On Wednesday morning before 11 a.m., a man was stabbed in a private apartment complex a stone’s throw from campus. At 6 p.m., the police chief held a press conference about the ongoing, multi-department manhunt for a suspect who fled the scene.
In the seven hours in between, the Cornell community reacted strongly on social media — not to the stabbing, but to a series of alerts sent out by the CornellALERT system.
The system, implemented in 2007, sends out text and email alerts to students on and off-campus, as well as automated voice calls. After the stabbing, the notification system sent out up to three voice calls and up to 13 text messages — including one every half hour — to all users signed up for alerts to avoid the Lake Street area, where the incident took place. Eight emails also went out to every member of the Cornell email system.
There is no way to unsubscribe from the alerts, the emails said. Cornell made phone sign-up mandatory earlier this year.
“I was really shocked at first and then I texted all of my friends to make sure they were okay,” Ashley Lewis ’21. Lewis was hundreds of miles away from campus, interning at Weill Cornell in New York City. She said she received 11 texts, two phone calls and seven emails, many of which didn’t contain any new information.
The announcement that the road was closed due to a stabbing came at 11:39 a.m. From 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., no updates were provided, but alerts continued.
At 12:56 p.m., about two hours after the stabbing, Facebook saw its first meme.
Almost two dozen more followed. With captions such as “Cornell stop texting me” and “Cornell literally blowing up our phones from the Gun Hill incident,” they made in-jokes about the situation.
“It was one of the rare moments where literally everyone in this 22,000 person campus was united and had something in common,” said Jack Ross-Pilkington ’21 in a Facebook message. Ross-Pilkington is Cornell meme page royalty, with a “visual storyteller” badge next to his name proclaiming that he “consistently share[s] images or videos that people value.”
With Cornell students spread out across the globe, they connected through their shared experience of the texts and robocalls, posting humorously on Facebook, Instagram and Reddit about the bombardment of alerts.
At 4 p.m., Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 confirmed that 24-year-old Kennan Orson Michael Paul had died from his injuries.
‘Just a meme?’
One of the first memes, posted at 1:06 p.m., came prepared with a disclaimer: “I hope only the best for anyone injured/affected by the crime. This is just a meme.”
Students seemed clear on what “just a meme” meant — it’s a joke, nothing more. And whatever the memes were, they were popular, many with dozens of comments and hundreds of “like” or “haha” reactions.
But after the news broke that the victim had died, some Cornellians criticized others for making light of a crime that resulted in the death of a man only a few years older than most students.
Matthew Pereza ’18, who was in Ithaca during the incident, told The Sun that he had “great disappointment” in students’ reactions.
“People in the meme page have been … making this text stream a big ordeal for them while being extremely insensitive to the victim(s) living in Ithaca,” he told The Sun in a Facebook message.
“It felt morally ambiguous to make a meme about it because crime is a serious event,” Andy Kim ’22 told The Sun. “But [I] also thought that I could lighten the mood.”
From California, Kim posted a meme in the style of “never forget”, with a mock combat picture of Oscar the Grouch in wartime alongside the street address featured in the alerts. It was funny, commentators said, and well-received with nearly 500 reactions.
On Friday, at the urging of Pereza, Kim took the meme down. He told The Sun prior to deleting the picture that he didn’t really mind the alerts, because the information was crucial in such tense situations and it could have helped people nearby.
Ross-Pilkington, the top commenter, told The Sun that — looking back — all of the memes about the situation were “very weird.” Ross-Pilkington was posting from New York City.
“Someone got badly hurt,” he said. “And in a sense I kind of regret making light of it.”
Meme culture is an especially strong epidemic among college students, who are privy to widespread jokes on topics that affect the college campus. Popular memes in the page’s past have spoofed Cornell Health wait times and Collegetown housing woes.
The “Any Person: Any Meme” page has over 32,000 members — current, future and past Cornellians alike.
Research has shown that prolonged exposure to violence, often through the news cycle, can result in desensitization towards violent events. A 2011 Stanford study showed that humans like to use jokes to cope with traumatic images, which can create positive feelings.
“As many [people] know, the internet is one hell of a place to gather and dehumanize things,” Pereza said. “And so that’s why I am trying to be patient with other people.”
And posts relating to trials on campus are similar to an extended inside joke, Ross-Pilkington said, that lets people feel like they’re all in it together.
“Cornell is very large and diverse, and sometimes it’s hard to find things that unite the entire campus,” Ross-Pilkington said. “And I think it’s an [innate] human desire to express our shared community.”
Lewis, in New York, said that the alerts sparked a conversation among her friends about safety on campus. Lake Street, from University Avenue to Lincoln, was closed for over four hours.
As of Friday night, police had a felony warrant out for 28-year-old Denzil Cummings, who is wanted for the murder of Kennan Paul.