By Sarah Nicell || Contributing Writer
Interaction, regardless of its content, looks very different this year at Franklin & Marshall College. Developing close relationships has become increasingly difficult for those on campus due to social distancing restrictions. As for those at home, the best thing one can hope for is an unmuted, camera-on video of a friend during Zoom class. Smiles through masks don’t feel quite the same, so naturally, our stresses and concerns are exacerbated by our circumstances.
Online platforms, therefore, have become particularly popular during the pandemic due to their ability to connect students who may not have the ability or the confidence to physically address or announce their concerns. F&M has proven to have a strong social media presence, but in recent months, popularity has shifted to what one would call “anonymous discourse” accounts. They feature nameless stories and opinions that are posted for the school, students, and the world to see, providing students and alumni a voice with which they can use without fear of direct backlash.
Accounts like @protesttreeproject, @blackatfandm, and @fandmsurvivors share messages from the unheard. In a time when the physical protest tree is not available to all students, the virtual version is booming with activity daily. A self-proclaimed method of “uplifting the black students and alumni of Franklin & Marshall College”, @blackatfandm gives the underrepresented the limelight to bring the realities of life for black students to the attention of the public. @Fandmsurvivors serves the noble purpose of “amplifying the voices of survivors of sexual violence” at the college, a topic that many feel needs to be addressed further both on social media and within the school’s community.
It is no doubt that these accounts provide much-needed representation for students and alumni, proven by the countless stories people anonymously submit to their well-formatted pages. However, what kind of toll does this massive responsibility take on the accounts’ owners? A large enough one to remain anonymous, sure, but how does a combination of classes, work, the current social and political climate, and social media impact the emotional burden this must have upon each login?
Recently, both the Protest Tree Project and F&M Survivors’ Instagrams have switched ownership. Why? This is, as announced, due to the mental exhaustion these accounts cause their owners, on top of an already overwhelming workload in this new module system.
How, then, do these anonymous account owners feel about their work?
I decided to ask.
I was able to get into contact with all three accounts, but @fandmsurvivors declined to comment due to its recent change in ownership (which is entirely understandable). This further goes to show the effort that is put into keeping these accounts alive to allow their peers the opportunity to free themselves by means of incognito story-telling. I thank @fandmsurvivors for all that they do to ensure that survivors’ stories are heard.
Here was the Q/A that took place anonymously over email with both @protesttreeproject and @blackatfandm, who answered my questions with grace and eloquence:
Why do you think it is important to share the experiences of others on campus?
ProtestTreeProject: We both strongly believe that to have productive discourse all opinions and views must be taken into consideration. While we obviously don’t agree with everything we post, we strongly believe in providing a space where all members of the F&M community can have their voices heard.
BlackatFandM: I think that sharing experiences is most important for those who are sharing. Sometimes, especially at PWI’s, the experiences of POC are shared into a void or are exploited. Sharing those voices is a way to empower marginalized groups, specifically (in my case) Black students when done with context and care. I think that it helps other Black students to not feel alone, to know that their experiences are valid and unfortunately common.
How has reading and posting negative experiences impacted your mental health?
ProtestTreeProject: In terms of the negative posts, we’re not blind to the injustices and problems that exist throughout F&M’s campus. We both are involved in different sections of campus and have witnessed these issues first hand. Although at times it may be difficult to read and post certain things, we recognize the courage that it may have taken for someone to have shared those experiences. We are so grateful to be able to try and validate the experiences F&M students are having, and we hope that positive and productive change and discourse will come out of the account.
BlackatFandM: To a certain extent, I feel hopeless that these experiences are continuing on our campus where we proclaim to have progressed so much, and that many students out there have College experiences that are so terribly damaged. However, I also feel grateful that there are facets and niches of community that can support these students. Many alumni have reached out to me in support of the Black student population, which is amazing.
Do you think people depend on this account more now that our entire worlds are virtual?
ProtestTreeProject: We would say yes because this account is especially helpful for the sophomores, as well as others who are stuck at home, so that they can still have their voices heard—even if they’re not physically in the space.
BlackatFandM: I think that a social media platform allows for a more cohesive experience, especially as many students are not on campus. More than that, it provides a safe space for anonymous communities, and that’s the primary reason I set up my account as I did.
Have you received any negative comments/hate from followers?
ProtestTreeProject: We have received an immense amount of negative comments and messages from followers. While we can never truly please everyone, we’re trying our best to keep this account going while also managing the immense amount of course work in the module system. We think that a lot of people who are sending in these comments forget that we are their peers and are under the same stress and pressures they experience. On top of all that work we are also trying to amplify voices when we receive 20+ submissions every day.
BlackatFandM: So far, not outwardly or directly.
Has it been difficult at all to keep your anonymity?
ProtestTreeProject: It hasn’t been difficult to keep our anonymity. When our friends ask if we know who runs the account we just say no, and they accept that answer. No one expects us to be the account owners.
BlackatFandM: To some extent, but I don’t think that I would want to operate this account without anonymity for myself. I hope that it also provides some security for those who share their stories with the account.
Have you ever felt like it was too much and wanted to pass on the account or just delete it?
ProtestTreeProject: We were just given the account about 3 or 4 weeks ago, so we haven’t hit that burnout point yet. That being said, it can get exhausting and feel overwhelming at times.
BlackatFandM: For sure, it can feel really overwhelming sometimes, and I often feel pressure to post a certain amount. It can be discouraging sometimes when no stories are submitted, but I have to remind myself that I made the account to support students who would like to share, not to share a certain amount of stories.
What keeps you going on the account?
ProtestTreeProject: Through this account, we hope that the administration will listen to these stories and make the positive changes that our campus needs. Also, the fact that we are able to amplify voices within our community is very fulfilling.
BlackatFandM: What encourages me is that there are people who still follow and interact with the account and that I can be a resource to draw attention to the issues that arise at F&M. I want to continue providing a platform for Black students who would like to seek support and community, and I have to remind myself that resources that I share can be valuable to a large part of the F&M community, whether students, faculty, or staff.
Based on the responses of these media accounts, it is entirely evident that these owners do what they do to satisfy a need for community, free thought, and a passion for helping others. In a growing virtual world, they allow students to feel connected, heard, and valued without a physical presence on campus.
Though some posts may be viewed as divisive, this is not the intention. These spaces are created to promote compassion for the feelings of others and are necessary to provide the anonymity that some require to feel seen.
There is something quite liberating about sharing your story with others through a quick Google Form. Today, it is so easy to disclose your narrative with just a click of a button, but always remember to (mentally) thank the people on the other end who are spreading it for you.
@Protesttreeproject, @blackatfandm, @fandmsurvivors一Thank you.
First Year Sarah Nicell is a Contributing Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org