I saw it online: The importance of digital communities at UMich – The Michigan Daily

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The Michigan Daily
One hundred and thirty-one years of editorial freedom
It’s a common refrain on campus: “I saw on the U-M subreddit that”, “There’s a rumor going around in my class group chats”, “Did you see the Facebook post about”.
Running parallel to official sources on campus — University press releases, emails and The Michigan Daily — there is an informal, crowd-sourced ecosystem of digital circles: the U-M subreddit, posts on Yik Yak, Discord servers and countless others.
These spaces are difficult to characterize. Their collaborative nature and emphasis on community norms make them distinct from other social media. They aren’t quite meme pages, but they aren’t overly serious. They’re conducted mostly by students, but professors are known to lurk in the background. There’s a social element, but most users are strangers to one another. Still, users with a range of academic backgrounds, interests and motivations coexist in these spaces, tied together by their common identity as members of the University of Michigan community. 
Since my freshman year, I’ve been an atypical producer and consumer in Michigan’s information ecosystem. I spent three years working on The Daily’s audience engagement team, which is responsible for managing the newspaper’s social media presence, posting breaking news and publishing newsletters. Simply put, my job was to get news to students. Getting our stories circulating in group chats and online communities was crucial. During my tenure, I learned that if a story isn’t a meme or the topic of a discussion thread on platforms like Reddit, it’s not really circulating on campus. 
Having been both an information producer and consumer, I’ve seen how information can take on a life of its own in digital spaces. The U-M subreddit, various student-run Discord servers and a collection of Facebook groups fill in the gap between information that has been endorsed and vetted by the University and external publications like MLive and The Daily.
Always Online
Information junior Ari Feldberg is always on Discord. “In my room on my desk, I have two monitors. I have a bigger main monitor, then I have a second monitor with pretty much just Discord open,” he said. 
Discord was released in 2015 as a messaging platform targeted towards video game players, but has since grown to include features like video- and voice-calling. It’s split off into servers, which are smaller communities with their own members, moderators and rules. University-specific servers have popped up on campuses across the nation as a way for students to connect with one another.
Thanks to his persistent use of the platform, Feldberg became the owner of the U-M server in 2019, giving him access to essentially everything on the server. Felberg can change the group’s settings, add moderators and remove members at his discretion. When he joined, the group belonged to an entirely different team of moderators and was more or less inactive: “The previous owners just gave it over to someone else because they’re like, ‘Okay, you guys are active and you’re gonna fix the server.’”
Since then, the U-M Discord has grown to over 5,000 members and has channels for everything from politics to off-campus housing to sports. In practice, Feldberg is the server’s lead moderator, taking on most of the responsibility of monitoring acidity on the Discord and ensuring that users follow the group’s rules. Moderators are the border patrollers of the digital world; the gatekeepers who decide what kind of information and discussion gets to be on the platform. 
Feldberg said he takes a “relatively hands-off approach” and despite constantly being on Discord, he spends very little time actively moderating the group. He also shared he typically doesn’t intervene in heated discussions so long as parties are “arguing in good faith.” 
Engineering sophomore Casper Guo knew about the U-M subreddit before he was even active on the platform. Subreddits are individual communities devoted to a specific topic within Reddit. The platform is made up of millions of subreddits with distinctive cultures and norms.
“I literally made my Reddit account because I wanted to see the [U-M] Reddit,” he shared. Guo couldn’t recall exactly how he had found out about the subreddit. The group has been around since 2010 and has 34,000 plus members — just larger than the population of 32,282 undergraduate students on the Ann Arbor campus. 
Like Guo, no one told me about the subreddit, or the Discord or any other student-run communities. It’s a testament to the ubiquity — and sometimes, the invisibility — of these spaces. It’s up to students to stumble across the University’s digital communities.
While some users like Feldberg invest time into moderating and cultivating digital spaces, these communities are generally characterized by low barriers to entry. Online content creation generally follows a power-law distribution, with a few users contributing the majority of the content. Guo observed that, on the U-M subreddit, “it’s the same names that keep coming up,” and he contrasted these active-participants with “most people who occasionally post maybe asking for classes or asking for professors.” 
Still, with an account, some motivation and enough posts, anyone can become a recognizable power-user, while the majority of us sit back and watch the feed unfold. 
Knowledge & Norms
Every semester when backpacking begins, I find myself instantly turning to the U-M subreddit.
I had a four-year plan color coded and organized in a spreadsheet before I even began college. During my freshman year, you could’ve asked me what I’d be taking as a senior, and I’d answer in earnest. But I quickly learned that even if you know exactly what you’ll be registering for, the subreddit has something that you’ll never find on the LSA Course Guide — insider information about nearly every class. If the professor is boring, if the homework is too long or if discussion attendance is mandatory, someone has probably posted about it. 
When I asked Feldberg about the value of informal spaces like the Discord, he quickly mentioned classes. He said that communities like the U-M Discord raise awareness for things that “the University isn’t going to tell people, Like, no, do not take intro classes. Terrible idea. Do it at a community college. The University isn’t gonna tell people to do that, whereas current students or former students or alumni, they would all have that experience.”
But not all majors and departments are well represented in the subreddit. Guo critiqued the page for being “EECS-centric,” noting that most posts are made by and for computer science majors. “The post I made asking about linguistics classes, I think I got like, maybe two comments. The other majors don’t really have the same sort of presence on Reddit,” Guo said. 
While there’s no hard data on the page’s demographics, moderators have instituted a policy that posts asking about courses must include the department name, largely as a response to the constant stream of users asking about “281, 370, 445,” referring to common courses in the EECS Department.
I am not an EECS major. But I’m interested in posts about recruiting for tech internships and doing research, which are common on the page. I’m a statistics minor, and as the department is decently well represented in the group, I can usually find useful information. I can benefit from the subreddit because my interests are close enough to the stereotypical engineer major the page caters to. The subreddit provides a rich knowledge base for a certain type of student, but has less utility for others. 
Going Offline
These digital communities are crucial in disseminating information across campus, but that’s not their only purpose. They are, first and foremost, a space for members of the Michigan community — a space which became especially important to students over the course of the pandemic. 
Cliff Lampe, a professor in the School of Information whose research specializes on social media and social computing, speaks on the value of fostering social connections during this stage in our lives.  
“Part of the college experience, in fact, one of the best parts of the college experience, is building social capital,” Lampe said. Social capital is a sociological term that refers to the trust, reciprocity and shared values that allow our interpersonal relationships to function. Social capital manifests as friendships, professional connections or access to opportunities. In a way, social capital is analogous to that certain something that we all feel is missing from online learning.
Lampe went further to say that the connections we make in college “provide value often throughout (our) life; (we) make lifelong friends. How do you do that over Zoom, right? How do you build meaningful friendships via technology?”
The students I spoke to had mixed experiences forming social connections in digital spaces. When Feldberg first began using the U-M Discord, in-person meet ups were more common. Now, he says these virtual interactions have moved to smaller groups specific to students’ graduating classes. 
“​​There’s like a class of 2025 server, there’s a class of 2026 or ‘20. So it’s for people who are within those classes,” Feldberg. “The incoming students will make a server for incoming students where a lot of them will find roommates or meet new people, meet up with people. Having those smaller communities, I feel like, are a lot better for that.”
Guo could recall two instances where he tried to meet up in person with students he had met on the U-M subreddit. “Someone made a post asking to form a intramural soccer team. So I texted him and we talked. We kind of set up a group chat, but that didn’t work out,” he shared.
Another time, he responded to a post made by a prospective student asking if any engineering students would be willing to give them a tour of North Campus. Guo said they spent two hours showing them around and he said he was paid $80 by the prospective student’s father. 
Still, technology is an imperfect substitute. Students have complained of “zoom fatigue” and repeatedly voice the difficulties of rushing, joining clubs and making friends online. And with thousands of potential connections and low barriers to entry, it’s no surprise that many students struggle to translate online interactions into meaningful friendships. 
As Lampe put it, “it’s not as big a rush as meeting up at Skeeps.”
Things Overheard
The distinction between meme pages and digital communities isn’t always clear. With over 20,000 members, Overheard at Umich is one of the most popular Facebook groups for members of the U-M community. Unlike Instagram meme pages that are controlled by a small group of people who own the account, Facebook groups and similar digital communities are interactive spaces relying on user-generated content. This makes them hybrid spaces that are equally shaped by a core group of moderators and the hundreds of students who submit posts. 
Overheard at Umich’s rules clearly state that the page is for “overheard/seen content only” and that “any advertising (lost stuff included) will result in a ban.” But after speaking to moderator and alumni Cecilia LaCroix, I learned it wasn’t quite so simple.
“I probably declined five AirPod posts today. Like, people find a lot of air pods,” she said. Other cases are more ambiguous: “I feel like (these posts) are also important at times. People are like ‘oh I lost my cat.’ That’s something on campus, so I feel like it’s related.” 
And in the digital age, it’s difficult to define what constitutes overheard and overseen content. News articles, emails and University press releases can technically be “overseen.” Despite only loosely fitting the group’s rules, news about former President Mark Schlissel’s firing and his emails were shared on the page.
“The Schlissel thing was such a big news outbreak. Overseeing the emails technically is overseeing content. I approve that type of thing,” LaCroix explained. 
The umbrella of “overheard,” can also encapsulate rumors and unverified information about the University. Although she said that misinformation is generally not an issue on the page, “when COVID first broke we did have a lot of posts like ‘overheard: they’re gonna cancel classes.’ It didn’t seem like overheard content, it was more personal viewpoints,” said LaCroix. 
Most monumental announcements from the University are accompanied by rumors and speculation. In March 2020, when classes were canceled because of the pandemic, I had already discussed the looming cancellation extensively in class GroupMes and other informal spaces prior to when the official announcement was released on March 11. In digital communities, information can spread beyond an individual’s social circle and take on a life of its own. 
Speculation appears to be allowed on the U-M subreddit. In fact, that’s the place where I keep up to date on the rumors swirling around campus. In a global pandemic where University policy is abnormally relevant to our daily lives, these digital communities can become an important, even crucial, means of staying in tune with campus hearsay. 
Not everything turns out to be true or gets picked up by media outlets, of course. But earlier this semester, when students were facing long waits and poor conditions in quarantine housing, the rumors circulated on social media first; a testament to how the little things overheard and overseen can be more than just posts on a meme page. Overheard at Umich highlights what really distinguishes a digital community from a meme page. Digital communities can include memes and other lighthearted content, but there’s an element of conversation and collaboration that you won’t find on Instagram. 
Part of the Community
I’ve found that people are often hesitant to admit that they get their news from social media. We live in a peculiar time where the internet is rampant with both misinformation and thriving digital communities with immense insider knowledge. Digital communities are not a perfect news source or social space, but they offer a valuable supplement to traditional media and in-person interactions.
While this column and my interviews emphasized the informational component of these communities, it’s worth noting that the people I spoke to said they joined these spaces to primarily look at memes and to be part of the Michigan community. 
In a way, the prevalence of rumors and unofficial information on these pages is a side effect of this. Talking about classes and speculating over COVID-19 policies are both ways students can feel like an “insider” — someone who’s part of the Michigan community, someone who knows things only a ‘real Wolverine’ would know. 
As Lampe stated, “​​When people turn to things like Reddit or the GroupMe groups or the Discord groups … all of that is to try to create a sense of connection with other U of M students.”
It’s still up for debate if digital communities create real connections or if it’s just an illusion. Students’ experiences online highlight the value — and shortcomings — of these communities. The digital world is never going to be a perfect substitute for in-person experiences, but it’s unclear if it was even an adequate one for the students I spoke to.
Still, it seems that young people have a need for connectivity. We keep logging on and posting and resharing and speculating, even if we aren’t sure what will come of it.
Statement Columnist Haley Johnson can be reached at haleyej@umich.edu.

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