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Reflections from a first-year: Establishing friendships over Zoom

<h6>John Ehling / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
John Ehling / The Daily Princetonian

In the era of modern technology, the phrase “don’t talk to strangers online” has become an age-old adage instilled in our generation. However, this notion has been turned on its head for many first-years trying to navigate the uncharted waters of a social landscape that is almost entirely virtual. With few options to choose from, we have turned to various social media platforms in an attempt to salvage interactions with our classmates.

As a first-year myself, I was grateful for the excuse this article gave me to reach out to fellow first-years, often on these same platforms. Drawing on both my own experiences as well as those of the students I talked to, I found that it was often a combination of serendipitous events and intentional outreach that have allowed first-years to reclaim semblances of in-person experiences. Although the specifics varied, I found a trend in the general progression of interactions between two strangers connected only by their shared Princeton identities.

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In a normal semester, students may have been able to sow the first seeds of a budding friendship by turning to a peer in an orientation hall or large lecture class to exchange a few words. Now, side conversations have become relegated to the Zoom chat, where a quick private message about an assignment might just spark the beginnings of a new connection.

From there, it’s easy enough to take the friendship further. With the various social media platforms available, it’s not hard to find someone online. Searching someone up on Instagram has become second nature, our eyes now trained to spot the “Princeton ’24” in their bio.

Thus ensues a few days of awkward DM conversations. Like the small talk characteristic of a new friendship, this usually entails a back and forth of questions about majors, hometowns, and hobbies, with some shared commiseration about problem sets or Zoom fatigue. Unlike in-person interactions, however, both individuals have the opportunity to read the message in advance and carefully craft a response in the moment, or come back to it after attending to coursework.

Sometimes, friendships are just left at that: acquaintances that live in one’s Instagram DMs.

However, if they find that they click over shared classes or a favorite TV show, one of the students might be so bold as to suggest taking their friendship to the next level by scheduling a face-to-face call. What may have once been an offhand suggestion to get a meal has turned into a text message asking to FaceTime.

A FaceTime call is most reminiscent of an in-person first-year interaction, but it is admittedly harder to read body language through a screen. While the content of the conversation may not necessarily differ as drastically, it does become more difficult to discern whether someone isn’t digging your joke or if their Wi-Fi just momentarily cut out.

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But if the interaction was a positive experience, those FaceTime calls may become a regular routine, a substitute for daily interactions until it’s possible to meet in-person.

Of course, this is just one path of many that first-years have chosen to take in lieu of face-to-face interactions.

Having spoken to several first-years about their experiences socializing virtually, I’ve found that most students have found a platform that works best for them. Some have turned to Snapchat, while others rely on GroupMe to connect with fellow students from their classes or in the Class of 2024 as a whole. Some have made friends through study groups, where calling to work on a problem set has led to further conversations. Still others have found that they’d rather not form relationships through social media, and are content to remain patient until in-person opportunities present themselves, whenever those may be.

Regardless of the method, the Class of 2024 has learned to adapt, taking advantage of all the platforms at our disposal. And in a way, it’s come close to what we would have experienced in a normal year. Some first-years have even expressed a sense of comfort in the knowledge that the use of platforms like Instagram to establish relationships was a common practice among first-years even before the COVID era.

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Furthermore, while the strategies used to initiate friendships may look different now, the first invitation to connect is still an integral part of making new friends. The willingness of other first-years to engage in conversation is not a new phenomenon: first-years have always bonded over their shared desire to connect with others in a largely unfamiliar environment, whether that be on campus or over Zoom.

There are, naturally, some things that simply can’t be translated. After all, no online interaction will ever quite do justice to the power of proximity, where body language can be read and interpreted, laughter can be richly heard without the distortion of computer audio, and offhand comments can be dropped to one or two individuals without fearing that they will be out of place in the whole group.

However, until then, we have accepted that we must do what we can to recover those experiences, limited as they may be, taking solace in the knowledge that these unique interactions will provide us with the comfort of familiar faces when we finally see each other in-person.

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