Social media is a beautiful thing. It provides people with endless opportunities to connect in their worlds, including keeping in touch with friends and family, finding out what’s going on around campus and compiling photo albums to save as virtual keepsakes. But what is truly the most fulfilling benefit of this relatively newfangled technology is the ability to steal your friend’s smartphone, open to their Twitter account and change their handle to “@MarryMeSanjaya.” Yes, there is no greater joy than the fuzzy feeling that comes after some well-executed online badgering, a behavior our generation has come to know as trolling.
Northwestern students did not wait so much as a day before taking part in this once they arrived on campus. On move-in day, the rumor swept the school that former Alaskan Governor and one-time vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was on campus, moving her daughter Willow into Bobb. If you were one of the many deceived by this rumor, secretly hoping to casually run into Willow in the communal bathroom, start some small talk about your mutual love of baked Alaska or the Alaskan bull worm episode of SpongeBob and instantly become lifelong friends, meet the people who orchestrated it: McCormick and Bienen junior Michael Hopkins and Weinberg junior Margaret Kuo.
The two students started the rumor via the group text messaging app GroupMe as part of an unofficial Wildcat Welcome tradition among peer advisers in which they tell their board groups, each composed of twenty PAs, that someone famous is on campus.
Their arrival at the perfect person to use was a collaborative effort, according to Kuo.
“We [thought we] should come up with someone who’s kind of a celebrity – nothing too out there – so it would be semi-believable,” Kuo said.
She added that the public figure of choice needed to have kids around college age, which made 20-year-old Willow an outstanding candidate. Kuo, Hopkins and other peer advisers within the Bobb vicinity typed the false information into GroupMe messages designated for their board groups and hit “send,” fooling the Northwestern student body with the push of a button.
The rumor caught on and rapidly spread across campus, with help from Hopkins and Kuo, who made their own efforts to maintain the joke. Their first task: overcoming the inevitable “pics or it didn’t happen” hurdle.
Kuo acted lost in the chaos, claiming there were too many bodyguards to take the highly demanded photograph. But Hopkins attempted to give the people what they wanted.
“They asked for a picture, and I took this awkward selfie with some random woman who didn’t look remotely like Sarah Palin,” he said, adding that people began doubting the story soon after that. Their skepticism did not stop him from pushing the fib even further, as he then circulated that Palin was accompanied by Alaskan Mounties on horses. That detail, he noted, no one believed.
People had tried even more far-fetched ideas in the past; last year Miley Cyrus was rumored to be visiting Northwestern, apparently “in the construction zone – actually on a wrecking ball!’” Hopkins said, recounting others’ prank attempts.
Kuo stuck to her guns throughout entire day to prolong the rumor.
“I insisted it was true all the way up until the end,” she said. “Someone was like, ‘Margaret, it’s not true.’ And I was like, ‘Oh … really?’”
The joke spread beyond the Northwestern student body, making its way onto major news outlets via Twitter, including the accounts of an associate editor for the Atlantic, an editor for the Texas Tribune and a contributor for Fox News.
“Everybody was like, ‘Yo. Medill F. Check your facts first,’” said Hopkins regarding many students’ reactions to the errors, “because we just totally made this up and it spread very quickly.”
Both jokesters agreed that although they pulled the prank for their own amusement, they also did it for the kids, continuing the tradition for this year’s first-time peer advisers.
“I remember my first year of being a PA, it was so funny to be getting things in my GroupMe saying, ‘This celebrity’s here,’” Kuo said. “So as a returner, obviously I wanted the new PAs to experience this as well, just because it’s fun.”
Hopkins also recalls his experience being baffled by the tradition as a “fond memory” and said he felt the responsibility was on him and other returning peer advisers to maintain the tradition.
Medill sophomore Carlin McCarthy, on the other hand, just enjoys tricking people. At the beginning of last month, she pulled an impromptu prank on her friend, communications sophomore Caroline Kelly, that turned into a Facebook prank of mammoth proportions.
“Caroline gave me her laptop because she needed me to edit a paper for a class. So instead of doing that,” she nonchalantly continued, “I went on her Facebook and I changed her status.”
The status declared to cyberspace users that Kelly would be spending winter quarter in Scotland, referencing the book and television series “Outlander” set in the Scottish Highlands.
“I’ve found that my humor tends to garner more likes on other people’s pages sometimes,” McCarthy said.
At its onset, this was no different than the ordinary Facebook troll that has inconveniently reminded every student at one point or another to keep his or her devices out of the hands of mischievous friends. What occurred afterward, McCarthy said, is what gave this practical joke “a life of its own.”
The two initially thought the status was too absurd for anyone to believe.
“‘Outlander’ is obscure,” McCarthy said. “It’s on Starz. Like, who pays for Starz subscriptions?” But people believed the story by the hundreds.
“The response was overwhelming,” joked Kelly, an RTVF major, with mock humility.
The Facebook status crossed the coveted over-100-like threshold the two aimed for within 24 hours, totaling 107 thumbs up. This, however, was the least of the virtual chaos that ensued. Kelly received everything from messages of congratulations to study abroad advice to invitations to visit peers studying at the University of St Andrews. Two of Kelly’s friends have changed their plans for their remaining time at Northwestern, as she “inspired them to study abroad.” But reactions ran the full gamut of emotions from ecstatic to betrayed.
“My one friend, Sami, got really upset,” she said of Communications sophomore Sami Rose, who said she considers the two close friends. She wondered why Kelly hadn’t mentioned her plans.
“She was like, kind of crying,” Kelly said.
Rose immediately denied the accusation.
“I didn’t cry! Who said I cried? I didn’t cry,” she said. “We hung out a lot over the summer and she didn’t mention thinking about going abroad once, and then it comes out of nowhere ... I felt kind of blindsided.”
Upon receiving the staggering amount of feedback, Kelly responded the only way she felt was right and jumped on board with the hoax. McCarthy, a seasoned practical joker, had been involved in pranks as elaborate as wrapping the entire contents of a friend’s bedroom, including individual socks, in Hello Kitty wrapping paper. Together, the two devised a backstory that included an internship with BBC, a chance to work with Starz and, recited Kelly, “a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the culture of another country along with their television industry.”
But alas, no plan is without its flaws. This spontaneously constructed plot had a loophole that could be detected under the close investigation of a keen eye: that study abroad program doesn’t exist.
“That was not well planned,” McCarthy said.
“Nope,” Kelly agreed. But they figured that now they would know “for next time.”
The two maintained the façade for almost a week before Kelly admitted that she would, in fact, be spending her winter quarter in Evanston. Upon reflection, they said that although they’re now “known as trolls” by their friends, the joke was “worth it.”
“Everybody here takes themselves a little too seriously, so it’s fun to poke fun at people,” McCarthy said. “Everybody considers themselves so smart here, and you can be like, ‘Hey, look! You fell for this!’”
The orchestrators of both shenanigans said they owed their pranks’ success in part to the power of social media, which Kuo said “brought word of mouth to the next level.”
Applications like GroupMe and Twitter also made determining the truth about Hopkins and Kuo’s alleged Palin sighting more difficult. Jeremy Birnholtz, an associate professor of communications studies who also works at Northwestern’s Social Media Lab, said that this uncertainty occurs due to the vague nature of text-based communication.
“When we talk via text we have fewer cues for [understanding each other],” said Birnholtz. Text messages, he said, “have ambiguity. And it’s not easy as a face-to-face conversation where you get immediate feedback” through facial expressions and body language, enabling people to detect whether others are lying or joking.
McCarthy experienced the effects of this ambiguity as well when composing the status she thought was “clearly satire.” She was surprised that the 100-plus Internet users who clicked that like button thought Kelly truly seemed like someone who would include a perky “#JaimeHereICome” at the end of the status she created, referencing the dreamboat protagonist of Outlander.
Birnholtz also noted that social media changes the way people think of others, particularly those outside their daily lives, because “now we’re thinking about them at all.” The concept seems to ring true for McCarthy and Kelly, who said their interest in others increases when information about them is broadcasted on social media, as it allows people to provide feedback and therefore feel personally invested in their lives. People’s actions also seem to gain validity when broadcasted on social media, they said.
“If I saw someone studying abroad in Portugal, I would be jealous,” Kelly said. “But I’d like it because I’d pretend I cared.”
All of these pranksters share a common delight in the fun of “messing with people.” Hopkins recalled his Wildcat Welcome stunt with a smile and a nod of conviction as he reflected.
“At the end of the day, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I made the world a better place today or a worse place,’” he joked regarding his prank, “but I’m pretty proud of it.”