(Images created by Katie DeWitt)
Two weeks ago, Katie DeWitt was a normal freshman at Emerson College, not the kind of student who attracts stares and whispers in the hallway. But that changed on Oct. 3, when DeWitt accidentally became a campus celebrity.
The theater design major should have been asleep at 3 a.m. that Monday, but after six hours’ work on her drafting homework, she returned to her dormitory suite and stayed awake having a “laptop party” with roommates Remi Moses and Hannah Mattison and Mattison’s boyfriend, Aaron Rivin.
As the students sat around talking and using their computers for homework and social networking, DeWitt said it would be funny if someone created an Emerson-specific version of the “Advice Dog” internet meme, in which an image of a dog’s head is shown on a rainbow background, framed by words giving humorous, often absurd instructions.
The others immediately began suggesting Emerson inside jokes that such a character could make, spurring DeWitt to action. She placed a photo of a lion, the school’s mascot, against a field of gold and purple, the school colors, and Emerson Kid Lion was born.
DeWitt made several images that night. She can’t recall which came first, but among the earliest was “I see your quad and raise you a Will & Grace set” — a reference to the college’s lack of open space and to the sitcom living room donated to its library by show co-creator Max Mutchnick, a 1987 Emerson grad.
She posted the first set of about 10 images on her personal Facebook page, and within minutes friends began responding with posts calling for more images and suggestions for new slogans. The next morning, she woke up with 43 Facebook notifications and 17 friend requests.
“By Wednesday I was a campus celebrity,” DeWitt said. “It was insane. I was getting recognized, like in ‘Inception,’ whenever Ellen Page is walking around in Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream, and people are looking at her — it felt like that. Because people are like, ‘I know who she is, but I don’t really know who she is.’ ”
The responses continued to pour in through social media. In the past 12 days, DeWitt has had almost 100 Facebook friend requests. She has heard from upperclassmen and alumni who were impressed that a freshman had such perceptive observations about campus life. But even prospective students know the meme — one of DeWitt’s roommates overheard a tour group talking about it.
And some faculty caught on quickly as well. DeWitt heard from a friend that a professor mentioned Emerson Kid Lion in a lecture, which naturally led to a new image: “Intro to writing teacher brings up EKL. Poker face.”
DeWitt said the idea for Emerson Kid Lion had germinated for about a week, as she thought over those daily experiences she and her classmates shared and considered to be typically — and uniquely — Emersonian. The college’s small enrollment, with fewer than 3,500 undergraduates, and its unusual urban campus create ample fodder for inside jokes and observations about the school’s quirks.
“I think we’re such a small, little close-knit group that that’s the reason why it caught on so quickly, and that’s why someone like a freshman can catch on to all these things,” Dewitt said. “Because it’s just such a welcoming community and it’s really easy to get in on a group. Feel like a — I guess like a family. We’re just a really close bunch.”
The meme also spread quickly, DeWitt believes, because today’s Emerson students are living simultaneously in the physical world and the online world, moving back and forth between the two in a constant dialogue with one another that blurs the sometimes rigid lines between them.
“Emerson students typically are very immersed in social media,” she said. “Like there’s one image that says, ‘Tumblr University,’ because practically everybody who’s at Emerson has a Tumblr, and that’s why it’s catching on so quickly.”
But Emerson Kid Lion may not be unique for long. Already DeWitt has heard from a student at Boston University interested in creating a similar meme with the school’s terrier mascot.
Though she’s had more success in creating online buzz in the last two weeks than some marketers do in years, DeWitt doesn’t plan to shift focus away from her first love. She plans to continue focusing on her studies in theatrical set and costume design and to make that her life’s work, while continuing to develop new Emerson Kid Lion images in her spare time.
“I’m not running out of submissions anytime soon,” she said. “I have a little over 50 suggestions in my inbox right now.”
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)