I’m sitting on one of the loveseats in the Starbucks on Nassau Street, weirdly conscious of my calves sticking to the cold leather seat covers, experiencing what I imagine only certain paparazzi have felt at the peaks of their careers. The strangeness of spending years seeing someone in two dimensions, only to have them sitting across from you, alive and fidgeting. Lorena Grundy gestures at my coffee cup.
“Is it good?” she asks, palms cupped around her own hot chocolate.
“It’s, uh, fine, I guess.”
She had texted me before our interview and I hadn’t responded—she was wearing an orange shirt, the text read, for recognition purposes. That hadn’t proved necessary. I’m not a paparazzo but I’ve known her face since maybe last July, recognized her name and her intended major and penchant for using emoticons tastefully and sparingly. Lorena Grundy bats a stray wisp of straight, brown hair away from her forehead. I tap the “record” button on my phone’s note-taker setting. “Ready?” I ask. She nods. “That sounded momentous,” I say. The recording device icon pings to life, pulsing red and anticipating.
This is Lorena Grundy, arguably the most famous freshman at Princeton University.
But first, some background. As The Social Network would probably explain better, Facebook was first created to function like a cattier college yearbook. A means of comparing the profiles of anonymous classmates and, according to their mission statement, “help you connect and share with the people in your life.” For those of us who actually use Facebook, we know it to be less of a means of finding new friends than it is the receptacle for hazy, drunken dorm pictures, for communicating within club networks and commenting on other friends’ more ridiculous drunken dorm pictures. The Class of 2017 Facebook seemed to be a different Facebook entirely, in that aspired to function like Facebook circa 2008. Instead of acting as a means to continue and add depth to interactions we had forged in real life, it had connected us with more people we didn’t know than those we did.
People first used the page like they’d been given bad advice: “If you don’t know which university to choose, pick the one with the friendliest Facebook presence!” Hundreds of prospective freshmen had spammed the page with The Ambitious (“I applied to Princeton, Dartmouth, UCLA, MIT, Yale, Cornell, Harvard, and Stanford. I was excited to hear that I got into all of them (even yale, ew)”), The Annoying (“Okay guys, who is old money and who is new money here? and is there any way to request an old money roommate? with the amount of money my parents are paying for me to go here there better haha…”) and The Useless (“Lol. Hey guys this is gonna sound kind of random, but I’m related to Matt Damon”). Once these filtered out, the strangeness and the fervor of the pre-matriculation page was replaced. In its wake remained those who would construct the new order. Peter Chen, Briana Payton, Lorena Grundy—our first sustained introductions to people we’d live with for four years.
Lorena Grundy stares down at the white rim of her cup. In the past few minutes of the interview, I’ve noticed she has a particular tendency of looking diagonally upwards while formulating her thoughts, shuffling her words and organizing them strategically. She has paused a few times during my first initial questions—“What was your initial perspective of the page? Do you think it’s possible for people to form substantive friendships through an online format?” It’s only when I ask her about people recognizing her offline that she breaks her composure.
“Apparently I posted a lot,” she says wryly, punctuating her slight monotone with a startled, sarcastic laugh. We both laugh, awkwardly. She continues: “I got a lot of ‘oh, you’re from Facebook,’ which is kind of awkward. Well at least,” she admits, “it’s kind of good that people know who I am.”
Lorena Grundy continues to explain how, to her, the Facebook page wasn’t necessarily about finding friends before arriving on campus, a new way to find people like herself without having to ask for name then year then residential college then major then hope there’s enough time left to ask for name one more time. Instead, to her, it was a way of paying it forward.
“Whenever people asked questions, I’d see that little notification thing, and I just had to get rid of the little red number and I had to resolve the notification, and if I clicked on the notification and it was someone asking a question I knew the answer to, well it was kinda like ‘I’m not going to just ignore it.’” She looks at me as if to implore me to reason. “So I just sort of…was helpful, I thought.” She nods quickly, then shifts her gaze up and to the left. “I really only posted twice.”
If Lorena Grundy is our unofficial Facebook philanthropist, Briana Payton might be the Anti-Lorena. Long, braided hair swept evenly across her shoulders, Briana (known better as Briana Angelique) maintains the same full smile in each of her profile pictures. To her, the Class of 2017 Facebook group was a chance to connect with potential friends and ease the social transition, a way to navigate past awkwardness by utilizing all the resources of the digital age. She explained (through a Facebook interview) that she wasn’t trying to make a name for herself on Facebook by posting conversationally, but “was just trying to make it known that [she was] open to making new friends,” known to her peers as more than just as a name.
“I was not looking forward to going to a place where my good reputation doesn’t follow me,” she explained. “I was afraid that I might feel like a ‘nobody’ because of my clean slate—no extracurriculars, no GPA, nothing ‘under my belt.’” Class of 2017 member Peter Chen didn’t intend to become a name either. “I wanted to share the laughs,” he confided. “And with a generally good return of laughs per post, I posted some more.”
Facebook makes it easy to think we’ve become the sum of our disparate online parts: Our faces: our profile pictures, only better lit and more deliberately edited. Our passions: our “likes and interests” links. Our past relationships, our family members married and hometowns we left, all collected and stored on our page histories. We use Facebook for the same reason we shake each others’ hands; we want introductions on our own terms, we want to convey that we’re normal and social and not weird, and we don’t want to be left out of the conversation. But a request isn’t a handshake—it’s mutual, yes, and deliberate, sure, but there exists no contact. The Internet can’t replicate the pressure and weight of us, our shared grasp and subtle sweat.
“If you could go back in time, would you have made the same decision to post on the Facebook page as much as you did?”
“No,” Lorena Grundy responds.
It’s an abrupt “no,” sharp and decisive—a quick enough ‘no’ that reveals she’s been pondering this for a while, a week at least. “I do really like helping people out if I can, but if I could have done it anonymously I would have been a lot happier about it.”
Facebook makes it easy for us to become armchair impulsives, to involve ourselves in the immediate lives of other Facebook users by pressing fingertips to keyboards. Posting comments seems like it’s personal act. But on a group like the Class of 2017 Facebook page, every sentence written is a sentence that over 1,000 future classmates will be notified to read. Once we’ve posted, we’re no longer the blank slates we banked on becoming. Lorena Grundy and Briana Angelique and Peter Chen will never be anonymous to any of us.
Lorena’s hand taps the slate bench, quickly and evenly as if measuring out the words before they come. “What’s hard for me to know is that, yes, I commented a lot, that is a fact…But I don’t want to be that person.”
On Facebook, the detrimental effects of fame are gone, or at least obscured. The only quantification of the fame comes from positive affirmation, “likes” that can tally popularity but can’t accurately reflect negative reactions. There is no thumbs-down button. Unlike the case for offline celebrities, there are no invasive paparazzi—only silent ones, judging comments and voicing their opinions in a different realm entirely.
As freshmen, the idea of fame can hold a certain allure—we’re not anywhere people will recognize us for a long time, and we’ve given up that known identity in exchange for a vastness that will decrease with interaction. But being “Facebook famous” is a different degree of fame entirely. In some respects, it’s even headier. Why would the Facebook famous posters post? To be known. To be known without actually knowing for what they were really known for.
“Would you consider yourself Facebook famous?” I ask Lorena Grundy. Lorena Grundy grimaces, staring this time fully in my direction.
“Going in, I would not have thought that. I didn’t think I posted that much…” she stammers. “I didn’t think that anyone would recognize me, except for the few people who interacted with me on Facebook. But now that I’m here, a bunch of people have told me that I’m Facebook famous, so I guess I am.”
Lorena Grundy pauses, reconsidering. Her mental scale is back, weighing each word carefully and to its capacity. “But those people don’t really know anything about me,” she says. “They might know that I’m an engineering person because I was able to answer engineering questions, when really it’s just face recognition. All these people who say, ‘oh, you’re from Facebook…I want to respond: Well, so are you!”
Lorena Grundy, Peter Chen, Briana Angelique. We know these names and we’ve drawn conclusions about these names, imagined what these names would sound like speaking their own comments out real-time and what they would look like in hallways or street corners or from far away distances, hazy and materializing in small, blinking notifications. We’ve wondered about them and we’ve gossiped about them (“Lorena Grundy?” “I met her roommate. I heard she invented a microwave?” “I heard she got totally zonked in Ivy or something and she got McCoshed the first day of class.” “I heard she hates horses.” “I’ve heard she killed a man.”) and we’ve Facebook stalked them. But we don’t know them, not at all.
We don’t know their moral choices, don’t know that Lorena Grundy doesn’t drink coffee or that Peter Chen has seen Zoolander or that at the Clash of the Colleges people started chanting “Facebook Famous! Facebook Famous!” at Briana Angelique or that Lorena Grundy has to commute to Irish dancing every day and that her old dance studio played favorites or that she noticed the squirrel with a broken tail two minutes before you even saw it at all or that her voice is pitched lower than you just assumed it would be or that she cares about people and Princeton and East Pyne and that her name is pronounced “Loraena,” not “Lorehna,” and she knew you probably knew her name anyways but she was kind enough to introduce herself again and do it right this time because she knows she is more than a name people recognize and still get wrong.
After my interview with Lorena Grundy ends, we talk for fifteen minutes. About nothing. About Princeton. About the friends we somehow both managed to make through mutual Facebook stalkage. About the Street and about our families and about our fears.
To know of someone and to know someone are two very different things. I ask her for any last words. She pauses. “Our Facebook group is only us,” she says. “We’re all here, we’re all at Princeton, and it’s a lot easier to feel that friendship with people you don’t actually know. We have a lot in common. We’re all smart, we’re all somewhere near the top of our class…we’re all in the same boat, so it’s easier to jump in.”
“Okay,” I say. “Last thing. Anything else you would like the people of Princeton to know or remember about you?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’ll Facebook message you if I think of something.”