In 2016 Northville High School senior Erica Meister wrote her college essay critiquing her hometown after it had been named “the snobbiest city in Michigan” by the Detroit News. The entire paper was essentially crafted around her goal to leave Northville behind, delving into how the community in which she grew up was ignorant and spoiled.
This essay got her into Stanford, but it also got a lot of hate after being published online.
As a sophomore in high school living in Novi, a city over from Northville, I remember getting on Twitter and scrolling through all of the backlash as neighboring students defended their hometown. People were angry. Although Meister admittedly writes about falling victim to the recklessness of Northville, she describes it as “superficial, materialistic and shallow,” and even goes so far as to reference the culture as a disease.
The initial thing to keep in mind when looking at this case is context. Meister wrote this paper for the purpose of getting into college, not for online publication. She had the audience of the admissions department in mind, not her peers. The goal of the paper was not to call out and tear down the people she grew up with directly to their faces (or directly to their phones I should say), out of malice and spite. It was to write and reflect about the issues she experienced in order to promote herself and her future. It was a private piece that later became public, but when it did it was harsh and hurtful all the same.
The context almost made the situation worse for the unintended audience, as a “say it to my face” mentality kicked in. Hearing someone write about your city for personal gain, essentially grouping you into statements such as “raised in such privilege that we feel enabled to say and do whatever we want, thoughtlessly” is worse than being told it directly. It’s secondhand and it’s blindsiding. The piece would do a good job at making students stop and think if it was not so accusatory. But again, that was not the intended purpose. Although I don’t think that short, angry tweets are an effective way to respond to a fully developed essay, I understand where the defensiveness and immediate need to respond comes from. I would be mad too.
One student, Elizabeth Rourk, moved past using Twitter as a communication platform and wrote her own full blog post as a defensive response to Meister’s essay for “Study Breaks”. Rourk writes, “Living in ‘the snobbiest city in Michigan’ is a consequence of all the benefits we’ve had our entire lives, and by trashing it, we are doing nothing more than continuing the cycle of ungratefulness and myopia.” I personally believe that this form of response is appropriate. It was not as though Meister’s words were carelessly written on a whim such as some of the cases described in “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” Specifically, on page 68 in chapter four with the Sally Bowles case that we discussed in class, “She chuckled to herself, pressed send, and wandered around the airport for half an hour, sporadically checking Twitter.” This tweet resulted in online outrage but for Meister’s situation an angry defense written in 180 characters would not solve anything. Meister’s statements, as angering as they may have been, were built on deep thought and call for a deeper conversation about the issues at hand within the city of Northville. By mirroring the format and length of the essay I believe that Rourk responds appropriately, providing a digital response that serves more as a discussion rather than a quick comment.