Tag Archives: college students

‘Am I the only one …’: On college, isolation and social media

Active Minds'

Active Minds’ “Send Silence Packing” display visited SUNY Oswego.

At first I thought it perhaps a rhetorical quirk. But as I saw it more and more in posts by incoming students in our Facebook group, it emerged as a pattern. And one that causes a bit of concern.

  • “Am I the only one who doesn’t have a roommate yet?”
  • “Am I the only one without a housing assignment?”
  • “So I’m the only person without a full schedule.”
  • “Looks like I’m the only person who doesn’t have a roommate yet.”

Beyond the fact that, no, they were never “the only one” in that situation — in fact, most of their peers were in the same boat — the wording is intriguing. Not “does anybody else have …” or “who else doesn’t have …” but about being the “only” person missing out on the fun. There’s a fear of exclusion pattern among these posts — sure, it’s partly concern that others have something they don’t, but the phrase speaks to isolation.

But then reading an outstanding, troubling New York Times piece, Campus suicide and the pressure of perfection, drove home the point that thinking you’re an outsider, isolated and lonely when entering college can make an already-stressful situation worse. Couple that with a social media where everybody seems to having more fun and fabulous lives than you, and it’s an issue that needs more attention.

Stranger in a strange land

I can identify with how students can feel isolated all too well. After finishing my associate’s degree at home, I went away to a college where I did not know a single soul (one place social media certainly helps). My roommate was a nice guy, but we didn’t click. Within a couple days, it seemed my suitemates were already making plans where I wasn’t invited. The dorm had an ice cream social in the lounge where I had ice cream but was too shy to be social.

The loneliest I’ve ever been and on the edge of despondency, I’d wander out to stare at the nearby canal. “College was supposed to be awesome, but am I the only one not having any fun?” I thought to myself. “Everybody else is enjoying themselves way more than me.” I felt homesick, isolated, unsure why what was supposed to be the best time of my life suddenly felt like one of the worst. But I was determined to make college work — I’d be the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree — and after two weeks of loneliness despite being surrounded by friendly people, I made my way to the college newspaper, quickly found a tribe and soon found college the enjoyable experience I expected.

Even in this supposedly more interconnected society, many students entering colleges across the country will feel the same way I did — wondering if they’re “the only one” who feels so lonely — but perhaps do not find their lifeline. Some may drop out, some may turn to drugs or alcohol … and some may decide they can’t go on at all.

The Internet is an illusion

The most famous poem from his engrossing “Spoon River Anthology,” Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” tells the story of a man who was “a gentleman from sole to crown” and “richer than a king,” a man everybody in town envied. But for whatever reason, he also was unspeakably unhappy, as the poem ends:

So on we worked, and waited for the light
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Yet that jarring conclusion pales in comparison with tales of real life, such as Penn State student Madison Holleran. Talented, pretty, a successful student-athlete and with seemingly plenty of friends, Madison’s Instagram feed showed a life many a lonely student would envy. But according to an excellent ESPN feature by Kate Fagan, Split Image, Madison was a perfectionist who could not deal with failure or disappointment — or her perception of falling short. A 19-year-old with seemingly everything to live for, Madison Holleran committed suicide in January 2014.

According to Active Minds, a group that attempts to empower students, change the stigma of mental illness on campuses and steer students toward healthier choices, some 1,100 students take their own lives every year. The New York Times piece references helicopter parenting — where students aren’t given the opportunity to solve their own problems — as a contributing factor. But it’s not the only evolution that has raised the stakes.

Is it a competition?

College once was for elites, then in the ’50s/’60s the Baby Boom, GI Bill and many other socioeconomic factors led to college systems offering greater accessibility. Russia’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the cold war politics led to the U.S. government pouring money into higher education to produce scientists who could win the technological race. Suddenly college was more widely available, a rite of passage depicted in popular culture. When I went to college, probably about half of my graduating class did not, which was not necessarily uncommon.

Now, for most, college is an expectation of getting ahead. Private courses and consultants show high school students how to excel at standardized tests and make themselves more attractive to institutions. Cottage industries have emerged for both those choosing colleges and the colleges courting them, setting it up as a high-pressure matchmaking exercise. Parents and students make it not only about going to college but more critically about getting into the right school offering the right experiences. And not just any experiences, but experiences where students need to succeed and feel fulfilled. Getting one bad grade in a class can be a big blow; failing a class is devastating.

Put all that into a crucible that is young people coming of age and coming to terms with feelings and coming into a world where they feel they must do everything perfectly — and then project their way of seeing the world, social media, as a place where everybody is happy and successful and winning this perceived competition. So the student asking “am I the only one …” can start believing that they are the outsider, the freak, the failure because of how well everybody else appears to be doing.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. But here is the one thing I’d like everybody to take away from it: Social media is not real life. Don’t compare your daily struggles to the highlight reel you see online. We are all dealing with problems, but there are so many people also willing to help.

Be kind, the old saying goes, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. The start of college could be an important intersection with the future, but it’s just the start (we hope!) of a long journey that may have twists and turns and tribulations and triumphs. But it’s a road we travel together. You are never “the only one,” ever.

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super bowl™ ads, through the eyes of students.

The Super Bowl™ presents an excellent opportunity for people, like me, who teach advertising to tie it to key lessons. And, as often happens in classes, I learned almost as much from what students thought were effective ads.

For Broadcasting 328: Media Advertising, I’ve asked all my students to sign up for Twitter (the subject of a future blog post) and each session includes a less-than-140-character homework assignment. This one: Tweet about an ad you thought was effective and mark it with a #brc328 tag.

So while USA Today had its ever-popular AdMeter ratings, the Web was all a-twitter over various commercials and every pundit had their take, the students provided a different view (in a much-sought-after demographic, no less). I learned the three most important things to them were 1) humor, 2) great visuals, 3) a memorable idea. Most popular campaigns with them were:

1. Bud Light/Budweiser. Biggest buzz surrounded the Bud Light House. Clearly, it represents fantasy fulfillment, but it made people laugh, provided a concrete visual and was a clever execution. Moreover, the product was not only the hero, but dominated the screen. They also liked the Lost parody and the T-Pain/autotune spot — both using humor and playing on popular culture. What all ads had in common: They equated Bud Light with partying and fun. The Budweiser bridge spot also proved popular because of its visual impact. I continue to maintain that it’s unclear whether Budweiser gains market share for the outlay, but if college students are impressed and remember the product, that says something.

2. Doritos. One student explained the simple brilliance of the Playing Nice ad: When the child tells his mother’s suitor: Keep your hands off my momma. Keep your hands off my Doritos, it pretty clearly sets the priorities in his world. Hyperbole? Sure. But it makes its point succinctly. The snappy execution of Dog Collar and the (weird, imho) Tim’s Locker/Samurai spots also scored.

3. Denny’s. When’s the last time anyone even talked about Denny’s? Yet the screaming chicken ads, while potentially annoying, sure captured attention. One student shrewdly noted it highlighted special offers for Free Grand Slam Day and free Grand Slam on your birthday. Simple idea — everyone will want Denny’s breakfasts, so chickens have to work harder — that came across loud and clear.

Other thoughts:

Surprising revelation: Many pundits wrote off the Boost Mobile ad because they assumed using the 1985 Chicago Bears couldn’t sell to young adults. Big disconnect, right? Wrong. Every student in my class claims to know the Super Bowl™ Shuffle, perhaps because of how we recycle pop culture. Thus we know what happens when we assume …

Betty White scores: The Snickers ad earned the most positive buzz among people I follow on Twitter (and topped AdMeter ratings), plus the students loved it too. They may not have known who Abe Vigoda was, but they all knew Betty White from Golden Girls. And once you got past the shock of White being creamed in a backyard football game, you got the concept: Snickers picks you up.

Where’s the outrage?: The young women weren’t terribly offended by the Dodge Charger ad, even though it seemed the most excoriated spot on Twitter. Some saw the overstatement and shrugged it off; others didn’t find it any more offensive than the other messages that regularly bombard us.

My personal favorite?: The Google ad. Why Google would need to advertise (imho: to counter Bing) is a fair question, but in terms of simple storytelling and demonstrating the product’s effectiveness, I loved it. A tale of boy meets girl, with some cool music, the brand as hero and a bit of humor. It won’t affect my use of Google, but as standalone branding, I found it just about pitch-perfect.

So you have the opinions of a couple dozen college students and an older dude who works in communication. What did you think? And will you think of any of these observations next time you try to market to students?

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learning about social media goes both ways.

Feels like I’ve been on a social media barnstorming tour of campus, leading four sessions in the past two weeks. There’s no one reason for this — I was asked to do two, while the other two were my initiative — but just as with social media itself, the conversations in this sessions always teach me something as well.

I’ve talked to freshmen about social media and learned their habits. I gave a session titled Everybody Has A Mic: The Brave New World of Web 2.0 to people in the room and scattered across the world on Second Life. I presented Social Media 101 to staff members. And I imparted thoughts on social media and marketing to an Advanced Public Relations class. My own presentations notwithstanding, and with my observations on freshmen listed in another entry, here’s some of what I’ve learned back:

1) Social Media 101, as an hour topic, is too big for a wide audience. While most came to learn practical applications of social media, one attendee didn’t seem know what Facebook or blogs were. So maybe something so catch-all is too ambitious and unfocused. But then I saw a college running a whole course on how to use Twitter, which is excessive too. At some point, we’ll find a happy medium for a range of audiences and applicable topics.

2) Students’ use of social media changes during their time on campus. While sample sizes so far are small, what I’ve found backs up what I’d heard anecdotally. For the upperclass Advanced PR class, 20 of 20 were on Facebook (no surprise), 18 of 20 checked daily, 8 of 20 had MySpace accounts and 3 of 20 used Twitter. Recall for freshmen, all 15 had Facebook accounts they checked daily, 10 were on MySpace (though barely used it), none on Twitter. This slim sampling reflects what I’ve heard about college students abandoning MySpace and picking up Twitter in modest amounts, but I aim to do more surveying.

3) I may have given up on Second Life too quickly. Maybe it took viewing several avatars hearing my presentation virtually, but I finally see that Second Life does have untapped collaborative and communication potential. Maybe I’m just flattered someone from NASA would show up in SL to hear what I have to say. Maybe I still think the economics of outfitting an avatar seem too much like Dungeons and Dragons. But clearly my dismissing Second Life out of hand without learning more is as ill-informed as those who’ve never been on Twitter scoffing it’s all about people tweeting what they had for lunch.

This all also reflects what I’ve long believed: presenting is a two-way street. Just like in social media, every interaction and every conversation is an opportunity for enlightenment.

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