A site for advertising events, inquiring about lost items, looking for rideshares, and engaging in heated political debate, the infamous campus-wide GroupMe “AmherstBussin” serves an eclectic variety of Amherst student needs. It is one of the many pandemic-produced quirks of the Amherst experience. If you don’t talk in the chat, you lurk in it, and if you don’t lurk in it, you hear about it from your friends who do. It has become a nearly universal feature of student life. And for all of the benefits that a campus-wide, student-governed communication platform offers, the group chat has indisputably had its darker moments. That is to say, “AmherstBussin” is not always bussin’.
Given its current ubiquity in campus conversation and culture, we at the Editorial Board find that, at the very least, it merits an earnest reflection. Is the platform the right space for certain conversations to take place? In what ways does the chat bring value to our lives, and in what ways does it cause harm? How should we structure an all-campus student chat, as iconically chaotic as it is, into a space that is more useful and productive for the community? On a broader level, how do we maintain an intricate balance between upholding self-governance and maintaining some shape of order on a student-run public forum? These questions may not have clear-cut answers, but if we, as a student body, are to be responsible self-governors of our own discussion, we must confront these questions head-on.
While not every Amherst student is a part of the chat, it currently contains a whopping 1,187 members — nearly 66 percent of the college’s approximately 1,800 student population. As the most extensive and open public forum on campus, the group chat has become a much-needed space for the student body to virtually connect without moderation or restrictions from the college administration. Even for those who don’t post, the chat fosters a shared network of inside jokes and discussions that every student in the Amherst community can feel included in.
The chat also has other practical applications. It provides a public forum for students who may not have the chance to express their voices publicly in other ways. It serves as a lost-and-found thread, and even more importantly, allows information to instantly reach two-thirds of the student body. The AAS even encourages posting as a legitimate form of advertising for club events. After all, the chat guarantees immediate exposure on a level Facebook posts and physical posters simply cannot compete with.
Members of the chat get hundreds of notifications every day, from messages about lost water bottles to announcements about upcoming events and, of course, the occasional dip into political discourse. And because of the prevalence of the chat, even those who aren’t members of it have heard about the heated arguments occurring within it — arguments which have sometimes only created harm instead of forging connections or building constructive dialogues. It’s worth considering the ways in which campus dialogue could be improved and student-organized discussion could be brought to bear on the broader campus to achieve real change.
Many of the conversations, rather than staying in the group chat, should serve as a jumping-off point for more nuanced conversations to take place in real life. Right now, much of these conversations are dominated by a vocal minority while most chat members just silently watch the controversies unfold, liking messages to show support for whoever they’re rooting for, and in doing so, only fan the flames of the discourse without producing any solutions or constructive conversations regarding the issues at hand. If we truly care about these issues, we need to bring them outside the chat into the real world and not only continue these discussions there, but help develop solutions for them as well.
While there is no easy answer to this, we believe that the community as a whole could reflect upon how to ensure that the space is as effective and safe as it possibly can be, and what role their actions may play in this. We wholeheartedly support a student-run forum for important campus discussions, but the chat as it stands is in need of fundamental transformation to continue to serve as an effective hub of student activity. We should be mindful of the implications of the things we post instead of treating the chat as an anonymous void to shout into like Twitter. After all, on a campus as small and intimate as ours, most of our interactions through platforms like AmherstBussin lead to greater real-life repercussions.