In late April, 18-year-old Lucy Garberg lay in her bed in Gloucester, trying to imagine her first year at Tufts University. If the college even reopened, how would she make friends, with everyone six feet apart and hidden under masks?
Impulsively, she reached for her phone. In a few minutes, she created an Instagram page for high-school seniors heading to Boston in the fall.
“My hope," she wrote in an early post on May 4, “is that this account will bring us together.”
The account, collegesboston2024, has turned out to be a social lifeline for Boston-area students, attracting thousands of followers and requiring seven students working in shifts around the clock to manage it. Its enormous popularity, and that of similar Instagram accounts for college first-years, testify to the singular challenge of friend-making at colleges that have reopened under rigid safety protocols. More than ever, students — bereft of parties, long talks in the dining hall, and even study sessions in the library — are depending on social media for a social life.
“We can’t really rely on naturally organic, flowing relationships, which is what I thought was going to happen in college,” said Jaime Kim, the first student Garberg recruited to help her manage the explosion of activity on the account. “We definitely have to . . . go out of our way to reach out to people."
Accounts like these are not new. Eager high school seniors have been using them for years to connect with future classmates. And on campuses, friendships are still forming the old-fashioned way. But even this generation of digitally savvy teenagers say social media have taken on unprecedented importance this year because there are so few other ways to meet
Talking to someone in class now requires near shouting, students said in interviews, since everyone is muffled by masks and spaced far apart. Dining halls are largely takeout operations, and club meetings happen over Zoom. A student at Wellesley described taking a modern dance class virtually, lunging across her dorm room alone.
“Even though I’m a first-year and I don’t really know what college is supposed to be, it definitely does feel like something’s missing,” said John Cho, 19, another student who helps run the account.
But everybody’s got Instagram on their phones. Each day, collegesboston2024 features about seven first-year students who attend colleges around the region, each of whom stars in their own post that introduces them to the account’s followers. Students who want to be featured — some 700 have applied so far — can submit three photos of themselves as well as their hometown, major, and a short bio. An array of similar school-specific accounts have also proven popular.
Garberg and her team — who choose who’s featured, and keep an eye out for the occasional scammer — also post infographics about businesses in Boston, suggesting the best spots for students to find boba tea, bookstores, manicures or tattoos, places of the sort that, a few months ago, they would have expected to meet up in with their new friends.
Students who want to be featured submit an online questionnaire. Hobbies? “Collecting crystals,” one student wrote.
“Watching 11 hours of YouTube per day.”
Things they can talk about for hours?
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Looking forward to?
“Getting away from the people in my town!”
Being featured on the page can be somewhat overwhelming, students said.
Lily Schutt, a first-year at Emerson College, checked her phone on July 30 and found more than 60 follow requests. She had submitted her information weeks before but was told there was a queue; now, apparently, it was her turn. Message after message dropped into her Instagram inbox, and comments popped up under her photos. Fellow Floridians said hello; one girl said she, too, loved discussing politics; a number of people said she was pretty.
Small talk, for the most part, but it made her feel more comfortable coming to campus in the fall.
Some of Schutt’s collegiate Instagram connections have bloomed into real-life friendships. After she had moved into her dorm, Schutt, 18, sent another Emerson student a message to say she liked her dorm room decorations in the background of her Instagram photos. Later the pair met for coffee, and the next week they went thrift shopping.
But the combination of social-media acquaintances plus mask-wearing makes for some unusual interactions. During a recent fire drill, Schutt saw a boy she follows online. She knew what his face looked like from Instagram, even though he was wearing a mask.
“I have never seen some of the people that live in my hall’s faces,” she said.
Janis Whitlock, a research scientist at Cornell University who studies young people and social media, said the ways young people are adapting to the crisis will shape the world that will emerge when the pandemic ends.
“There are going to be a lot of really amazing things that come from this time, but it is asking us, and young people, to dig deep, and it’s scary because most of us haven’t been here before,” she said.
Rather than stunt students' social growth, she said, the obstacles they face this year may make them more resilient.
For one Wellesley first-year, Suzanna Schofield, the difficulty of making friends has made her more intentional about it, and she has pushed herself to strike up conversations before class, even through masks, or to ask a girl to breakfast, even though they have to sit six feet apart.
Schofield has made several good friends this way, but she has also pushed herself to broaden her circle by crafting a bio for collegesboston2024. She found being featured on the account a little exhausting. Sometimes she opens her phone to see double-digit notifications and just shuts it again.
“I’m an extrovert in the sense of being around other people, in person — not through technology,” she said. “And so it is tiring, because then you spend your time reaching out, but you don’t spend time with actual people.”
And some students said friendships they’ve forged online don’t seem as profound as those that spring up in real life. Dylan Rottman, an Emerson first-year, counts himself lucky to have met his two closest friends so far in line at the dining hall.
Other students said they couldn’t quite manage to come across as themselves in the bios they wrote, no matter how detailed they made them. And yet, several students remarked, the pandemic has made people open up quicker, and in a more genuine way than they might have otherwise, which helps bridge the gaps.
“People want to know that there are other people who feel just like them," said Ananya Dutta, 18, of Fremont, Calif., one of the seven who run the collegesboston2024 account.
The students who run the page are, like their classmates, keenly aware they’ve come of age in a troubled world, and they try to use the account, in small ways, to shape a better one.
They feature a diverse array of students and have noticed that differences rather than similarities between students foster the most interaction. The account has also planned fund-raisers, including one held for Massachusetts General Hospital and another slated to support Black-owned businesses in Boston.
The pandemic has forged bonds between those in the class of 2024, Dutta said; canceled graduations, summer jobs, and college plans have forced them to stop taking things for granted. Back in April, she and her classmates imagined the coffee shops and bookstores they would visit together. Now, they take things one day at a time.
“We don’t know when things are going to end; we don’t know when things are going to start to get better. So no one is really saying oh next year we’re going to do this,” she said. "It’s like, maybe next year we might do this.”