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Authors: Nancy Jo Sales

American Girls

BOOK: American Girls
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Also by Nancy Jo Sales

The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World

THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

Copyright © 2016 by Nancy Jo Sales

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.

www.aaknopf.com

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available from the Library of Congress.

ISBN 
9780385353922 (hardcover)

EBOOK ISBN
 
9780385353939

Cover image: nensuria / iStock / Getty Images

Cover design by Oliver Munday

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For Alyson

Introduction

Ever since I was a little girl, I've read myself to sleep. Often throughout my life I've awakened to find the light still on and a book resting in my hand after I've dozed off reading a few more pages. When I was ten and twelve it was
The Chronicles of Narnia, To Kill a Mockingbird,
and
Jane Eyre.
I've always been crazy for the great noir writers Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith and James M. Cain. Reading has always been like breathing to me, necessary for existing and thinking. But recently, I find, as I try to make it through the pages, my mind keeps wandering to my phone. What's happening there? What am I missing?

One possible reason for my sense of distraction is that for the last two and a half years I've been researching a book on girls and social media. I went on a sort of picaresque journey, visiting ten states (New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, California, Arizona, Texas, Indiana, Delaware, and Kentucky) and talking to girls, ages thirteen to nineteen, about their lives on and off social media. After I met the girls and talked to them, I followed them on their accounts, seeing what they posted, checking on how they were doing. And even though they knew I was one of their followers on these public forums, sometimes the watching still felt, as girls call it, like “stalking,” and sometimes I would ask myself, What am I doing? What are we doing?

I followed apps girls said they liked, such as Yik Yak, the so-called anonymous Twitter. Yik Yak, launched in 2013 by two young men who met at Furman University in South Carolina, is popular with high school and college kids. Like many anonymous apps, it has appeared in the news in connection with cases of cyberbullying, and some school districts and colleges have banned it. But in the five-mile radius in which I'm able to view posts, an area including some New York City high schools and New York University, Yik Yak users are most often heard voicing concerns which echo those of young people throughout the ages: Am I attractive? Will anyone ever love me? How can I be expected to put up with my annoying roommate?

There are a lot of Yik Yak posts about sex. And many of these seem to be describing something different from what we know of young people in the past. There are posts about wanting sex, and seeking sex, even just cybersex, immediately, it doesn't seem to matter with whom. (“Anybody wanna fuck?”) Technology makes such instant sexual connections possible. There are threads in which users exchange their names on other anonymous apps known as places for sexting and the sharing of nudes. Sometimes the language of such posts is reminiscent of the language of porn, riddled with disparaging words for women and girls. At first I found such posts jarring, but after a while I sort of got used to them, and they didn't seem that remarkable anymore. On social media, things which once might have been considered outrageous or disturbing come to seem normal very quickly through widespread repetition.

And then, one Saturday night in October 2015, I was on my phone, scrolling through Yik Yak and not reading a book, when I heard about something which even blasé Yik Yakkers were finding shocking. “Oh my God, Syracusesnap.” “LMFAO Syracusesnap.” “What's Syracusesnap?” people asked. Everybody wanted to know. Everybody had to know.

Syracusesnap was a Snapchat Story, a series of pictures or videos on Snapchat which stay viewable for twenty-four hours rather than the usual one to ten seconds per Snap. On Snapchat, famously launched in 2011 by three fraternity brothers from Stanford, Stories have become the most popular feature, with more than a billion viewed daily, according to the company. But few go viral. Within hours of its creation, Syracusesnap was being followed by college students and teenagers across the country. “Notoriety for the Story circulated faster than a
Gossip Girl
post,” said The Tab, a college news website, and the only news organization to write about this. In an era which has seen an almost total erosion of privacy, there are still things which exist only in the world of young people, hiding in plain sight, online, and Syracusesnap was one of them.

“Soon it wasn't just Syracuse [University] students jumping on the bandwagon,” said The Tab. “Snaps from schools like Pitt, Cornell, and NYU were added to the story”—meaning that other schools were following Syracusesnap and contributing pictures to it. “ 'Cuse is lit!' and ‘Wish we went to 'Cuse!' were among some of the captions featured,” said The Tab. “Everyone add @Syracusesnap on Snapchat. You're welcome,” someone tweeted. What was causing the excitement?

Syracusesnap featured pictures of kids in college dorm rooms drinking and doing drugs, but what was getting it all this attention were its many images of naked girls. Girls having sex. Sex with boys, sex with girls. The sex with boys was almost always in a standing, bent-over position, the girls' heads pointing toward the ground. Some of these shots were adorned with cartoon pictures of footballs and references to Syracuse's annual “Orange Central” homecoming and reunion week. It was as if some twisted public relations expert had melded pornography and school spirit to make Syracuse look like the best party school ever. But more on that later.

There were pictures of girls' breasts and girls' behinds, many where the girls were lying prone on a bed or on the floor, their faces hidden. There was a picture of a boy holding two girls' bodies on his shoulders, their behinds, in identical black thongs, facing the camera, his dumbstruck face encased with butt cheeks. “Snap whore,” said a picture of a girl Snapchatting, her cleavage prominently showing.

There had been scandalous college Snapchat Stories before; in fact, such accounts can be found at colleges across the country. They're a sort of rebellious parody of Snapchat's Campus Stories, another feature on the app which many schools sponsor and monitor, and which typically shows students in their fun-filled and inspiring moments—looking joyful in the stands at winning football games, attending lectures.

In 2015, Arizona State University's SunDevil_Nation became notorious for its shots of students brandishing bags of weed and snorting cocaine. UCLAyak, named in homage to Yik Yak, had sexually explicit photos and videos cycling “every few seconds,” according to the
Daily Bruin,
the University of California–Los Angeles paper. The anonymous psychobiology student who created the account told the
Bruin
he wasn't surprised at the nudity: “It was just a matter of time. That's what Snapchat is for.” He said he suspected that some of the videos on other rogue campus accounts were staged, created to shock. Snapchat's Community Guidelines prohibit sexually explicit content, and the company routinely deletes Snapchat Stories that violate its policies, but as soon as they're banned, they often just reappear with a different handle.

So what made Syracusesnap go viral? As the Saturday night wore on and more kids were alerting one another to its scandalous appeal, the Story became more hard-core. There was a picture of boys doing coke off girls' behinds. There was a picture of two girls doing what are known as “butt things” to each other. “Syracusesnap is insane lmao,” tweeted @Alexus_x30. “Okei, everyone on Syracusesnap need JESUS,” tweeted @vmankss. “If my parents saw syracusesnap they would make me transfer immediately,” tweeted @lexhallmark. “I've been scarred for life by adding syracusesnap omg my eyes,” tweeted @t
victoria.

As I watched the story of this Story playing out on my phone, I was struck by how rife it was with themes that had been coming up in my reporting on girls and social media. There was the viral element, the wildfire aspect of something that races around online, the feeling that there's something out there that must be known and shared, lest you be left out of the conversation. There was the sexual nature of what was being shared, and the fact that it was centering on the naked images of young women, some of them perhaps teenage girls. There was the commenting on this content in a gossiping, derisive way, criticizing the girls for their sexual behavior, or “slut-shaming.”

On Yik Yak, users discussed the “ho-ishness” of the girls. It was the girls in the shots, rather than the boys, who were called out for their alleged indecency. Yik Yak is anonymous, but it seemed to be both young women and men who were either directly or indirectly judging the girls for acting “slutty.” The girls were mocked and psychoanalyzed. “Going to guess that the girls on syracusesnap don't have very good relationships with their fathers,” tweeted @chief_keef_jon. Of course all of this was being said without anyone ever asking how it was that the sexually explicit pictures of these girls had been obtained. Had they been leaked? It was another subject that had come up frequently in my interviews with girls—the cyberbullying of girls for the sending of nudes which might have been intended only for an intimate partner.

When a picture appeared of two girls having a physical fight, Syracusesnap began to show signs of being different from other unofficial Campus Stories. Violence was not a typical characteristic of such accounts, but girl-on-girl aggression is a common theme in today's popular movies and TV shows, and some social media users seemed to find it entertaining. “OMFG catfight LOL.” But when Syracusesnap showed a picture of a boy seemingly threatening a girl with violence (their faces were not shown), even nonchalant Yik Yakkers started to recoil. “To the guy that put his hands on that girl on Syracusesnap, I hope you get your ass beat,” someone posted.

And yet when Snapchat shut the Story down and banned it, sometime the following day, there was a scramble to find out where it had gone—where could it be seen, this thing that everyone was talking about? “Yeti,” “Yeti,” Yakkers posted on threads. “What's Yeti?” people asked.

Yeti - Campus Stories is a mobile app launched in 2015, a sort of hybrid of Snapchat and Yik Yak, seemingly inspired by the trend of salacious Campus Stories. Its page on the Apple iTunes store warns that users must be seventeen to download it (but who checks?), and advises that its content may include “Infrequent / Mild Realistic Violence” and “Frequent / Intense Mature / Suggestive Themes,” as well as drug use. When Yeti was launched, The Daily Dot website called it “an X-Rated Snapchat clone” and predicted it would “[set] the stage for inter-college competition. Which frat rages hardest? Whose spring break is bawdiest? And whose coeds are the hottest?” Tumblr blogs soon appeared of “Yeti babes” and the “hottest” “Girls of Yeti - Campus Stories,” with pages of nudes and semi-nudes the blogs' creators claimed were “snapshots” and “screenshots” from the app. When I e-mailed Yeti's director of communications, twenty-three-year-old Ben Kaplan, asking whether these photos had actually appeared on Yeti and were consensually shared there, he said he'd never seen these blogs before and that Yeti had “no involvement in them, whatsoever.”

Kaplan said, “Unfortunately there is no software in the world (that I'm aware of) that detects whether or not the subject of a photograph gave consent to the photographer.” His response made me wonder, Well, why wasn't the question of whether nudes were consensually shared being addressed by software developers?

What's weird about all this is that when you actually look at Yeti, its content seems relatively mild. Browsing through the accounts of NYU, Texas A&M, Penn State, and other schools, I saw reams of the usual sexy selfies (duckface and cleavage), as well as pictures of food and students acting silly, and, yes, showing off their drugs (bongs and cocaine). But there weren't any outright nudes or images of sex acts that I could see. In fact, when Syracusesnap announced that it had moved to Yeti after its wild debut, the shocking images never showed up there. So what did it all mean?

A source in the Syracuse University administration says he believes that Syracusesnap was actually created by Yeti. No one on social media seemed to suspect this; however, as soon as it was suggested to me, it didn't seem impossible. The final image on Syracusesnap displayed the Yeti logo—vertical multicolored bars like a television test pattern. “Snapchat is banning our account,” the message over the logo said. “We are moving the story over to YETI CAMPUS STORIES, Available in the Apple/Google Playstore.” It looked like an ad.

So was Syracusesnap just a marketing ploy? Had Yeti instigated the discussion about the account on Yik Yak and Twitter? Ben Kaplan said on e-mail that Yeti had nothing to do with Syracusesnap; he said he'd never heard of it. He said he thought the use of the Yeti logo was “possibly to decrease confusion during the transfer?” “Mature Yeti sites” were handled by campus “moderators” who edited out “distasteful content,” Kaplan wrote—which might account for why the pornographic images on Syracusesnap had vanished. When I asked him about the contrast in Yeti's rather tame content with its warnings of sex and violence, Kaplan became emphatic. “Yeti was in
no way
designed to be an ‘X-Rated Snapchat,' ” he said. “Yeti is a live feed of EVERYTHING happening on campus.”

So who made Syracusesnap? When I talked to Hannah Malach, a Syracuse student and the writer of the piece in The Tab, she said that no one on campus had been identified as the creator of the account, as far as she knew. I asked if she had heard of Yeti before Syracusesnap, and she said, “I hadn't, and many people are still unaware of it.” Some of the college students I'd interviewed also said they'd never heard of Yeti - Campus Stories. Its Twitter and Instagram accounts, on that October night, had fewer than 6,000 and 3,000 followers, respectively, although it had been around for almost a year.

But however the account was generated, it didn't seem to matter to those who had enjoyed its pornographic images. “The Syracusesnap Story was the epitome of ‘fun at college,' ” a freshman named Chris told The Tab. “It illustrated the usage of drugs, glorified pornography, and sexual exploits, as well.” It's clear that what had made Syracusesnap a hit were its many pictures of naked girls—girls having sex, a girl being threatened with assault, and girls assaulting each other. There's no proof of where any of these images came from, from this side of the screen. But there they were. And they got people talking, and watching, and clicking, and wanting more.

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