Chicago Magazine Ι March 29, 2018
When a member of the Facebook group “New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens” (NUMTOT), posted an article about Paris officials considering making the city’s buses and trains free, people were excited. One commenter: “Yo, I deadass just got a little horny.” But what followed further down the comment thread was a grad-school level discussion of induced demand, behavioral economics, and the need to set price floors for public services.
Another member asked what the oldest public transit vehicles still in use are, and got half a dozen answers in multiple countries within 45 minutes, with pictures. Yet another discussion centered on how to improve transit in places with low voter turnout to get more people to the polls. But an article about an Uber self-driving car that killed a pedestrian in Arizona came with the trollish, “If this happened to me I’d give it 5 stars.”
NUMTOT, which has amassed thousands of members in one year and was founded by University of Chicago students, “has a schizoid identity,” says Emily Orenstein, one its founders. Per its online home, it’s pop-culture meme snark crossed with niche graduate school Thought Leadership. The group’s most hilarious moments happen when these streams converge, applying elbow-patched academic remove to nonexistent objects of pop-culture speculation. One post asked if other members got excited at the end of the Black Panther movie because they hoped the hero’s announcement of a community center to be built in a poor Oakland neighborhood would entail the construction high-quality public housing. Another member urged everyone to please retain their composure. “In the interest of fairness, we don’t know the details of this outreach center. Taken in context of Wakanda’s larger opening up to the world, we don’t know if this is going to have extraterritorial status, function as a consulate, etc.”
One NUMTOT testimonial summed it up: “I joined this group expecting memes and all I got was the equivalent of a bachelor’s in urban planning.”
NUMTOT was started by Juliet Eldred, Orenstein, and Jonathan Marty. Eldred and Orenstein were both geography students at the University of Chicago. (Eldred graduated in June. Orenstein is a junior). The group was formed as spin-off of a geography Facebook group that Eldred started, “I Feel Personally Attacked by this Relatable Map.” A conversation there pulled in Jane Jacobs and urban planning, so someone asked, “Where’s the new urbanist shitposting?” recalls Orenstein. (“Shitposting” refers to posts that are meant to be awkward and irrelevant, aggravating and distracting social media communities from discussing their topic at hand. But this definition has loosened, as more and more people on social media have starting aping shitposters’ anarchic comedic stylings, and at NUMTOT, it seems to refer to the mismatch in tone between the professional transit establishment and the kids laughing when a dog tweets, “a car is a metal ravioli and you are the meat!”)
In any case, they set the group up on March 14, 2017, during finals, no less. Today it has more the 61,000 members.
There’s a strong lefty bent to the group, imploring for public funds dedicated to transit, at a high cost to the rich, and it can be an exceptionally emo and affirming place. (When a member announced that they were sad because they’d encountered a broken bus stop signal pull chain during their ride, another member chimed in: “You can still pull it and personally know that you requested a stop,” adding cryptically, “Maybe it’ll come in handy to be only one who knows.”)
Posts complain about poor transit service and design and examine urban development policy, with a special focus on curios, oddballs, and weird juxtapositions, like Dungeons and Dragons alignment charts that spell out transit lines’ essential character in accordance with the famous role-playing game. (Paris’ M4 subway line is “Chaotic Good” because, “It’s old and cranky, sometimes stinky, sometimes overcrowded, but it traverses Paris from north to south really fast,” group member Matthieu Gaillard explained to me.)
Which is to say, NUMTOT is a completely prototypical example of Internet humor. It’s a lexicon borrowed from existing meme cultures (Thomas the Tank Engine is obviously irresistible to transit teens), which it further mutates. Taking a cue from the fertile field of dog meme content, a dirigible is a “floatiboi,” and Washington, DC’s street grid with axial diagonal boulevards is a “diagonal boi.” The exclamation “peak transit” is applied to a kid sitting on a scooter suspended in the air by subway strap handles on a train.
Right on time, NUMTOT’s humor has taken on a meta-turn, focusing on its own idiosyncrasies. The group’s banner image is currently a transit map designed by member Mitchell Sheldrick where every station is labeled with a reference to one of its many in-jokes. There’s “Thomas the Tank Engine Discourse,” “Amtracc” (as in “thicc”), and the all-purpose “Suck it Cars.” “Something Something Chicago Supremacy” refers to the site’s earliest history being Chicago-centric.
“We thought that this was a really niche topic,” says Eldred, “but we realized that it met a need that wasn’t being met by an existing group.”
But in an Internet where everything is niche, nothing is niche, and the emergence of “Weird Facebook” over the last several years has helped this spread. Absurdist postmodern riffing didn’t get started on the most widely used social media platform, but it’s been trickling in from more niche social media sites like Reddit and Twitter. Eldred says the group function in Facebook has enabled niche groups like this to flourish, creating a “self-contained ecosystem.” And Weird Facebook is a decently counter-cultural place from which to lob bombs at the lame-o suburbanites pounding their fists on their steering wheel with impotent rage as they crawl along congesting freeways.
Eldred says the key to NUMTOT’s popularity is that dealing with (and suffering through) transit is universal. Whether you’ve been a pawn in a faceless bureaucrat’s game of Public Transit Disaster, or a stymied automobile commuter wishing for options beyond spending much of your life in a fast car moving very slowly, NUMTOT has a place for you. “These are things that almost everyone can identify with,” she says. She’s largely been one of the group living within public transit, looking out. “I’ve literally been a transit-oriented teen since birth,” she says. A native New Yorker with a “spatial brain,” she would give family friends advice on how to navigate the subways at age 4.
True to its name, the group’s composition is nearly as youthful. Orenstein says Facebook tells them that 40 percent of group members are 18-25 years old. And she guesses that about 25 percent of members work in transit-related fields.
The divide between degreed experts and people who stand around exclaiming “Wow!” with child-like glee as a model train exists a tunnel (as one bit of video depicted) is one the group’s admins have to patrol. “Most people don’t know that highway planning in America has historically been racist,” says Eldred, and they have to remind commenters of this fact when someone blithely steps into their masters’ thesis.
“There are a lot of times we have to remind people, ‘Hey, this is a memes page. Don’t take it too seriously,’” says Orenstein.
Dozens of people have taken NUMTOT seriously enough to emulate it. Eldred estimates it’s generated 20 to 50 spin-offs. While I was perusing the group, one member mused: “Ok so my art history class is quickly turning into an ancient urban planning/architecture class and I’m truly inspired so who wants to start an Ancient Urban Memes subpage w me.” Two days later, “Old Urbanist Memes for Chariot Riding Teens”popped up. It currently has nearly 200 members. Other spinoffs include, “Form and Function Memes for Architectural Teens,” “Two-Wheeled Memes for Bicycled-Oriented Teens,” and one of several city-based subgroups “Columbian Memes for Congressionally Disenfranchised Teens” (about Washington, DC), which is not to be confused with “Pre-Columbian Memes for Maize-Cultivating Teens.”