Digitally Yours: To engage college students, tech services must do more than innovate

Fourteen years ago, one of the world’s largest social networking sites was conceived on a snowy college campus in Cambridge, Mass. “The Facebook” was an immediate success; its virality was contingent upon users encouraging their friends to create profiles.

At age 19, Mark Zuckerberg unexpectedly tapped into the psyche of college students, excited at the prospect of establishing interpersonal connections through the click of a mouse. He created a tantalizing tool that contained the blueprint for a service many platforms are now seeking to revive: exclusive, college-centric communities where individuals can build relationships.

But that revival, now spearheaded by apps like Tinder and Instagram, is not ideal in an online environment where superficial connections are most common.

Just last week, online dating app Tinder announced the creation of its college-only feature, Tinder U, where students with “.edu” email addresses can register and connect more directly with those on their campuses and others at nearby colleges. The intention was not solely romantic, but also for networking and friend-seeking purposes.

Days later, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, also released its beta-tested version of virtual college communities. Users are prompted to include their graduating year and major in their Instagram bio, which automatically enlists them in a database with other students at their respective universities.

College students are arguably the most appealing demographic to companies looking to expand their reach: They’re young adults with disposable income, and are looking to live the best four years of their lives.

But as a group, students are not sustainable consumers in a virtual world inundated by social platforms. They are still more likely to meet others in-person than online, simply through interactions and events occurring on campus.

Tinder and Instagram’s services hint that they’re trying to build an online community students can eventually integrate into their real lives, and whether that networking format will succeed is now being tested.

However, there are a few things these platforms can learn from what is, in my opinion, the most fascinating app to grace the collegiate scene: Yik Yak, an anonymous messaging app that was worth $400 million before its demise. Yik Yak was an engaging, exciting phenomenon where users would anonymously post messages and see others’ in the vicinity. People would solicit hookups, spread rumors or post the most random incidents occurring in their daily lives, and it was immensely popular among high school and college-aged students.

Yik Yak was soon replaced by Snapchat. “These businesses, though sporting promising user growth, never seemed to grow large enough to sustain themselves,” The Verge wrote about apps like Yik Yak.

And that’s the problem with what Tinder and Instagram are trying to offer to college students. Platforms are encouraging the growth of smaller, niche groups on their apps to increase genuine engagement. But these apps must also recognize there is an eventual limit to social interaction, and should instead work to encourage healthier user habits.

Terry Nguyen is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the digital managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Digitally Yours,” runs every other Wednesday.