There was once a time when “This is Sparta” was arguably one of the more boring phrases in the English language ― reviewed on a projector that’s lightbulb always seemed to be dying during high school history class. If you went to high school in the late 2000s, you likely witnessed the tidal wave moment when the phrase rose from seemingly nothing to a generational obsession.
The movie “300” debuted 10 years ago on March 9, 2007. It went on to gross nearly half a billion dollars worldwide, but its true accomplishment was domination over the American teen lexicon. The movie was intentionally ridiculous and bombastic, which led to it being, for a time, infinitely quotable.
The most memorable scene came when the protagonist, King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler), declines peace with the Persians by kicking their messenger into a giant man-made hole while screaming ― you guessed it ― “This is Sparta!”
A whole industry sprouted up, parodying and referencing the movie.
The horribly reviewed “Meet the Spartans” was a 2008 movie in the vain of the satirical “Scary Movie.” Despite getting a 2-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it earned nearly $85 million in the box office as “300” held onto culture.
“South Park” devoted an entire episode to an homage of “300.” The MTV Movie Awards gave a short film spoof of “300 and “United 93” ― “United 300” ― an award in 2007. You can still buy countless variations of “300” shirts online.
But looking back, the most interesting side project to come out of the film’s success was started by a couple of high schoolers with no budget.
The tale of these two young New Yorkers is arguably the cornerstone of the current media landscape we now live within ― where viral social posts can conquer the world. Much like the actual story of “300” that focuses on a small army accomplishing more than could be expected, the rise of the potential for any high schooler to create an influential viral meme is now inarguably possible. Just last year, a few teens created the “Mannequin Challenge” meme ― a challenge even then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton participated in.
On April 29, 2008, less than two years after Facebook allowed anyone at the age of 13 or over with a valid email address to join the service, Kevin Xu and Jake Bryant started a Facebook group. “Groups” were also a relatively new feature on Facebook and few already saw the service as a platform with the potential for organically connecting a large mass of people.
This new group encouraged fellow high school students to troll their upcoming AP exams ― an end of the year exam that can count as college credit. Specifically Xu and Bryant wanted people to write “This is Sparta!” in the essay section of the test and then cross it out. This would exploit a rule saying graders are not allowed to take anything crossed out into account while scoring the test.
The idea spread like wildfire. As a high schooler in Virginia at the time, I can personally attest that it appeared everyone was talking about the prank and teachers had to address it.
These two had conquered the American zeitgeist ― or at least the imaginations of other college-bound high schoolers.
Xu spoke with The Huffington Post about the origins of the group and how it affected his life. Teachers laughed at it. It may have helped him get into Stanford. Things turned out pretty well.
But perhaps most telling about the power of memes at that time and now is Xu’s answer to whether he actually enjoyed “300,” since he was so inspired by the phrase “This is Sparta!”
“Actually it’s pretty funny, I still haven’t watched the movie.”
Below is Xu’s response to a few questions sent over Facebook. His answers have been lightly condensed and edited.
The initial origin of the idea:
Kevin Xu: The idea spawned from this stupid rule that the proctor would always mention in the beginning of every AP test. The proctor would drone on and on with these arcane rules and one of them was, “Don’t scribble words out ― cross them out with a single line.”
I believe what happened was, I mentioned how I hated that stupid rule ― that graders could still see what I originally wrote. Then Jake mentioned I should write “This is Sparta!” and cross it out instead. I created a Facebook group to spread the idea afterward.
I also remember it spreading through my high school pretty fast, but then plateaued. It wasn’t until I invited a friend from a different high school, and he invited his high school, that the group’s membership started exploding.
The goal for the Facebook group and Kevin’s expectations:
KX: The goal was to get as many students to do this as possible to have a nice innocent laugh and to give the teachers a little chuckle during the summer as they graded the tests. My expectation was maybe a few hundred might do it, but never thought it would spread across the country (and the world!).
Kevin’s reaction to the success of the group and whether he was worried it might affect his own AP scores:
KX: It felt awesome and was one of the first times I felt the true meaning of “virality.” This was still the early days of social media and having something go from no one knowing to thousands knowing showed me the power of making something and it actually impacting people’s lives thanks to the internet. Perhaps even kickstarted my career in building software on the internet.
Nah, was never worried about this affecting my AP scores.
Whether there were any positive or negative consequences to Kevin’s life:
KX: Many positives!
I wrote about it in one of my college application essays for Stanford and I like to believe that’s one of the reasons I got accepted
It definitely came up a lot in those freshman year introduction ice breakers so I made a bunch of friends through that. http://imgur.com/a/V10wW
Did Kevin and Jake actually follow through and write/cross-out “This is Sparta!” on any of their AP exams?
KX: Yep, all of them.
KX: Scrolling back through the comments has been kind of funny. I’ve found four friends I met way later in life who commented back in 2008! The world is indeed very small. I decided to like their old posts to bring it back up in their notifications for a fun nostalgic surprise.
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