"How can anyone really judge whether they have ‘found their tribe’?"Jose Miguels/Pixabay

During that black hole of time between receiving my Cambridge offer and finally finishing school, I made a playlist entitled “waiting room.” This may sound too uninspiring to have been the music that kept me (vaguely) sane through the endless rounds of past papers in muggy classrooms, and the blue-lit Quizlet sessions under darkening skies, which characterised the end of sixth form. But waiting was my main occupation at this time. My Year 11 friendship group fell apart as most of us moved to different sixth forms; I never really found another one at school in my last two years, and instead poured all my energy into my academic interests. When the words “I am very pleased...” appeared in my notifications on January 14th 2019, my dream had come true at long last. But I had a new question to answer: now what?

A few days later, I found my answer. I joined the first offer holders’ group chat that was created that year, and joined several more over the next few months. I saw little point in committing much to my sixth form friendships, which would probably not last much longer anyway. Instead, I thought getting to know people from freshers’ chats might make it easier for me to make friends once I arrived at Cambridge, and spent a significant amount of time talking to these people.

“I was making a smart investment in my future relationships, or so I would tell myself”

In theory, freshers’ group chats help incoming freshers establish some familiarity in such a new and daunting environment, and I know that this was the case for some people. The idea that I might have spent more time talking to strangers on the internet than to other students at my school for half of year 13 seems more reasonable given that these strangers were my potential future classmates and staircase-mates. I was making a smart investment in my future relationships, or so I would tell myself whilst procrastinating a timed essay. Although this all sounds promising and my feelings may not be representative, I had a generally negative experience on these chats, for a few reasons.

Often, voicing an opinion on the internet is connected to a lack of repercussions: people can ‘hide behind the screen’ and say whatever they want, without the risk of souring a relationship that might be meaningful to them. Freshers’ group chats could not be further from this scenario. The conversations on these chats start off just like freshers’ week conversations, except displaced onto the internet and pushed back a few months. This kicks off a process that I like to call ‘The Scramble’: everyone rushing to make friends, finding their niche in the group and developing a reputation they’re satisfied with.

But, as we all know, it is really easy to be ‘fake’ on the internet. Even outside of the hyper-edited world of Photoshopped Instagram models and bots spreading fake news, communicating on the internet makes it easier for anyone – even ordinary people – to tailor exactly how they come across. It’s natural for people to put up a bit of a wall around people they’ve just met, but I feel like freshers’ group chats really do encourage speaking through a filter.

Inherently, written communication allows for less spontaneity and complexity than talking to someone face to face. There are fewer subtle cues – like tone of voice and body language – and any message communicated is done so overtly, with the sender fully conscious of every aspect of their message. This works well if you want to screen your posts and control the impression you make, but isn’t conducive to getting to know someone beyond the wall they put up.

The ‘scramble’ also leads to the amplification of certain tendencies which exist in real life when people are trying to find where they fit in a social setting. I had the bright idea of getting involved in political discussions on freshers’ group chats (you can tell where this is going) and while some of these were interesting and worth having, a lot of them fell into one of two camps: either everyone would create an echo chamber, acting as if their conclusion were the only obvious and remotely reasonable one, or a few people would formulate their opinions in a deliberately contrarian and provocative way to get a rise out of the others.

Neither scenario is a recipe for balanced political discussion, but they are both ways for someone to project a certain image and find their place in a group: either as an inoffensive – hence likeable – person who agrees with the majority opinion, or as a rebel whose independent thinking is to be admired. Though we see this sort of behaviour in real life, the internet facilitates it much more.

The other tendency is the creation of cliques and ‘inner circles.’ I was surprised by just how quickly this happens online, but it makes sense: as we engage in the scramble and cultivate our image accordingly, we find other people who are projecting a similar or complementary image, and team up with them. Once we have found these people, a new element is added to the scramble: solidifying this inner circle. Without knowing anyone in person, deepening a set of friendships can be difficult, so one of the main means of doing this is by beginning to speak (or type) the same way, with the same turns of phrase and inside jokes.


Mountain View

My fresher fears

Not only do these inner circles feel uncomfortable and exclusive to people who aren’t part of one themselves, they also feel quite artificial. If everyone is trying so hard to present themselves in a certain way, and all the opportunities provided by body language, tone of voice and facial expressions are lost, how can anyone really judge whether they have ‘found their tribe’?

If I could speak to my offer holder self, who was worrying far too much about making a bad impression on fellow offer holders before even receiving A-level results, I would say that all of this is the reason why freshers’ group chats are nothing to stress about. If you’re reading this as someone who has made lasting friendships from freshers’ group chats and strongly disagreeing with me, I genuinely am very glad that these chats work for some people; I just think there are limiting factors which make the experience on these chats less positive than it could theoretically be.

Offer-holder-me didn’t need to worry; for me, arriving at Cambridge and meeting the people I’m now lucky enough to call friends felt infinitely more real.