On a cold, rainy day, four college students were sitting around the kitchen table, depressed about their heavy homework and class loads at Canada’s prestigious Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
To cheer themselves and others up, third-year undergraduates and aspiring teachers Rachel Albi, Erica Gagne, Jessica Jonker, and Amanda Smurthwaite started a Facebook profile called Queen’s U Compliments, in which fellow classmates anonymously submit compliments about members of the campus community, and the four founding members post them from the account.
Since its launch on Sept. 12, the founders say the account boasts more than 4,000 friends and 1,300 compliments and has inspired Compliments pages attributed to at least 56 colleges and universities in Canada, the United States, and soon, Europe. The number of copycat pages is growing every day, and this week, the founders created a private group called University Compliments as an effort to unite all of the Compliments pages on Facebook. The Queen’s University founders estimate that Compliments pages collectively boast more than 35,000 “likes.”
Effusive posts on Queen’s U Compliments have called students “the human equivalent of a ray of sunshine,” “the inspiration for Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect,'” and “the Queen of Queen’s.” Some border on flirtatious, including “I want to wrap him up like a present and give him to myself for Christmas” and “She’ll make your drink come out of your nose with laughter, and she’ll make tears pour from your eyes when you realize you’ll NEVER HAVE HER.” The founders opted to create a Facebook People account as opposed to a Page because they wanted to be able to tag the people receiving praise. If they are not already friends with a person being complimented, they send a Friend Request to that person.
The four founders acknowledge that Queen’s U Compliments is their attempt to create a more positive atmosphere on campus and contribute to school-wide initiatives about mental health awareness and anti-bullying. Between 2010 and 2011, several student deaths — both suicides and accidents — rattled the campus, with two tragedies occurring in one week. And there have been reports of Facebook bullying among students at the School of Music, according to co-founders Jonker and Gagne, who are both enrolled at the school. In fact, inspired by the Queen’s U Compliments model, the School of Music’s student council asked students to write nice things about each other on Post-it notes and post them on a wall for a day.
“We thought [Queen's U Compliments] was a really great way to help students help other students,” says co-founder Smurthwaite. Albi likens the project to the 2000 film Pay It Forward, in which a young boy tries to make the world a better place by encouraging people to carry out acts of kindness for one another.
Maintaining the site is a job in itself. The bulk of submissions — about 50 a day — pour in between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., when students are done with homework and classes. Collectively, the women spend eight hours a day reviewing and posting submissions, even sending them back to the author if they contain too many inside jokes. Not to mention this work is in addition to their classes, essays, campus jobs, tour guiding, community service and dance performances. Albi, Jonker and Smurthwaite are all enrolled in the rigorous concurrent education program, which culminates in a teaching certification.
Bombarded with 100 notifications during the project’s first week, the founders were posting so much in the beginning to help Queen’s U Compliments become popular that Facebook restricted it, so the women could not post anything for three days. To safeguard the site from spam and other “abusive behavior,” Facebook’s help section says accounts may be blocked temporarily if users “used the same feature repeatedly in a short period of time.” The women are using the private Facebook group University Compliments to advise other schools who have run into problems, as well as to talk about their successes and ways to improve the project.
Noticing the popularity of Compliments pages at other universities, two editors at Brown University’s BlogDailyHerald — the blog of the campus newspaper The Brown Daily Herald — launched Brown University Compliments on Nov. 18, just before Thanksgiving. The site took off immediately, perhaps because everyone was feeling particularly thankful over the holiday, according to creators Meredith Bilski, a junior and BlogDailyHerald Managing Editor, and William Janover, a sophomore and one of the blog’s deputy managing editors. They hope the page will boost students’ spirits as they study for finals and spotlight members of the community who may not make it onto the news website.
“It’s hard for us to cover every student,” admits Bilski.
Janover adds: “We’re not looking for people to all of a sudden start saying things in person to one another that they were afraid to say before. At BlogDailyHerald, we highlight what cool things people are doing, and bring them to the Internet. [This Facebook account] is a way for Brown students to do that themselves.”
Some of the largest Compliments accounts are at Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, Princeton University and Washington University in St. Louis, but the creators did not want to speak on the record because they claimed students would feel more comfortable submitting to anonymous people. The project is also very popular at small liberal arts colleges like Wesleyan University, Trinity College and Hamilton College. In fact, one of the most popular posts on Hamilton’s page, Hamilton Compliments, is directed at sophomore Stephanie Rose Bongiovi, the daughter of rock star Jon Bon Jovi, who reportedly overdosed on heroin on Nov. 14:
Even though you may never see this, I want you to know that you are deeply cared about by many. No matter what happens in your life we are all behind you and there for you. You are an amazing girl who only deserves good- keep your head up!”
The post, published on Nov. 17, received 121 “likes.”
These Compliments sites are the opposite of vicious gossip websites that have gone viral on college campuses in the past five years. JuicyCampus.com, founded in 2007, allowed college students to anonymously post online gossip about fellow members of their campus communities. There were general jabs like “Sorority Girls have the personality of non-fat frozen yogurt from Rite Aid” and specific ones that targeted students by name, calling them drunks or sluts. Student governments urged classmates to boycott the site, a handful of colleges and universities actually blocked access to it altogether, and New Jersey and Connecticut state attorneys general launched investigations into the legality of the forum.
But the site spread to about 500 campuses, becoming the largest gossip website in the U.S. before it was forced to shut down in February 2009 because it lost its online ad revenue and venture capital funding. JuicyCampus founder Matt Ivester actually went on to publish a book lol…OMG! in September 2011 about cyber-bullying, discussing the dangers of young people divulging too much personal information online. A 19-year-old English major at Wesleyan University launched CollegeACB.com (Anonymous Confession Board) in an effort to replace JuicyCampus. TIME reported his site logged as many as 480,000 comments in one day, but in 2011, it was bought by a site called Blipdar, which folded shortly after.
Meanwhile, the Queen’s U Compliments founders are thrilled to watch the account’s friend count climb higher and higher, but they are also getting closer to the dreaded 5,000 — the maximum number of friends a person can have on the social network. “We don’t know what we’re going to do,” says Jonker. “We want to make t-shirts or something, maybe congratulate our 5,000th friend.” But the women cannot imagine running the Compliments project on any other platform because Facebook is so ubiquitous. As Janover of Brown University Compliments explains: “Regardless of who people hang out with, or what sports or clubs they do, everyone is on Facebook. It’s the one thing we all have in common.”