Since St. Olaf is a small, residential community, its students live in such a way that makes no one a true stranger. With around 3,000 students, it is obviously impossible to know everyone on a personal level, yet, there is a strong chance of knowing most people indirectly, as a friend of a friend, a fellow club member, a classmate or at least a familiar face. We meet new people often and then begin to see them around campus, in residence halls, at parties or in town.
Despite not knowing these people intimately, many of us maintain social media relationships with the acquaintances we accumulate throughout our time at St. Olaf. These relationships are tenuous and largely mediated by the online identities we curate for ourselves. This seems banal to point out; of course, everyone knows that who we are online does not necessarily match who we are in real life. However, I argue that the residential small campus in fact affords more power to the online persona. Though we might not know our acquaintances very well at all, people seem more tangible on social media when we also see them walking around campus and when we hear friends or professors mention them in conversation.
Thus, in many ways, a person’s online persona becomes a person’s truth. This attribution of truth to a curated online self fosters what I see as a microcosmic cult of personality around certain students with strong social media presence, most often social media presence directly connected to politics. Garnering likes and comments often in the hundreds, St. Olaf students validate social justice posts written by peers who are somewhat arbitrarily determined to be visible social activists. In this way, certain students are upheld as cool and radical for their justice-seeking social media presence, a virtual embodiment of being “woke.”
These students are valorized online and in person for their politics, despite the fact that their real life behavior may not match their curated online self at all. If someone is abusive, harassing or inappropriate, these harmful actions can be quickly erased or diminished by a strong social media presence that condemns this very behavior. For example, it might be more difficult to believe someone is a rapist if they constantly write posts that denounce sexual violence – especially when these posts are widely circulated and socially approved.
For victims and survivors of violence, such constant social validation of abusers can be gaslighting and painful, an ongoing struggle not only with the perpetrator but with those that stand in virtual support of the perpetrator. It is common for students to lionize acquaintances that appear woke online, to look to such people for salient thoughts on the latest campus issue or to speak positively about them in public. All these factors make it difficult to remove such people from the pedestal and to begin to see how this aggrandizement happens.
This is not to say people should stop posting about political issues. Social media has been an integral part of mobilizing activism, spreading awareness and staying politically informed. I often read articles posted by my friends that give me new perspectives, uplift voices that might otherwise be buried and present refreshing takes on old issues. Organizations like Black Lives Matter employ social media as a tool, and their impact has been furthered by a strong online presence. I wish to be clear: I don’t think social media is in itself bad, nor is the curation of online self.
However, I do think the social status relegated to certain people because of their online presence can become dangerous. At St. Olaf, where everyone knows everyone, we need to remember that our peers can post anything online to appear kind, friendly or down for the cause. Though we may see our Facebook friends and Instagram followers every day, we might not truly know them outside of these media – media that are often tightly curated to produce an effect. As students in community with each other, I would ask that you think through your online relationships to your peers, being mindful of what is visible and what might be obscured through the screen, considering thoughtfully who deserves to be celebrated.