Haunted by Facebook, students can't now reinvent themselves at university

Social networks make reinventing yourself at university much trickier

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

My mum had a friend at university who had been called ‘Pudding’ at school. They’d sometimes be walking down the street, and someone who had known the now-svelte adult as a chubby 13-year-old would say ‘Hello, Pudding’. As I get ready to start at university myself in October, it’s in the knowledge that my schoolgirl self will be even harder to escape.

Reinventing yourself at the end of sixth form was once a time-honoured rite of passage, hindered only by a few easily avoided old acquaintances. In Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder frees himself from the self-consciously serious circle of his school days with relative ease: ‘At Sebastian’s approach these grey figures seemed quietly to fade into the landscape and vanish, like highland sheep in the misty heather.’ No one’s past much resembles misty heather anymore — social media has changed all that.

Were he arriving at Oxford today, Charles’s Facebook profile would bring his sixth form self along for the ride. He’d be tagged in photographs with a prefect badge pinned to a badly fitting uniform, a video of him making a pompous speech at his school prize-giving would be doing the rounds and his timeline would be an endless stream of exam-related posts from his all-male mates.

His meagre number of Facebook friends would be further cause for humiliation. Anything less than 600 is considered embarrassing: three quarters of them may be people you met at a party four years ago and haven’t seen since, but don’t have them as friends on Facebook and you’ll look like someone who doesn’t meet many people at parties.

So having vomited through Charles’s window and subsequently added him on Facebook, Sebastian would have thought twice before sending flowers and a lunch invitation. Charles, too, would have been hesitant: it’s far harder to cut loose when the internet is on hand to remind you of who you were in sixth form. Sebastian’s Facebook page — a montage of photos from wild nights out, in which neither the girls nor the outfits ever appeared twice — would have made it clear that some cutting loose was required.

In truth, Sebastian would probably have avoided Charles’s window in the first place. A modern Charles Ryder would have arrived at university already earmarked as the sort of person who was unlikely to be good-humoured about drunken exploits.

Facebook freshers’ pages, to one of which all my university-bound friends belong, point soon-to-be undergraduates towards the profiles of their future peers months before the start of term. These groups purport to help members make friends before they arrive — but the real draw is that they streamline Facebook stalking.

When I finally meet my fellow students in freshers’ week, it’ll be through that strange ritual, so familiar from school, whereby you ask the usual questions and already know the answers. You may exclaim ‘No way! That’s so cool!’, but you know they spent their gap year in Nicaragua. You also know that they went to school in Bristol, that they play tennis and that they once went to a Justin Bieber concert. You’ve seen them drunk in Ayia Napa and you know that their date to the leavers’ ball was called Sam and had an unfortunate nose. But you must not admit to any of this. There is no greater breach of online etiquette, no surer way to consign yourself to the social dustbin, than the words ‘So, I saw on your Facebook that…’

If it’s now impossible to shed your sixth-form skin altogether, you can at least exfoliate the rough patches. One of my friends is a keen violinist, and her Facebook page has always been peppered with photos from concerts and other evidence of her musical talents. She recently made an effort to ‘tone it down a bit’ before university, because she wants to have a chance to stop being ‘that girl who plays a lot of classical music’.

Another friend told me she’d trawled through her Facebook wall and deleted everything she’d put up between the ages of 13 and 16: ‘There were so many pictures of me pouting, it whole a day to get rid of them all.’ Everyone I asked was planning a pre-term Facebook friends cull to remove undesirable acquaintances from their feeds. One school friend has already de-friended over 700 people, bringing her dangerously close to the 600 mark.

Excessive though this may seem, time spent on a Facebook cleanse will prove to be time well spent. An oft-told horror story at my school was of a girl whose drunken post about her sexual prowess was commented on by her former teacher.

However far from home your university town — with the internet preserving your sixth form self, your awkward adolescence will be hot on your heels.

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Show comments
  • David Lindsay

    Are you going to give a perch to everyone who is about to start university? Or even just to everyone who is about to start Oxford? I know at least one who is a bleedin’ sight better than this, and he is not going up from Hogwarts or St Trinian’s. Ah, there’s the rub.

  • Ray Starke

    Or you know….limit how far back new FB-friends can read into your past posts….or create a fresh account….or not have a Facebook.

    But I guess this wouldn’t allow for the penning of a hacky piece based on a point that’s been done to death since 2009 in larger publications.

    • David Lindsay

      She was only 14 in 2009.

      • Ray Starke

        Her editor most probably wasn’t.

  • Cece Gogh

    “So, I saw on your Facebook that…” this is the common line I hear whenever I meet up with an old friend.
    stick on bifocals

  • Treebrain

    Carola Binney,

    You seem to be ignorant of the concept:

    “The medium is the message”?

    This is hardly a new phenomena, Marshall McLuhan wrote about it in 1964, a half-century ago!

    By using Facebook to make public statements of record about themselves that they may later regret, people are merely learning the harsh lesson that:

    ‘Actions have consequences’!

    It is all about maturity and being responsible for what you do.

    • mikewaller

      This is an attempted display of conspicuous erudition that rather falls on its face. In 1964 “the global village” was merely an idea, not an actuality. Now – for some at least – there is a global village with all its attendant ills. Prior to mass urbanisation, young people could well be lifetime victims of their ill-spent youth. Indeed, in my lifetime, I have lived in several villages in which some poor women was routinely referred to as having been the village bicycle. In one smallish town in which the population turn-over was very low, I can remember one old boy saying to me, “They’re hoity-toity now, but I saw them with the yanks”.

      However, in the 1960s, it was perfectly possible for Ms A or Master B, away from home in a major city or at university, to swing as she or he liked, and then relocate elsewhere and become a pillar of the community. Not any longer, and that is the point of the article. As to coming to realise that actions have consequences, a ruined reputation seems a very high price for an inexperienced young person to pay. I would vote for some kind of statue of limitations on such material.

      • Treebrain


        Actually transatlantic telegraph cables, telephone and radio made the ‘global village; concept an actuality well before McLuhan.

        Your observation that my comment was:

        “…an attempted display of conspicuous erudition that rather falls on its face.”

        is imply not accurate.

        Are you aware of the international trading empires that existed at the start of the twentieth century, from 1900 onwards?

        The First World War saw a massive change in circumstances for millions of people in Europe and elsewhere.

        I fully acknowledge the points that you make, but may beg to differ?

        • mikewaller

          You are way off topic; what is of interest here is whether or not young people can re-invent themselves as once they could. It is of course still possible for some. Each year thousands of people walk away from their families and just drop off the radar. It was even more so in the past where the Americas, Canada, Australia etc gave millions of acres in which to lose yourself. Before that it was the big cities. However, the young have never previously had the technological possibility of plastering up all their doings on a wall in indelible ink so, unless they drop out entirely, they are stuck with their juvenalia. As a result, anybody with computer access can find out things that in the past would have been lifelong secrets shared only with close friends.

          I have just heard a women who has made a film about this based on interviews with young people, speak on BBC R4’s Start the Week, which is obtainable on i-player. She and they were very concerned about many aspects. She made the same point as it did. Youth is a time for experimenting and mistakes are inevitable; yet this new technological environment is very unforgiving.

          • Treebrain


            I am not off topic at all, once the technologies that I mentioned came into action it WAS possible to follow, identify and locate people on different continents, just read some Sherlock Holmes stories as an example.

            Young people can indeed re-invent themselves now, but as a Harvard Business Review case study a few years ago showed, if potential employers insist on only hiring squeaky clean individuals they will be fishing in a very small pool!

          • mikewaller

            If someone did something really awful, the power of the state could be brought to beer to TRY to locate them, as with Dr Crippen. Otherwise, there was very little chance. Indeed, the BBC programme “Who do you think you are?” has revealed a number of cases in which ancestors successfully did a runner. I think with Bruce Forsyth, one of his did it twice. As he was a landscape architect of some eminence, just imagine trying that now.

            The issue is well caught in recollection I have of a scene in “I Love Lucy”. Lucy’s daughter was out on her first date, it was getting late and Lucy was starting to panic. Her neighbour, with a view to calming her down, said “Don’t worry, Lucy, she’s just doing what you were doing at that age”.Momentarily the great comedienne’s face started to relax, then went back into an even worse state of panic. It would be much harder to make the same joke work now. Even had the neighbour only known the modern Lucy for a few days, Facebook,or whatever, would enable her to know exactly what Lucy had been doing when she was her daughter’s age. QED

          • Treebrain


            I concede!

            Your erudite and informative comments have convinced me that you are correct.

            I do not agree that my original comment was ‘an attempt at conspicuous erudition’ or that I was off topic but these are mere quibbles, you have convinced me that your central assertion is correct.

            A tip of the hat to an eloquent, perceptive commentator!

          • mikewaller

            Your nobility fills me with shame for the intemperance of my opening remark! [:-)]

          • Treebrain


            Not at all, your opening remark was perfectly acceptable, one of the elements of the internet is the possibility of grandiloquence and pomposity and I am as vulnerable to it as the next man (or woman)!

  • FB seems to be like the execrable round-robin letter that was sent to all and sundry to say how wonderful their lives are.

    This is normal, we don’t really want to spread doom and gloom (laugh and the world laughs with you…cry and you cry alone)

    It also spells the end of privacy. I want my privacy and shall be leaving FB.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Face it, Britain`s a nation of bullies. And the further get from Britain, culturally and geographically, the more certain you are that this is nothing but the unvarnished truth.
    Jack, Japan Alps
    That should bring the xenophobic ultra-nationalists nutters out of the woodwork.

  • Dingo

    You can delete all this stuff you know. Sure if you’re faced with some determined hacker you might have some problems, but for 99% of people you’ll be fine.

  • kevinlynch1005

    Noone gives a sh*t at university what happened at school. Anyone who comes up with the sort of abuse as in the Pudding girl situation, should simply be beaten and told not to be so pathetic and even to get a life. Then the former victim – or someone at her behest, should beat this bully again should that person persist in stepping out of line. Continuous violence is sometimes the only language these people understand.