After a year of remote learning, APU sophomores are finally meeting classmates they previously only knew from Zoom or social media. Do their online profiles match up with their real identities?
Last June, I found myself parked in a random parking lot hanging out with friends in my hometown of Livermore, CA — exactly how most of my nights were spent during my freshman year of remote learning. After meticulously curating an Instagram post for two hours, I handed my phone to my friends for a second opinion.
I needed to seek an outside perspective on my post. I questioned my friends on what vibes the post gave off, if the caption was okay and what they’d think I was like if they’d never met me and only had this post to refer to. Several questions later, they asked me something important that caught me off guard: Why do you care so much?
I felt the need to carefully curate my online identity so people I hadn’t yet met from college would have a positive perception of who I was. Of my followers, there was a subgroup I hadn’t met yet but knew I eventually would. During my freshman year, Instagram became a scrapbook of the person I wanted people to see me as when I began my sophomore year on campus.
For this year’s sophomore class, the natural progression of socialization was flipped: First they followed on social media, then they met in person.
Sophomore liberal studies major Belle Nervo experienced this phenomenon last year.
“The only thing I knew about was the Instagram 2024 page … that was how I met some of the first people I knew,” said Nervo. “Seeing people get posted on that Instagram was the only way to know who was going to be at APU.”
Rather than meeting in the dorms or in classes, freshmen last year encountered each other through photos and captions. When they finally met in person this semester, they already had preconceived notions of those around them from posts they had seen over the past year on Instagram.
In this digital environment, students had the opportunity to curate their public identity to look however they wanted.
“I think during quarantine, people tried to rebrand themselves and make themselves who they wanted to be, and they did that through Instagram,” said Nervo. “You definitely had the ability to be whoever you wanted to be because people only knew you based on what you posted and what you were doing.”
Students didn’t just change the content on their profiles because they were growing. Rather, they were cognizant of the fact that other students would be judging who they were based on the identity they presented online. They knew that, because they were judging others by their Instagram posts, the same would likely happen to them.
When I asked my friends for their perspective on my Instagram post, it was for the sole purpose of understanding how someone stalking my page would perceive my personality. I knew others were looking at my profile to determine if they wanted to be my friend once we met on campus because I did the same exact thing on other freshmen’s pages.
In a study on how undergraduate students use Facebook to curate their self-presentation, philosophy doctorate student David Kasch found that a major aspect of students’ social media usage involves purposefully producing an online identity on social media for others to consume.
Kasch’s study revealed that, “students knew others would view/stalk/creep on their profiles, so they designed their profiles as media objects to be viewed.”
Knowing that your profile will be stalked by others to determine your identity further creates an expectation to over analyze what you post. However, this expectation often leads to inauthenticity.
In the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other, Author and MIT Professor Sherry Turkle said, “on social networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as somebody else — often the fantasy of who we want to be.”
This semester, the sophomore class is finally on campus after spending a year stalking each other’s online profiles. Now the rubber meets the road, and the virtual identities that were crafted in preparation for this time are being put to the test against in-person identities.
I’ve noticed that when I meet other sophomores in person now, there is an unspoken mutual understanding that we know more about each other than two strangers should. The challenge now is navigating that space to set aside preconceived notions from social media and instead come to know each other’s authentic selves.
“People need to not base their first judgment off of Instagram … and not make it seem like you know everything about others because you don’t,” said Nervo. “Be open to meeting them as a new person.”
My goal when I meet people on campus now — whose faces I recognize from profile pictures and whose names I know from social media handles — is that I’d have the chance to prove myself as more than my curated captions and photos. Rather than trying to live up to an identity I’ve crafted on Instagram, I’d like my page to show the identity I inhabit in real life.