Parody profiles are one of the hottest trends in social media – and they are taking hold at St. Thomas.

Whether they are related to guys, gals or Tommies in general, it would seem that many UST students are having all kinds of “problems.” The “overheard” trend that first lived only on websites is now sweeping across Twitter with such profiles as Eavesdropping Tommie. Name the internet meme, and there is likely a version of it administered by St. Thomas students.

Whether uplifting or snarky, for the most part parody accounts are light-hearted in nature. According to Communication and Journalism professor Betsy Anderson, “One of the top reasons people use social media is for entertainment, and humor is certainly part of being entertained.”

Not everyone is laughing, however.

Recently, a student capitalizing on the “confessions” trend set up a Facebook page that was intended to share anonymous comments submitted via online survey. The student became quickly overwhelmed by the amount of submissions. In addition, submitters were often tagged by commenters, and as a result, outed by their peers on a site that was intended to remain anonymous. TommieMedia chronicled the process that eventually ended in the student announcing that he would close the profile, only to be followed up by a commenter pledging to start a new one.

“Some social media tools – for better or for worse – allow people to post anonymously or at least to feel less of a sense of the social presence of the other people on the receiving end of the communication, giving them more of a sense of freedom to say things they would never say to someone’s face,” said Anderson.

But it’s not all about promoting questionable behavior of fellow coeds. In December, The Tommie Truth appeared on Twitter with the description “Your daily dose of Tommie compliments. You are all beautiful!” A similarly-themed account has been tweeting from a junior at West Fargo High School in North Dakota, @WFHS_Compliments. According to the Fargo Forum the profile was created in response to a WFHS-themed “confessions” profile that has since been suspended by Twitter.

WFHS School Principal Gary Clark told the Forum he’s proud of what the student creator of @WFHS_Compliments has done. “We’re always pleased when a student takes a stand against whatever negative goes up,” he said.

At St. Thomas, parody accounts are closely watched for copyright infringements and derogatory or defamatory content. Members of the university’s New Media Initiatives Group, an ad-hoc group of staff members from departments across campus, are particularly concerned about misuses of the university’s brand. Profiles that are thought to be in violation of the university’s copyright on logos or photography are contacted and asked to remove the images.

St. Thomas director of branding and design Bill Kirchgessner has seen many different violations of the university’s brand over the years, but says the resurgence of blogging software and social media have created an influx in recent years. “The ability to download just about any image off the Web has caused a proliferation of misuse,” he said. “How would you feel if I changed your name or used your name in the pursuit of something that didn’t match your values?” He continues, “And, of course, it’s against the law.”

While “borrowing” a logo or photo may seem harmless, Kirchgessner warns against the implications it may have for the institution. “When students create these profiles, and use the UST brand imagery, they are degrading the very institution they have chosen to be associated with,” he said. “They are doing themselves a disservice as the public that sees those sites could begin to form a negative opinion, reducing the value of the education and place in society that they’re striving for by being a member of the St. Thomas community.”

And the implications can stretch beyond the university’s brand. The digital footprint that is left can affect the future prospects of students in ways they don’t realize, according to Kirchgessner. “Try getting a job once it’s known that your handle was something like ‘@drunktommie.’”

Anderson agrees. She says students should know that “Organizations will be checking your online profiles.” However she also emphasizes that the days of deleting everything on your profile before a job interview are in the past. “Employers – particularly in those fields that use social media such as communication and business – don’t expect you to be a sanitized shell of a person.  They want to see that you know how to use social media channels and that you have a personality. So it’s okay to be authentic on your Facebook account, as long as employers see that you’re showing good judgment.”

Anderson also notes that these types of accounts, when done well, can be beneficial for students who aspire to work in social media. “A Tumblr site like ‘What Should We Call Me St. Thomas’ could actually help promote the creator in a creative, edgy field such as advertising.”

The parodies are not unique to St. Thomas. Peer institutions Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict have seen their share as well. Social Media Specialist for SJU and CSB Tiffany Clements says, like St. Thomas, she has her eyes peeled for accounts that violate institutional branding policies. “I have asked administrators of these types of accounts to remove our logos,” she said. “This type of communication has the added benefit of making it clear to account administrators that someone with official responsibilities is aware the profile exists.”

Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania has taken it a step further, posting a parody and commentary policy on its Marketing and Communications Department website. The policy borrows heavily from the terms of use for both Twitter and Facebook, and makes it clear that accounts found to be in violation will be reported to Twitter or Facebook, as well as the Dean of Students Office and Campus Security if necessary.

Elizabethtown’s Integrated Marketing Manager Donna Talarico-Beerman said the policy grew out of necessity. “Our ‘president’ had an account before he was even inaugurated,” she said. The policy has been effective. Once it was in place, Talarico-Beerman shared a link to the policy with a second parody account administrator. “Within an hour the parody account changed its avatar and added ‘parody’ account to its bio.”

As long as social media channels are readily available and free, it is likely that parody accounts will continue. Anderson cautions parody profile administrators to think about the consequences. “You are a representative of your organization, which right now, is the University of St. Thomas. Your choices may reflect well or poorly on the organization, but you are a representative. Many, many people have been fired (or never hired) for not realizing this.”

Learn more about social media and graphic identity at St. Thomas.

Kate Metzger is the associate director of the Newsroom and a member of the St. Thomas New Media Initiatives Group.

One Response

  1. Donna Talarico

    Thanks so much, Kate for including information about E-town! This is a really great post. I just wanted to clarify that at E-town, we are pretty hands-off about this and let these accounts play out unless we see our logo. Before getting into the ramifications, our policy’s page talks about how students do in fact have a right to make the pages and that we accept and understand that. :)