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Social media centralizes campus buzz

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Social media centralizes campus buzz

By Natalie Daher / Editor-in-Chief

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A host of new social media accounts provides yet another outlet to satisfy the human impulse to eavesdrop, vent and stir trouble. 

Accounts on Twitter and Facebook — including Overheard at Pitt, Pitt Problems and Panther Problems  — have gained followings of thousands of Pitt students. Anonymous owners, as well as followers or members, post or repost snippets and photos about anything from smooching sessions to bizarre conversations. 

Social media sites playing host for these accounts have opened new avenues for anonymous and open discourse, especially among college campuses. 

One popular type of account is “Overheard,” a virtual rumor mill for students to share their lamentations, thoughts and notable eavesdropping. “Overheard” accounts have taken hold on Facebook and Twitter for Pitt students, as well as for other schools including Temple University, Syracuse University and Virginia Tech University. Tumblr is also a forum for an “Overheard” account for University of Notre Dame students.

The platform used for the account determines how students banter about mutual woes, often relating to finals, weather or campus events.

On Twitter, Pitt’s Overheard, which isn’t affiliated with the Facebook account, has acquired more than 3,000 followers since its creation in January 2012. Users tag the account’s handle in posts that then circulate among Pitt Overheard’s audience via quote or retweet. 

One anonymous owner manages the account, which features the tagline: “Crazy, heinous and raunchy quotes are what helps us get through the day.”

“Maybe I just really love eavesdropping, but taking stuff out of context is always hilarious,” Pitt Overheard said in an email.

One topic that received buzz was last month’s temporary closure of Oakland restaurant and bar Mi Ranchito. The account quoted another user’s tweet, “RIP Mi Ranch,” with a photo of the official notice posted on the establishment’s door.

The account’s owner also cited the virtual chatter sparked by last fall’s suspicious UPS package that shut down a section of Forbes Avenue for a few hours.

“Honestly, the tweets I was reading were hilarious,” the owner said. “Sometimes, you have to joke about a serious situation so you don’t go crazy.”

With only a short history, these accounts have created a new community for interacting online. 

“They’re funny. They’re interesting. There’s some intrigue as far as not knowing who’s behind them,” said Lorrie Cranor, a computer science, engineering and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “I think that’s why they’re popular. “

According to Cranor, the use of Twitter accounts such as “Overheard At Pitt” is not “fundamentally different” from the natural human curiosity to read another person’s diary or watch reality television. 

“People are intrigued by what other people do,” she said. “For a lot of people, it’s just kind of a guilty pleasure.” 

She added that people often eavesdrop to answer the “How normal am I?” question. By comparing their own inner thoughts to others’ broadcast on Twitter, they hope to discover that “other people are really freaks,” not unlike themselves. 

About two years ago, Derek Orr joined the Overheard at Pitt Facebook page, a closed group with more than 10,700 members. Members often post quirky quotes they’ve heard around campus for likes or snarky commentary from other members. 

The group’s lighthearted nature draws in Orr, a junior majoring in math and physics, when he’s looking for laughs, and for freshmen, he said the group could be welcoming to see students’ playful sides. 

“It’s pretty laid back, and you can say what you want,” Orr said. “It might make you feel more welcome and know that Pitt is a genuinely nice campus. We like to pick on our students and stuff like that.”

Last month, during Pitt’s graduation ceremonies, Orr posted about a conversation he overheard between a couple: “Husband: ‘There must be a state graduation or something…’ Wife: ‘Yeah, something’s going on alright…’”

Sarah Akintoye also scrolls through the group when she’s looking for laughs. Akintoye, a sophomore majoring in industrial engineering, said the group’s large audience might give members who post a sense of anonymity online because of the slim chances they’d be recognized in person.

“I’d feel comfortable posting anything because I don’t think people would remember me even if they don’t like my view or opinion,” Akintoye said. “You’re kind of disconnected — even with your name out there — from what you say.”

The potential gap in time between taking a photo and posting it online might also hinder the group’s audience from identifying where or when the scenario pictured took place. 

But for Akintoye and some of her friends, the possibility of being featured on some accounts, such as Pitt Makeouts, is nerve-racking. Pitt Makeouts is another anonymous account that showcases photos of couples kissing and has accrued more than 5,800 followers since its creation last January. 

“If you’re on Pitt Makeouts, I feel like people judge you,” she said. “Even if you’re on the side, no one I know really wants to be on Pitt Makeouts.”

The ease of uploading and disseminating information via anonymous social media accounts is what makes them appealing.

In Twitter’s case, the speed and audience available for a 140-character tweet, Cranor said, makes the method of expression more appealing than writing a letter or typing an email. In many cases, the tweets are purely a form of “venting.” 

“If you tweet this, and you can get a lot of people mad at it, you might actually impact change more quickly,” Cranor said. 

Such openness on social media also reflects the millennial generation’s “exhibitionist” reputation, Cranor said.

“If everybody behaves in this open and bad way on social media, then everybody is going to be tainted,” she said of the potential reasoning behind some posts. 

A 2011 study by Cranor and other CMU researchers found that Facebook users most often publish posts they later regret for several reasons — the desire to be viewed favorably, the influence of mind-altering substances or a lack of foresight on how the audience would receive the post. 

Regrettable posts, according to the study, often reference alcohol or illegal drug use, sex, religion, politics, personal or family matters or contain profanity, obscenity or negative feelings toward work and company. Others included lies, secrets, arguments and negative or offensive comments.

Commonly reported motivators for regrettable posts included attempts to be “cool” or funny, good intent, impulse or incendiary emotions, including frustration. The study also found users avoid or remedy regrettable posts by self-censoring, self-cleaning their pages, maintaining a fake name or refraining from posting. 

A hub for complaints on Twitter is Pitt Problems, which boasts a following of more than 5,000 Twitter users since its creation in fall 2011. According to an anonymous email from the account, two people manage the Twitter handle. 

According to the owner, the Pitt Problems account was used heavily during the campus-wide bomb threats in spring 2012. During the stressful time, marked by evacuations and bag searches at University buildings, Pitt Problems “reminded people to be safe while lightening the mood” with tweets about the rising count of threats. 

“Through Pitt Problems, we can not only share the unfortunate news of Oakland, but let students know that sometimes they aren’t alone in their daily struggles,” the owner said. 

A similar account, Panther Problems, has more than 3,000 followers since its 2011 inception during the owner’s freshman year. The account has been trending on Twitter in Pittsburgh a couple of times, the owner said, and has also caught some flak.

One tweet that offended a follower last October said, “Really?,” accompanied by a photo of a poster advertising the weekly bread sales by Pitt’s chapter of Challah for Hunger, a national nonprofit organization. The poster referenced Gwen Stefani’s hit song, “Hollaback Girl,” with a photo of the artist and “I ain’t no Challah-back girl” in bold letters.

“I usually retweet what I find funny,” she said, adding that the tweet wasn’t malicious.

The account’s primary goal is to make Pitt’s Oakland campus feel a bit smaller as followers relate to one another’s experiences.

“I think that people knowing that their voice will be heard by a lot of people has made [students] more open to expressing their opinions, and it kind of brings us together more as a community,” Panther Problems said.  

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Social media centralizes campus buzz