Most millennials know SparkNotes as the ultimate no-nonsense study buddy, but today’s students not only receive help with schoolwork from the website, they get high-quality entertainment, too.
SparkNotes remains a crucial tool for text comprehension — full of study guides and supplemental resources on english literature, philosophy, poetry, and more. But over the past two years it’s also become a source of some of the internet’s most quick-witted, thought-provoking, and ambitious memes.
SparkNotes' Twitter and Instagram accounts have carved a unique niche for themselves online by posting literary memes that find perfect parallels between classic works like Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, and Frankenstein, and present-day pop culture favorites like The Office, Parks and Rec, and more.
It may come as a surprise to those who once frequented the site for the sole purpose of better understanding Shakespeare plays before a final exam or catching up on assigned chapters of The Catcher in the Rye before the bell rang, but SparkNotes is cool now, and absolutely killing the social media game.
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As someone who spends the majority of her workday on the internet and splits her leisure time almost exclusively between reading books and re-watching episodes of The Office, I fell in love with the account's near-perfect meme execution after mere minutes of scrolling through posts.
How SparkNotes' social media became LIT ✨📚
Chelsea Aaron, a 31-year-old senior editor for SparkNotes, is a huge part of the success. She started managing the site's Instagram in September 2017, and her meme approach has helped the account grow from 5,000 to 134,000 followers.
"When I first started managing the account, I tried a bunch of different things," Aaron explained in an email. "I ran illustrations and original content from our blog, and I also borrowed memes from our Twitter ... The memes seemed to get the most likes, so I started making and posting those on a regular basis, and now I try to do four to five per week."
Image: screengrab / Instagram
Aaron discovered the account's recipe for success by not only making memes about some of SparkNotes' most popular, highly searched guides — which include Shakespeare's plays, The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice — but by mashing them together with a few modern television shows that she's personally passionate about, such as The Office, Parks and Rec, Arrested Development, and John Mulaney's comedy specials. She's also known for hilariously retelling entire works (SparkNotes style, so, abridged versions) using the account's Highlight feature.
Image: screengrab / instagram
The brilliantly sharp, comical posts seem effortless, but Aaron explained the process takes some serious concentration. Essentially, she stares at a large collection of collected screenshots "in a state of panic" until an idea strikes. "It's wildly inefficient and incredibly stressful, but I haven't figured out another way to do it," she admitted.
Luckily, Aaron always has the SparkNotes Twitter account to turn to for inspiration, which is managed by Courtney Gorter, a 26-year-old consulting writer for SparkNotes who Aaron calls "a comedic genius."
Gorter has been managing the Twitter account for about a year and a half now, and joined the SparkNotes team because she utilized its resources growing up and wanted to help "make classic literature feel accessible" to others.
"I wanted this stuff to seem slightly more fun (or, at the very least, less intimidating) to the average stressed-out student who's just trying to read fifty pages by tomorrow and also has a quiz on Friday," she said. The memes definitely help her achieve that goal.
Scrolling through the SparkNotes Instagram account, you notice it generally uses a recurring but reliably satisfying meme format. Most of the posts consist of a white block filled with introductory text and a screenshot from a television show, like so.
Gorter, on the other hand, ensures the Twitter account showcases a far more widespread representation of the internet. She posts everything from out-of-context screenshots, GIFs, and videos, to altered headlines from The Onion and trending meme formats of the moment, like "in this house" memes, "nobody vs me" memes, and more. The account is full of variety and gloriously unpredictable.
Hades: Orpheus I’ll let you bring your wife back from the Underworld, but if you turn and look behind you she’ll be lost to you forever.
— SparkNotes (@SparkNotes) April 16, 2019
Normal heart rate:
/\⠀ ⠀ ⠀ ⠀ /\
_ / \ __/\__ / \ _
\/⠀ ⠀ ⠀ ⠀ \/
The old man you just killed, whose heart lies hidden beneath the floorboards yet continues to beat:
⠀/\⠀ /\⠀ /\
_/ \ /\_/ \ /\_/ \ /\_
⠀ \/⠀⠀ \/⠀⠀ \/
— SparkNotes (@SparkNotes) April 12, 2019
Gorter, who describes herself as "constantly on the internet" feels a lot of her ideas are the result of "cultural osmosis ... our collective tendency to consume references and jokes without realizing it just by being on the internet a lot."
"Sometimes I’ll be reading a book, and I’ll remember a joke I saw earlier that fits. Sometimes a new meme format will crop up over the weekend, and I’ll think, 'That could work for Macbeth,'" she said.
Though the two accounts are clearly distinct from one another, they both give off the same hip English teacher energy and running them has become a truly collaborative effort. "I constantly send her [Gorter] emails asking stuff like, 'Can I still say 'big mood' or is that over?' and 'What's the deal with this whole thing?'" Aaron said.
Together, the two women spend their days discussing iconic works of literature, making pop culture references, and keeping up with the latest memes. (A dream job.) Their separate styles fuse together to make each other's posts the best they can be.
The meme approach works wonders
One might not initially think that Boo Radley and John Mulaney have much in common, or that Michael Scott could effortlessly embody Romeo, Julius Caesar, and Holden Caulfield if you simply alter your perspective. I certainly did not.
But Aaron and Gorter's work will convince you. Once you start merging the worlds of classic literature and modern television series, you won't want to stop.
The SparkNotes instagram is my favorite thing pic.twitter.com/FCc6sXjJly
— Jessie Martin (@jessie_martin97) March 29, 2019
Fun fact, the official Sparknotes Instagram account is probably the best one: pic.twitter.com/sIR6tsw7ZP
— Tommy (@tommy_jacobs92) February 28, 2019
When describing why the posts work so well, Aaron explained that Hamlet, Mr. Darcy, and Gatsby — three of her favorite characters to meme — have super relatable personalities, which makes the process so simple.
"They're dramatic, and awkward, and obsessive, which makes them identical to about 97% of the people on The Office," she said. "I've learned that you can use Michael Scott as a stand-in for pretty much any classic lit character, and it isn't even hard. (That's what she said)."
— Rachel Kelly 🥛 (@wholemilk) May 2, 2019
— Kelsey [Version 2019.05] (@flusteredkels) May 2, 2019
Gorter thinks the accounts are so appealing because they create a deep sense of community — an online space that isn't so isolating, rather a place where where bibliophiles, television enthusiasts, and meme lovers can all come together and geek the hell out. There's really something for everyone.
"When Steve Rogers said, 'I understood that reference,' I felt that deeply. I think people enjoy being in on a joke, especially when the source material (classic literature, for instance) isn’t particularly hilarious," Gorter said. "There’s a delicious juxtaposition there. I know that I personally get a secret little thrill when I understand something as contextually layered as a really niche meme, and a slight sense of frustration when I don’t."
Engaging followers and changing with the times
SparkNotes as a whole has come a long way since it was launched as TheSpark.com by a group of Harvard students in 1999.
What started out as a budding web-based dating service quickly transformed into a trusted library of online study materials, and over the years, as the publishing industry, technology, and the internet evolved, so did SparkNotes.
Like the social media accounts, SparkNotes' SparkLife blog — full of quizzes, artwork, rankings, advice, and trendy posts like "How To Break Up With Someone, According To Shakespeare" and "Snapchats From Every Literary Movement" — perfectly encapsulates the site's commitment to catering to its audience.
Whoever runs the Sparknotes twitter and Instagram pages deserves a raise
— louise🌻 (@_Fallxn_) February 21, 2019
SparkNotes does a remarkable job of shifting with the times to stay relevant and interesting in the eyes of its readers — and the quest to balance fun and education really seems to be paying off. Recently, the Instagram account tested out a post that called upon students and teachers to request custom-made memes by reaching out via email with the title of a book or subject they want meme'd, along with a message for the intended recipient.
"The response was amazing!" Aaron said. "We got almost 250 emails, and it's so great to see the genuine affection and admiration that teachers have for their students, and vice versa."
Thanks to the social media accounts, SparkNotes is not only helping students learn, but helping entire classrooms bond with their teachers. (And hopefully teaching educators who follow a thing or two about good memes.)
Print isn't dead, it's just getting some help from the internet
Aaron and Gorter are having a blast running the accounts, but ultimately, they hope their lighthearted posts will inspire people to pick up a book and read.
"I hope what our followers take away from this is that classic literature doesn’t have to be totally dry," Gorter said. "If our memes encourage our followers to engage with classic literature and be excited about reading, that's so rewarding," Aaron added.
The present-day approach to selling classic literature is undeniably unconventional, and the crossovers are absurdly ambitious, but they work so damn well. What's great about the memes is they're created in a way that doesn't diminish the literature plots, because in reality, one would have to have such a comprehensive understanding of the text to make such good jokes.
The memes are actually pretty high-brow when you think about it, sure to delight intellectuals with great taste in pop culture. I have no idea how the legendary writers would feel about their greatest works getting the meme treatment, but people online are definitely loving it.
It's refreshing to see a brand account succeed at such a genuinely funny level, but perhaps even nicer to see it thriving off of wholesome content that doesn't drag other accounts or get its laughs at the expense of tearing others down, as we've seen accounts do in the past.
SparkNotes social media accounts are genuinely just nice corners of the internet dedicated to making people laugh and hopefully igniting a love of literature.