At a school where seemingly everyone is inordinately good at what they do – and where there’s inevitably a person better at your thing than you – it can be hard to feel good enough. The same skills that made you “exceptionally promising” to high school teachers (bless them), can feel, in comparison to those of other Northwestern students, exceptionally ordinary.
This realization of “ordinariness” can lead to an identity crisis of sorts. Or, as then-junior James Keane described in a popular Medium article, a feeling of being “virtually void of a personal identity.”
So, he decided to do something about it.
The summer before his senior year, Keane came up with the idea to create the NU Catalog: a (previously) anonymous Instagram account whose aim would be to celebrate Northwestern students. By posting pictures of individual students captioned with three complimentary phrases – one post a day, as per Instagram etiquette – he hoped to give people a reason to feel good about themselves. The pictures had either been submitted by the student’s friend or chosen by Keane himself, but the point was for the post’s origins to remain a secret.
“When you receive a compliment from somebody just in everyday life, it’s easy to kind of rationalize it. To say like, ‘Oh, they just said this because of x’ or ‘They’re just trying to get on my good side,’” Keane said.
“But, when the compliment is in a vacuum and you have nothing to focus on except the compliment itself, I think that’s when it’s the most powerful.”
A forum for the anonymous expression of gratitude for one another sounds nice and all, but would people actually use it? Would anyone even care?
Well, yes. Yes they would.
Although Keane said that people were confused at first (especially those whose photos initially appeared on the account), he ultimately received thousands of followers and hundreds of photo submissions.
On May 16, exactly a year after he published the article on Medium, Keane decided to reveal himself to his 6,463 followers. With unposted submissions still in his inbox, Keane explained that the reveal was bittersweet.
“If I could have it my way I would have posted every single person on campus,” he said. This feeling of loss that Keane experienced after revealing himself has opened him up to the idea of passing the account down to someone else next year, though the concern remains that the catalog will always be associated with him.
“I do think the fact that people were talking about who was behind the account actually helps the account, and I think it got a lot more people to kind of talk about it and follow it which in turn draws more attention to the posts,” Keane said.
Getting featured on the account may not have changed anyone’s lives, but it did brighten a few (226, to be exact) days.
“It was so amazing,” said Communications junior Emma Hill about seeing her photo appear on the page. “It made me feel very happy and loved.”
Keane noted how one girl commented on her own picture “I can’t stop smiling,” only to delete her comment a few minutes later, further evidence of what Keane refers to as “imposter syndrome.”
Only one person asked to have their picture taken down, though Keane did have to ask some people to re-word their three-phrase descriptions. He explained that when people would include inside jokes in their descriptions it was sometimes hard to tell if it was mean-spirited or good-natured teasing. This predicament was sharpened by not being able to ask anyone else for their thoughts.
Jacob Greenberg, a Medill Senior and one of Keane's good friends, believes that he made the Catalog as a medium to express gratitude to students and to show that they aren’t going unrecognized, “because it is so easy to go unrecognized at this university that’s so competitive in every sense of the word,” he said.
Ultimately, the catalog seems to have accomplished its goal.
“I just think it was really a cool way to acknowledge people and bring the community together and to have a place to acknowledge one another,” said Weinberg freshman Sara Murphy, who was featured on the account a few months ago.
“I think [NU Catalog] is one of the few places with purely positive sentiments in a place that, despite its best intentions, can be very stressful and competitive, even though it’s filled with great people,” said Hill.