By Connor Smith and Elizabeth Zakaim
Former Editor-in-Chief and News Editor
Whether students were traveling across the country or enjoying a much-needed winter break at home, the College’s unofficial Snapchat account, tcnj.snap, was uncharacteristically quiet. The yearly “TCNJ Takes” photos of students in exotic locations were gone, and they may never return.
The reason: tcnj.snap was retired by its anonymous creator — who graduated last May and passed it on to a current sophomore — due to a lack of moderation that reflected poorly on the College and its students.
The popular account, which shared user submissions from students and alumni to compile a “campus story,” was run by one person, so when he graduated, he left tcnj.snap in the hands of a new moderator, with a mutual understanding that she could have control of the account, as long as she exercised the strict vetting process that tcnj.snap had used in the past.
“When you pass on anything to somebody else, you have to make sure that if they’re running something you built, the mission for that product or service must match up completely with what your original goal was,” said the account’s creator, who spoke to The Signal on the phone on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t believe that goal matched up.”
“I figured as long as she was learning, that’s all that matters to me, as long as TCNJ’s reputation and credibility stayed intact,” he added. “As long as the snap kept painting the campus in a positive light. But it didn’t happen that way.”
While several students told The Signal they felt that tcnj.snap’s level of moderation dropped when its original founder graduated, the event that triggered the account’s deletion was a photo posted on Dec. 3 of two black women dressed in red with the accompanying caption, “What’s braken blood.”
The post, according to students such as Yanaja Joyner, a sophomore journalism and professional writing major, insinuated that the women were part of a gang, and mocked gang culture in general.
“A lot of people who have grown up in an urban area have lost someone to gang violence.” Joyner said. “It’s a dangerous thing and people are making a joke out of it — it’s nothing to joke about.”
A student, who posted her Snapchat exchange on Twitter, messaged the account and asked for the post to be taken down for this reason.
The current moderator responded, “You have to look at it a different way. There are over thousands of students on here that will like their opinions to be shared on the snap as well.”
While the post itself would not have met the founder’s standards, the response exacerbated the problem.
“My No. 1 rule was I wanted to make sure it never targeted anyone,” the founder said. “I wanted to make sure it never singled anybody out and I wanted to make sure that each post was constructive. That being said, my policy was that if a single person wrote in and said ‘I have a problem with this,’ I would take it down immediately, no questions asked.”
Don Trahan Jr., the College’s director of diversity and inclusion, and Kerri Thompson, the chief diversity officer, sent out an email on Dec. 5 informing the campus community of the situation, and reminding students to treat others with civility and respect.
The tcnj.snap founder responded by taking back the account and sending out a final message, informing its followers he would be deleting the account in 24 hours.
“The last thing I wanted was for this to really spiral out of control and have this end up on the local news, that TCNJ is racist, or something to that effect,” the founder told The Signal. “I wanted to do everything I could to prevent that headline from ever coming up everywhere, because it’s simply not true. There was one bad apple that sent something in, and it spiraled and it spiraled and the actions of that moderator magnified the problem, and it was just a ticking time bomb. I sincerely believe that if I hadn’t diffused it that night, I think it would have ended up on the local news.”
While the founder was disappointed to see the end of his creation, which began in October 2015 and peaked at 15,000 unique subscribers, according to the founder. He felt the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“When I closed it down, I couldn’t believe how many people, the original people, the people who were using it a couple years ago when I first started, they all messaged me,” he said. “So many people were saying ‘This was absolutely the right thing to do, based on what’s been going on. The snap is not the same.’ But they let me know all these little stories about how the snap helped them and made campus life easier for them.”
From checking in on fellow students or connecting with new friends, tcnj.snap was a window into life at the College that may never be replaced.
“When I ran it, it was used to make the campus feel smaller,” the founder said. “It was used to make everyone feel more connected to each other and to get everyone on the same page. So even if you didn’t talk to somebody that day, or you hadn’t seen them for a week, you had a common understanding of where things were on campus and just the general vibe of the campus and knowledge of events going on.”
While junior marketing major Omobola Solebo supported the removal of the post, she thought that that should have been the final move, had the new moderator not responded how she did.
“If they immediately took down the picture, if they immediately apologized, this wouldn’t have happened,” Solebo said. “When you tell somebody their opinions and feelings are invalid, you push them to the edge and make them seek a bigger way to respond.”
Trahan felt he needed to touch on the larger narrative of diversity at the College after receiving emails on Dec. 4 from students upset about the post.
“The intention of the email was to remind us that even if actions that we take are meant to be harmless, the impact could have detrimental results,” Trahan said. “As we’re making decisions or engaging in conversations we need to be sensitive to how this intention could be perceived.
Trahan also wanted to clarify that neither he nor the administration had a hand in the account’s removal and that it was an action solely under the discretion of tcnj.snap’s creator.
“We encourage freedom of speech and encourage students to use their voices,” he said, “but at the same time we want to model a culture of respect and inclusiveness.”
Trahan invited students who felt disgruntled by the situation to the weekly Critical Conversations meeting, a platform for students to engage in unfiltered dialogue about a broad range of topics they may take issue with.
During the meeting, which was held on Dec. 8, many students acknowledged that it was not the first time they saw a post they deemed racist on tcnj.snap.
Solebo, Joyner and other students at the meeting recalled seeing pictures of fallen loose braids around campus with captions such as “somebody come get your weave,” which they felt targeted the black culture and community on campus.
Joyner never saw any jokes about “blonde extensions,” or other cultural hairstyles posted on tcnj.snap, and that made her feel like the black community was being specifically targeted. Joyner said she noticed a racial bias in the account this past fall semester, specifically when the moderators of the social media platform changed hands.
This isn’t the first time the College’s reputation was damaged by an unofficial account, the tcnj.snap founder said. Early in its run, a competitor, tcnj_snap, cropped up, which posted images and videos that included nudity and drug use.
“From my perspective, (tcnj_snap) was doing the opposite of everything I would have done,” the tcnj.snap founder said. “They were posting nudes and crazy shit. That’s why they failed. The fact that they failed really helped me to understand that the only way for me to make this meaningful is to run it as if I was part of the administration. My rule was: if the president of the College were to watch this and didn’t approve, don’t post it.”
A new account, Tcnj-snap, recently popped up to fill the void left by tcnj.snap, though it lacks the reach of the old account, especially in alumni circles. While not aware of the new account at the time, the tcnj.snap founder told The Signal he would be fine with another account stepping up to replace his creation, but assured The Signal that this is the end of his involvement in any social media channels representing the College.
“I have no doubt there will be another tcnj.snap or a competitor or an equivalent, but I want to clarify that my involvement with any social media involving TCNJ ends today,” he said. “It won’t be me. I won’t be involved. I won’t be talking with the person. I’m excited to see where TCNJ students take it, but I won’t be able to swoop in and save the day again. I hope whoever decides to take a stab at it has a steady hand.”