough. I just want to keep that down to a degree, try to be really low-key outside of Facebook. I want to maintain that. It’s pretty funny how people don’t know who I am.”
Ye, a computer science major skilled at programming and video-editing, earned his reputation long before coming to Duke. His first forays into the bizarre world of memes came in the form of editing so-called montage parodies, a brand of video that throws various elements of pop culture and gaming into a single, whiplash-inducing production. In high school, he became known as the “meme guy” thanks to his hobby. He managed to get Snapchat to accept a geofilter reading “House of Memes” that he created as a joke. Even his essay for the Common Application centered around an absurd online prank: Ye programmed a bot that automatically retweeted any Tweets that mentioned, of all things, garlic.
Hoping to create an outlet for his passion once at Duke but, as a freshman, wary of causing a stir, Ye was instrumental in getting the Facebook meme group off the ground along with sophomores Molly Chen and Yoon Ko. Early on, Ye said, the group consisted largely of reposted content. But by explicitly tailoring posts toward the Duke experience, he aimed to set a standard for original, Duke-specific content on the page. Consequently, he has felt less of a need to consistently post new memes—two months ago, posts by the mysterious “Will Ye” were nearly ubiquitous. These days, a steady group of contributors offer content that rivals Ye’s.
“Now, people think of memes when they see an event, and I think that’s pretty cool,” Ye said, mentioning popular subjects like Pratt’s E-Ball and the recent inchworm infestation on campus. “I’m happy that our meme group’s kind of self-sufficient. I could probably disappear forever and we’d still have really funny content.”
But even as the rest of the group has risen to match him, Ye’s output has hardly disappeared. “Waiting on Will Ye to post a new meme” has itself become a meme of sorts, and his posts still gather many hundreds of reactions on a regular basis, a feat few others can claim.
“[People] always ask me: ‘So do you actually go to class? Do you have hobbies or something?’” Ye said. “Truth be told, I don’t spend as much time on memes as people think. I feel like when I try to think of a meme, it kind of forces it. Meme ideas should be out of the blue, something that hits you.”
The creation of a typical meme for Ye consists of two parts. The first is relatively fixed: every meme is built off a recurring template or format, which lends the medium its virus-like ability to reproduce itself. These templates come and go by the vagaries of the Internet hive mind—think Mr. Krabs, hooded Kermit or the already-passé “wot in tarnation.” The second part varies more: connecting the theme to a common event or experience. It’s this relevance factor that makes a meme land, separating an idea that only sounds funny in one’s head to something that resonates with a community.
“The more relevant something is, the more humorous it is,” Ye said. “You could have a really funny template, you could have a really funny idea, but if you don’t have a clever connection, it’s not going to get the effect you want.”
Often, this connection is hard to come by—to his estimation, Ye scraps nearly a third of the memes he creates. Even so, he has put together such a prolific output and gained such a reputation in barely a year at Duke that I asked if he was worried about burning out.
“If I fade into obscurity, honestly, I’m fine with that. In the end, the meme group is just something fun, something that brings humor to other people, and not a way to boost my popularity,” he said. “If I wanted to boost my popularity, I would use my actual face—I’d get high fives around campus. The point is just to make people laugh.”
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It’s worth noting that so much of Ye’s popularity is predicated on the fact that no one knows his actual face—if the opposite were true, the cult of Will Ye would be no cult at all. Ye’s online brand is so imbued with the trappings of the memes he creates as to be indistinguishable from them. And like them, his moment could pass just as quickly as it began. (The Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away.)
Whether or not his presence remains a force on Duke’s corner of Facebook, his legacy there remains intact. He has helped establish memes on campus as a mode of expression that, in 2017, stands as one of the few ways to collectively express the in-jokes, the grievances, the ridiculousness of life at Duke—a place that, for all its self-serious splendor, could afford to be laughed at.