By Mackenzie Broderick
There is the real Northwestern, and then there is the Northwestern that exists on social media. A quick scroll through the Facebook profiles and Instagram accounts of NU students will likely surface photos taken in front of the arch, by the Lakefill, at a night out in Chicago or at Dillo Day.
Four years at Northwestern gives us students plenty of shared experiences -- and by extension, how we present these experiences seems to be shared as well. College is supposed to be a time when we can escape who we were in high school and flourish as independent young people. At the same time, however, an insular campus and the pressure to perform on social media rewards conformity.
Half of Instagram’s 400 million monthly visitors are aged 18 to 30 years old. Compare that to the roughly 13 million students that attended a four-year American university in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It is pretty clear that American college students are just a small fraction of Instagram users, and Northwestern students are, therefore, an even more niche group. It goes to follow that as a collective group, Wildcats have similar taste in clothes, movies and Instagram filters. To walk around campus is to see the uniform of privileged college students across the country: pristine white Adidas Superstars, Canada Goose jackets and baby blue Herschel Supply backpacks containing MacBook Pros. But it is more than a similar wardrobe — it is a similar ethos that pervades how students present themselves to the world.
Freshmen arrive to Northwestern in vulnerable positions. For a short period of time, we do not belong anywhere or in any group. In a study published in the research journal Computers in Human Behavior, researchers found that low self-esteem makes us more susceptible to Instagram influencers. In moments of weakness, it becomes easier to justify buying something that will make life a little more similar to the lives you see on your phone screens. The most trusted Instagrammers are not big-name celebrities, but the Insta-famous, people viewed as more real and authentic while still having tens of thousands of followers. The Insta-famous even exist on this campus, influencing everything from the clothes we buy to the food we eat for dinner.
The rules of social media are unspoken but adhered to rigidly. The most important is choosing an aesthetic. Maybe every student here has a different one, but by definition, an aesthetic shrinks down an individual, grinding away at nuance and contradiction to achieve a polished persona that can be presented to the world, to friends at home and to new classmates. According to our Instagram accounts, we are all happy or sloppy or even exhausted, but never sad.
Another study, also in Computers in Human Behavior, found that Instagram is making us unhappy. Time spent on the app makes users less satisfied with their appearances, their friends and their lives. Importantly, social media skews our sense of what is possible — countless photos of smiling students celebrating Wildcat Welcome means added pressure to have as much fun as everyone else, or at least, to appear to have as much fun.
We trust those composed and well-lit photos, even though we should not. And this trust makes us want to be in those photos. There is no Northwestern dresscode, no social media rules set in stone, but I have never been as aware of myself, what I wear and what I post as when I try to go outside those boundaries. Photos of me smiling with friends are saved in my phone from nights where I was crying in a stranger’s bathroom the rest of the night. I gave away so many of the clothes I brought from home, shocked at how childish and ugly they seemed here at Northwestern. I have worked hard to master the one-sentence, pithy Instagram caption.
Becoming part of the Northwestern community is a special and unique honor. Being consumed by it, though, is not. Conformity is more than similar clothes or social media posts—it is a disconnect between who we are and what we pretend to be, and four years is a long time to pretend. Usually this performance is for the benefit of other people and not ourselves. College does not have to be a reinvention, instead it can be a rediscovery of what is real and authentic.