Cyber living: how students use social media at Exeter

Social media has transformed the way we interact with the world. See what Nancy Jo Sales '82, author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers (2016), and several Exeter students have to say about the risks and rewards of social networking.

Melanie Nelson
May 1, 2017
A girl stands in a spotlight while looking down at her cell phone.

Like many of her Exeter peers, Emily '17 stays active on social media. "Most of us are multitaskers," she says, "which means that we will be checking our phones while studying — but that can sometimes feel like doing everything and nothing all at once." 

According to the website Small Business Trends, social media, as we have come to know it, was first introduced in 1997 by way of a site called Six Degrees, where users could create personal profiles and connect with one another. Soon thereafter, in 1999, web logs, or “blogs,” were born, and the whole concept mushroomed. MySpace, a social networking site, arrived in 2003. Two years later, in 2005, came the video-sharing site YouTube. Then, in 2006, Facebook — first launched at Harvard in 2004 by Exonian Mark Zuckerberg ’02 — became available to the general public. Since that time, social media and social networking have completely transformed the way we interact with the world and with one another. The movement has revolutionized existing businesses and sparked wildly successful new ones. It has permeated education, cultural organizations, politics, sports and romance. Some researchers posit that it is even changing the way we think.

While many, many examples exist of ways in which social media can be problematic, even harmful —cyberbullying, the sexual objectification of girls and women, internet stalking — there have undoubtedly been positive influences and benefits to society. Creative startups can compete for seed money through crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research is moving forward thanks to 2014’s Ice Bucket Challenge, a viral fundraising campaign. And the proliferation of online affinity groups has meant that like-minded people can easily find each other, meet, and sometimes start social and political revolutions.

In order to better understand how Exonians interact with social media, as well as the implications for our community, the Bulletin recently sat down with a small cross section of Academy students, as well as alumna Nancy Jo Sales ’82, the Vanity Fair reporter whose most recent book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, was published in 2016.

The Bulletin is grateful to the four students who shared their stories with us, and acknowledges that both time and magazine space preclude offering a broader survey in narrative form. Moreover, while the picture painted in this feature suggests that Exonians are, on the whole, using social media for good, there have been disciplinary cases involving students who have made poor choices, some of which have resulted in withdrawal.

Digital Dichotomies

“It’s funny, but in terms of social media, when I came here, it felt like being back in seventh grade,” recalls Emily Robb of her first weeks at the Academy. For Robb, a three-year senior who grew up in Brentwood, California, and first learned about Exeter at her sleepaway camp in Interlochen, Michigan, the difference in the way friends at home were employing, and occasionally exploiting, social media compared to how her fellow Exonians engaged with it was stark. “Back home I have friends who have 70,000 followers on Instagram, and their accounts are literally highlight reels of their lives. At Exeter, it’s different; there’s more of an innocence to [social media],” she explains. Why the disparity? “I feel like it could be an East Coast/West Coast ... thing,” she offers.

Geography aside, Exeter, says Robb, has its own unique culture when it comes to social media, often specific to class years. As an example, she cites the class of 2017 and Facebook. “We started as preps with Facebook,” she says, “and everyone in my grade has Facebook, but I believe we are the cutoff point. Very few preps have FB.” For younger grades, she adds, Instagram and Snapchat are de rigueur.

Exeter’s infamous workload, Robb says, also shapes students’ interactions with social media. “We are a bit busy, and so there’s less time, and fewer opportunities, for sharing photos and details of our lives.” However, that doesn’t mean Exonians aren’t on social media. “Many of us are multitaskers,” she explains, “which means that we will be checking our phones while studying — but that can sometimes feel like doing everything and nothing all at once.”

What about conduct? Do the principles of non sibi apply to Exeter’s often unfettered social media outlets? “For the most part, yes,” Robb says. “A lot of students use social media to say ‘Happy Birthday’ or send compliments. Many of us also use it to stay in touch with friends who graduate; it’s nice seeing what people are doing after Exeter.” Yet even at a school where “goodness and knowledge” are deeply embedded values and influence the mindset and comportment of students, Exonians occasionally make bad choices. “I have seen and heard of instances where students are nasty to other students,” Robb says. “I think where Exeter is different, though, is that the students here are too smart to be obvious.”

Of Facebook and Finstas

Autumn Herness, a three-year senior from Wausaukee, Wisconsin — population 578 — never would have known about Exeter were it not for the internet. “No one from the Midwest goes to boarding school,” she explains, “especially not the rural Midwest. Growing up, I thought boarding schools only existed in movies and in Harry Potter.” In fact, the entire concept was initially so nebulous to Herness that she turned to an online search engine for clarity. “I Googled the question: ‘Do boarding schools exist?’ ” she recalls. “When I learned that they did, my next question was, ‘What is the best boarding school in America?’ and Exeter popped up.”

Herness agrees that Exeter is a Facebook-centric school, at least for the moment. “Almost every student here has Facebook,” she says, “and Facebook at Exeter is almost exclusively focused on campus life. Every class has its own Facebook page. We use it for announcements and logistics — like to advertise a dance or a club meeting, or to figure out who is teaching a class in a certain term.” A co-captain of the varsity girls water polo team, Herness adds, “Most Academy sports teams also have a Facebook page or a group chat.”

Facebook group chats, whereby one can select a specific set of people with whom to privately communicate, are also handy, Herness says, for academic classes. “Three out of four of my math classes have had group chats,” she explains. “Someone might say, ‘Let’s study for a test at 7 in the library.’ Sometimes we even figure out, through a group chat discussion, that a teacher has made a mistake. Chats are very student-driven and just convenient.”

While Facebook appears to be the go-to social media outlet of choice, at least for older students, many Exonians, Herness says, are also fond of Instagram. “Lots of students have Instagram. Normal Instagram is where people post their best photos, and there is a whole politics to it,” she says, referring to the process of selecting the most flattering images to display. “It’s like a culture within our culture.” Other students, Herness explains, have fake Instagram accounts, known vernacularly as “Finstas.” At Exeter, she contends, Finstas are a kind of public diary, reserved only for the closest of friends. “It’s where you post if you are having a bad day.”

Even dating at the Academy is not without its own unofficial social media rules and hierarchies. “If you were going after someone romantically,” Herness explains, “you wouldn’t text them, because texting implies that you know them well. For people you don’t know well, you’d use Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger is somewhere in between.” She adds that Tinder, a dating app in which users swipe right on other users’ photos to indicate interest, is used at the Academy, but not for dating. Because the minimum user age for Tinder was recently adjusted to 18, older students mainly  use it, Herness says, “for goofing around, looking at people’s bios, or to establish friendships.” At least for now, face-to-face communication appears to trump social media when it comes to Exeter romances. Says Herness, “Most people just get a friend to set them up.”

All Aboard

Three-year upper Greg Miller grew up in Coral Springs, Florida, just outside Fort Lauderdale. The son of a single father who sometimes took him along to work, Miller says he first heard about Exeter from Kwame Osseo-Asare ’01, who worked at the same company as his dad. “I got to know Kwame, and he told me, ‘You gotta check [Exeter] out,’ so I went online and spent hours on the website.”

Miller, who uses both Facebook and Instagram, agrees that Facebook is most often used by Academy students for Exeter-specific purposes — e.g., to message a classmate for homework, or for scrolling through photos from a class event. For at least the past couple of years, Miller explains, it has also served as a platform where, first via a page known as “Exeter Confesses” and now as a page named “Bus Ride,” students can make anonymous posts about anything from politics to sex. Overseen by an unknown student moderator who goes by the pseudonym of “John Smith,” Bus Ride is a closed group (meaning posts can be seen only by those in the group) that, according to both Miller and Herness, peaked in popularity in the spring of 2016. “When the  fire burned bright, everyone was on it,” Miller says. “There would be 10 new posts and a slew of comments every 20 minutes.”

Now more subdued, Bus Ride has 1,023 members who are mainly current Exonians or young alumni. Like most social media at Exeter, it appears to be fairly successfully self-regulated and mostly civil, though there are exceptions. Miller says tempers sometimes flare over controversial current events, but that more politically conservative students have found it to be a kind of refuge on a campus that tends to be “very liberal.” While he has rarely observed fellow students making rude or hurtful comments, it is not unheard of. As an example, he cites a recent mock post by a girl who said she was going to have to withdraw from the Academy because of dysania (the inability to get out of bed in the morning) and a runny nose. “She was basically equating the mild inconveniences Exonians occasionally experience with some students’ legitimate mental health conditions, which sometimes lead to their withdrawal from school. Her post exhibited a real lack of empathy ... she got maimed in the comments section.”

The tendency to derogate, while not exclusive to the Academy, is, Miller suggests, a pillar of Exeter’s “meme culture.” He explains: “Exonians love to take a serious idea or image and make it funny by creating a meme. It’s intellectualism meets ‘Let’s make a joke out of everything.’”

Social Salves and Standing Up

Rylan Tuttle is a day student from Nottingham, New Hampshire. Despite growing up 25 minutes from Exeter, he didn’t learn about the Academy until middle school, when a friend who attended the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elm Street mentioned it to him. Now in his upper year, he is as deeply immersed in the community as any of his peers. He is also one of a small number of Exonians who do not have a Facebook account. “I use Instagram and Snapchat, and after that, email,” Tuttle says, “but I do not have a Facebook account. I may at some point, for alumni connections after I graduate.”

Like Emily Robb, Tuttle wonders if Facebook is waning in popularity. “I feel like it is leaving [the Exeter community] a little,” he says. “I think it is maybe being taken over by the older generation.” While Tuttle himself doesn’t partake of Facebook, he understands why it has been and continues to be a popular vehicle for many Exonians. “I know kids who have a group chat on Facebook for every class they are in,” he says. “That can be helpful for getting assignments, and for taking the pressure off socially for kids who wonder, ‘Who is my friend in the class?’ A lot of class group chats continue after the term ends. There is one from a winter term Spanish class from last year that is still active.”

Tuttle, like fellow upper Greg Miller, is familiar with Bus Ride, and with its offshoot, Bus Ride Compliments, another Exeter-specific closed Facebook page where students can leave compliments for one another. He confirms that politics is a popular topic on the former, and adds that tensions on Bus Ride ran high during the November 2016 elections. Race and gender are other reoccurring themes that can be lightning rods for Bus Riders, but, Tuttle says, agitations ebb and flow: “It’s kind of like an anonymous Harkness discussion, but when you lose the face-to-face aspect, it sometimes devolves.”

“My overall experience with social media since I have come here has been positive,” Tuttle summarizes. “The bystander effect is not nonexistent — it’s definitely here — but it is not super present, either. As students and friends who live and learn together, we are pretty good at standing up for each other and coming to each other’s rescue if need be.”

Schooled in Scandal

Nancy Jo Sales ’82 attended Exeter before computers were commonplace, let alone smartphones, yet the Vanity Fair reporter and author has spent much of the past five years talking to American teenagers about how they use social media, and how it is impacting their lives. Her findings, published in the 2016 book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, are enough to make most parents hyperventilate, particularly when she cites statistics on, say, sexting (text messages, including words or images, that are meant to titillate or arouse). “Studies indicate that 40 percent or more of American teenagers are sexting,” she says.

Such data, while troubling, is somewhat less distressing to Sales than the potential long-term implications for human development and human relationships of constant social media use. “Misuse or abuse of social media is pandemic,” she states, “and it is replacing face-to-face communication. There are all kinds of reasons to be concerned about this, especially when you consider that only 7 percent of face-to-face communication is verbal. Much more of it is about body language, vocal tones and cues, even smells. I have seen kids in the same room, or on the same couch, texting with each other, while their faces are only inches apart. I fear that we are losing our ability to experience life in real time and as real people. If the first thing you are doing with someone you are romantically interested in is sending nude pictures of yourself, rather than taking a walk together or meeting for coffee, how will you ever be able to have a healthy relationship based on emotional intimacy?”

Equally unnerving for Sales is the way our society is becoming increasingly desensitized to the sexual harassment and sexualization of girls and women. “Social media culture is a very sexist culture,” she says, citing a recent United States Marine Corps scandal involving the creation and distribution of “slut pages,” or compilations of nude photos that are nonconsensually shared. “We have a whole generation of girls who are growing up being told that it is normal to be sexualized and that there is little for them to do but acquiesce. It’s very disempowering.” What’s more, she says, women who step forward to protest or put a stop to such behaviors are often “further exposed and vilified for being whistle-blowers.”

Most every variety of school is also represented, with the exception of private boarding schools such as Exeter. This is ironic for two reasons: Sales is herself a product of a residential school, and it is schools like Exeter that she thinks give students many opportunities to transcend some of the more insidious aspects of social media. “I think kids in boarding schools often have a better chance of not getting addicted to social media because they are afforded more opportunities to be together and communicate face-to-face.” She pauses for a moment, before adding, “The closest friendships I’ve made in my life are with the people I met at Exeter, because we were going through all of the stuff you go through at that age together. It’s very magical in that way.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2017 edition of The Exeter Bulletin.