I was surprised to see the widespread adoption of the apps Sidechat and Fizz — marketed as social hubs for college students — across Princeton’s campus over the course of the semester since we have no delusions in the modern day that social media is beneficial for our mental health. While it’s understandable that students can’t tear themselves away from established platforms, given today’s level of distrust of social media companies and emphasis on mental health, I assumed the adoption of new, untested competitors for student attention would be a non-starter. Instead, I was surprised to find people I know actively using the apps on a daily basis, with the platforms themselves awash with student-produced content. I’ve watched this unfold for nearly an entire semester, and there has still been no campus reckoning with exposing ourselves in this new way: while people are talking on these apps, no one is talking about these apps.
The widespread adoption of these platforms highlights a need for people to be cautious before diving headfirst into any new technology, especially given these apps’ concerning new marketing tactics and their highly anonymous, hollowed out form of social connection. We should demand more from social media platforms before letting them become campus obsessions.
The basis of free social media apps, that don’t generate revenue through paid services like subscriptions, is their ability to hold your attention to sell advertising. Unfortunately for every aspiring tech dropout looking to create the next big app, winning the attention of users means competing with an existing slate of platforms that are already exceptionally good at cultivating social media addictions and raking in advertising revenue. Sidechat and Fizz meet this challenge by trying to pass themselves off as benign student projects rather than the same exploitative platforms they actually are.
Both have recruited students to promote the apps, who tabled for several days in highly-trafficked areas of campus like Frist Campus Center, making it difficult not to encounter one of these apps. Using the same tabling setup as student groups raising money for charity or selling tickets to their performances can make downloading the apps seem fun, low-stakes, and grassroots. The stunning lack of the corporate stench that can pervade other marketing to students manufactured a sense of legitimacy for the app obscured the apps’ marketing campaign, making it a well-funded, highly optimized, and seamless-enough process to not raise any questions.
The apps marketed themselves using external incentives, such as connection with peer influencers, free food, and merch. What students should be asking is: what good can these apps do for me and my community? If students took time to investigate this, they would find that neither Fizz nor Sidechat have any sort of mission statement for how they hope to positively impact college students. Who is behind these apps? While the founders of Fizz have publicly disclosed their identity, the founders of Sidechat remain anonymous. If we have limited information about the intent of the companies or those behind them, how are we supposed to make good judgments about whether or not they are good to use?
My concern with this state of affairs is not primarily on the practices of the corporations behind Sidechat and Fizz; to expect benevolence from these companies would be naive. My concern is with the student body’s failure to recognize what is at stake if we passively adopt these apps without critical evaluation of their origins and purposes. It is essential that we be able to recognize when a corporation is using our peers, gathering spaces, and practices to market to us, especially when we don’t have the information necessary to make educated guesses about what their products may be.
The reason it is important to look beyond these deceptive marketing practices is that social media platforms strongly influence how we structure our relationships and relate to our community. The anonymous communities that Sidechat and Fizz create allow the lighthearted joking common in online environments to go too far. Without any sense of accountability, cases of xenophobia, racism, and harassment can flourish with little moderation to limit them.
Many social media apps are anonymous, of course, but Sidechat and Fizz are uniquely bad in a different way: they entrap people in the superficial vision of campus discourse. A look through the Instagram pages of Sidechat or Fizz that feature posts supposedly good enough to market the app show, in my opinion, the banality and worthlessness of the content on the app.
So why do Princeton University students feel compelled to participate? A platform can only succeed when there is a broad consensus about its value as a virtual meeting place (heaven forbid we join an app that is uncool), and these apps achieve that via explicitly delimiting the community to the users’ university. For me, this appears to be an escalation of social media leveraging “fear of missing out” (FoMO) to compel participation. If you aren’t on Sidechat or Fizz, you aren’t just missing what random people have to say on the internet; you’re missing the campus buzz, the inside jokes, and the sense of abstract unity with your university community. These apps are just ratcheting up the inevitable problems that come when people have unlimited access to everyone else’s business.
I admit that there is value in social connection, and just because I find Fizz and Sidechat to be concerning for its role within our community, not everybody else will (though I do seem to be alone in finding these apps mostly useless). The ways in which they keep and hold our attention may not be the same for everyone.
But if the entertainment value is described as “marginal,” is it always worth the time in our day? When the basis of communication on the platform is anonymous mockery, how much more connection does this give us? If the gains offered by such platforms are so slim, it is worth more careful consideration before we introduce them to our lives or develop a consensus around them being a key part of the social experience of Princeton. It is concerning when the use of these platforms occurs without sufficient background, or is undertaken so passively that people default to new forms of social media consumption based on their novelty, not their quality. Experts recognize the risks to social development and mental health that accompany social media apps, and continuing to add new platforms that provide novel avenues promoting unhealthy behaviors is not going to fix these concerns.
If we fail to express more individual and collective agency in choosing our platforms, our platforms will begin to choose us.
Christopher Lidard is a sophomore from outside Baltimore, Md. A computer science major and tech policy enthusiast, his columns focus on technology issues on campus and at large. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.