Meet the Young Men and Women Fighting for Nature, One Meme at a Time
For Richard “Rhett” Barker, it must have been the moth memes.
“Memes about moths were trending across the internet, and we decided we would pretend that the “Wild Green Memes” page had been taken over by moths,” recalls Barker, then a recent graduate of the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville, Fla., and the founder-moderator of the Facebook group “Wild Green Memes for Ecological Fiends”. “The moderators, or ‘mods’, didn’t say anything, but we only let through moth memes for a few days, and then when the members started to comment on the change I switched the cover photo with a lamp and started commenting in moth-speak, as if they had taken over my brain.”
As real wildlife enthusiasts would understand, the Lotka-Volterra equations soon kicked in. “At the end of the week, we told people to post bat memes as a biological control.” Nature dictates that bats, faced with an abundance of prey, would soon spawn and proliferate.
Barker and the mods might have eventually controlled the moth memes with various degrees of success while giving their friends in the Gainesville natural resources community a few laughs, but they overlooked something:
“Wild Green Memes” is blooming at a breakneck pace. And people are taking note.
How does a group of students run a diverse nation that never sleeps?
Founded in June 2017, “Wild Green Memes” has swelled into arguably the world’s largest group of wildlife ecologists and enthusiasts, with over 140,000 members as of December 2019. This is a number larger than 18 countries and fourteen times the member size of the Ecological Society of America, “The nation’s largest community of professional ecologists”.
What began as an attempt to joke and connect with UF Wildlife peers has become a truly global endeavor. Three of the top five cities with the most members are located in Australia, while newly industrialized countries (and ecological hotspots) Brazil, the Philippines, and Mexico are ranked in the top seven.
...something that starts out small can grow and even if it isn’t a traditional route, it can become a force for change and make a difference in the world. -- Iona Hennessy
Managing a tribe of mostly Millennials and Gen Z’ers is no easy feat. Luckily, Barker has help on the way.
Gary Sansone and Megan Ellis-Sansone had been close friends with “The Modfather”. “Rhett is an old friend and I was pretty active in mutual meme groups,” as Gary explained. “I was added as a mod after I graduated college since I would have more time to help, but I’ve known Rhett and his family for years before that. We’re from the same home town.” echoed Megan. Megan has told their story many times: The two mods met when they were fourth-graders and somehow got in the same middle school classes, graduated together as valedictorians in high school and ended up at UF. They tied the knot in April 2019; a congratulatory post by Barker on the group earning over 5,400 reactions.
Speaking of enthusiastic members, a number of them have “memed” their way into becoming mods. Curtis Sarkin, McKenzie Toth, and Iona Hennessy fall into this category. Each of them brought various skillsets; in Sarkin’s case, it was his art skills. “When the group was a lot smaller, I designed a cover photo and the mods liked it enough to have me join the squad.” Toth never majored in ecology but has been a herpetology enthusiast. “I met Rhett and a few of the other admins and mods at UF through various herpetology events. After being a regular posting member for a while, I was invited to be a moderator and was so stoked to accept!” Hennessy had a similar experience. “A toucan arrived at my window one day with a scroll attached to its leg that said ‘WGM’. Just kidding; I had been a longtime member and submitted lots of memes and one day Rhett messaged me and asked me if I wanted to be a Moderator and I haven’t looked back.” The group now has 22 admins and mods, overwhelmingly represented by the American Southeast, an ode to its Floridan roots. (It also doesn’t hurt that nearly all of them know each other in real life.)
Balancing mod duties with the daily workload as students and early career professionals can be a challenge. Take Toth as an example. “As a veterinary student at the University of Georgia, my schedule is highly variable so my time investment fluctuates a lot. Before I started clinics I spent upwards of an hour a day adding members and approving content. Now I am busier; my day usually involves waking up early, heading to the vet hospital, and reading through WGM messages during my lunch or bathroom breaks and hopping onto a chat or doing small tasks when I have some spare minutes.”
“I think part of the beauty of our admin and mod team is that we have such a variety of jobs and lifestyles. We all give some advance when we’re going to be minimally involved for a while, so other mods can step in and help more if needed. We have various group chats on Facebook that we coordinate between. On our friendly chat, some of us have early morning discussions before we head to work, the night owls have discussions late at night, but we are all transiently involved in each other’s day or week somehow. On the casual chatting group message, people are talking almost all day about any variety of topics. Pictures of toucan-related things are a common occurrence. We will talk about submissions we got a hundred times in the queue, share exciting things going on in our lives, or send a funny non-wild/ green/ ecological meme we found. If there's a big issue on the page that needs addressing, people will tune into the formal business group message to weigh in.”
Or as concisely summarized by Sarkin, “Wake up. Check the group chat. Approve some memes. Be a responsible adult. Approve more memes to avoid being a responsible adult. Make some memes to avoid being a responsible adult. Approve some members. Send something dumb to the group chat. Sleep. Wake up. Check the group chat.”
One might notice that toucans have been thrown around frequently by the mods. That is the legacy left behind by a defining moment of the group’s history. When asked about the issue, Barker, Sarkin, and Hennessy refused to divulge, providing a tongue-in-cheek written statement of “It’s the Year of the Toucan” instead.
Meanwhile, The Sansones are happier to explain.
“Basically the Toucan Wars were a joke the mods pulled on the community, similar to with the moth memes. We started calling for and making toucan-specific memes, and we eventually escalated to temporarily changing the name of the group to Toucan Memes for Ecological Fiends. We decided we would see if we could completely arbitrarily convince people that 2019 was the Year of the Toucan--we could not. ” said Megan.
“The thing about large groups though is that you are limited in how often you can change important group info, so the group was a Toucan meme group for a month or so,” added Gary.
Megan was taken aback by the reaction of some of the members. “It was really surprising to me to see how passionately some people responded to the name change, partly because I wasn’t aware anyone cared that much about the group, and partly because we had actually changed the name of the group as a joke five times previously. I think the main issue there was that more than half of the members had joined in the last month or two and didn’t really understand how the group worked in general.”
Gary observed a subtle shift in demographics. “Some people joined thinking we were all toucan enthusiasts, others left because they got annoyed.”
These fads and spontaneous controversies certainly contributed to the exploding popularity of the group. Toth admitted that it has been a learning experience learning to manage a large group of people: “I’ve learned a lot about conflict resolution and taking criticism from WGM. During my time as a mod, I’ve learned that there will always be SOMEONE on the internet who’s going to hate a post and trolls who want to be disruptive for the fun of it. We try to communicate well with members during conflict whether it be a rude comment, a dispute that turns nasty, or someone being openly racist, homophobic, et cetera. Having a team of people to discuss how to diplomatically deal with a scenario when someone is being a jerk has been a lesson in conflict resolution with me for sure.”
This has been the same for Megan: “Wild Green Memes has definitely helped sharpen my skills of managing sensitive conversations in a professional, courteous manner. You never stop learning, and you should always strive to improve yourself by learning more and being open.”
While memes could be fun (and oftentimes divisive), the mods realized the real-life impact of the community right from the get-go.
“Through events like a "gang war" fundraiser where we had people make memes and donate to a wildlife charity in the name of their favorite group of organisms, we raised over a thousand dollars, and Herpetology Gang won!” said Barker.
Added Hennessy: “ Wild Green Memes started out as just a fun meme page but as it got more popular we realized we had lots of power to be the change we want to see in the world so we’re using this platform to do just that. And of course, provide quality memes along the way.”
For Sarkin’s friends, family and colleagues outside of the group, although fundraising through memes is a novel idea, they are slowly getting the hang of it. “I’ve had to explain what memes are to some and what ecology is to others. They don’t always get the humor if they aren’t in the group, but they get that I’m passionate about it, and are happy about our conservation fundraising success.”
That is one of the reasons why Barker and some of the mods are starting a podcast. “We have an annual fundraiser every fall to help organizations purchase and maintain land for conservation, but I was thinking: with 90,000 people, what is a way to keep helping conservation efforts all year round, without asking people for money all the time? What we landed on was creating a podcast, with Patreon and ads attached, and using the profits to support projects.”
90,000 people is enough to do almost anything! -- Rhett "The ModFather" Barker
Hennessy is also playing a significant role: “The podcast tries to make scientists and other prominent nature-related people accessible to our audience by interviewing them and playing games that help to reduce the perceived gap that science and nature are so inaccessible and show that science can be fun and is for everyone to enjoy. Personally, I’ve also had the opportunity to speak to some really cool people through the podcast so that’s been exciting as well.”
Barker gushes about the potential impact of the podcast.“Both the eastern and western monarch butterfly migrations are imperiled, largely for lack of milkweed. We could set up a grant program for native plant nurseries to grow and give out enormous quantities of their local species across the butterflies’ path. We could also give microloans to thousands of people in developing countries seeking to upgrade their stoves and use less wood, helping to curb deforestation. If even 30 or 40 % of the group listens, we could get enough ad revenue to save literally millions of acres of Peruvian rainforest!”
“We want to do good things in the least-serious way possible. We’re going to name our nonprofit WOWIE FROG, which will be an acronym for something, but will not cleanly fit any combination of words and is impossible to say with a straight face. Wouldn’t it be funny to force people on the news to say that over and over again if we really get to help save the monarchs or that land in Peru?”
Memes come and go as the water ebbs and flows. The average lifespan of a meme, in one estimate, is 4.017 months. The ever-growing graveyard of obsolete memes is equal parts nostalgic, equal parts cringe-inducing.
Just as the Year of the Toucan has flown by in a hurry, there could very well be a day when nobody cares whether fan favorites Reginald shows up on alternate Tuesdays or the Budgett’s frog reminds his dudes that it is Wednesday. Heck, in a 2018 Pew Research, 26% of adults deleted the Facebook app from their phones in the previous 12 months.
On the other hand, the millennials and Gen Z’ers who grew up with “Wild Green Memes” will one day graduate and settle down. They might have new familial responsibilities like the Sansones, or eventually begin their lifelong careers as ecologists, vets, or even filmmakers. Sure, many of these bright young men and women will fight for nature itself in various ways. But what happens next? Is “Wild Green Memes” sustainable?
When asked this question, some of the mods expressed cautious optimism.
“I don’t think that’s happening as much as some people think. We’ve been moving to other platforms to increase engagement, but the group is far from losing members. Especially not from people taking a break from Facebook,” said Gary.
Hennessy agreed. “We do have an Instagram and Twitter account, and now we have the podcast so there are other avenues for people to experience Wild Green Memes/., though Facebook will always be our home base. Even if people don’t use Facebook for anything else I know lots of people stay for the memes, not just from our group but in general, so I think there will always be an audience for memes on Facebook.”
Barker has no clue of what will happen though. “I have no idea where Wild Green Memes will really go-- Facebook could change how groups work tomorrow, even in a relatively small way, and Wild Green Memes might cease to function. On the other hand, maybe it’ll keep growing. Maybe we will get all the wildlife enthusiasts on Facebook in it. Maybe there will be a craze about Sea Hares, the coolest animal I just learned exists.”
But there are two things that they are very sure: they are making the most of their accidental opportunity to change the world for the better, and they are having some fun along the way.
“There’s a sort of support group function to Wild Green Memes--I think we can all relate to the feeling that we are facing massive problems, and no one is adequately responding. The group definitely provides a sense of solidarity in that frustration, as much as it provides a little escape from it. But 90,000 people is enough to do almost anything!” continued Barker.
Hennessy is grateful of how far they have come: “I’ve learned that something that starts out small can grow and even if it isn’t a traditional route, it can become a force for change and make a difference in the world.”
Part of the beauty of our admin and mod team is that we have such a variety of jobs and lifestyles. -- McKenzie Toth
Toth thinks that the growing diversity of the group is a hint of what’s to come. “The cool thing about our group is that we are all branching out into different walks of life, so I think we’ll be able to create digital content that reaches a huge variety of people for that reason. I’d love to have merchandise and even potential income from our internet presence that we could funnel into conservation as we did with our gang wars sticker fundraiser!”
The American South is often derided by outsiders for being the most susceptible to environmental and ecological disasters while being the least prepared and most reluctant to respond to them. However, for every toxic algal bloom and ban on plastic bag bans, there is still a cause for optimism made with systematic prescribed fires and uranium mining bans. “Wild Green Memes” and its young men and women, whether born and raised in Florida or transplants, are next in line to the great ecological wonders the South has to offer.
As “Wild Green Memes” continues to grow, the mods are discovering what they are capable of while savoring this unlikely ride. Who knows what will happen to themselves, the group, and the world in a couple of years?
Oh wait, maybe Sarkin does.
“All mods and members are replaced by actual toucans.”
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and style. All titles and statistics are accurate as of July 2019.
Disclaimer: The writer is a regular member of Wild Green Memes for Ecological Fiends.