Tobacco itself is no aphrodisiac, but one of the great tropes of classic American cinema might be called “the precoital cigarette” -- an emblem of desire smoldering on-screen when Humphrey Bogart gazes at Lauren Bacall, or when she exhales after accepting a light.
It was foreplay by proxy, or as much of it as Hollywood once allowed. And 70 years later, the scenes still work. All the gestures of asking for a smoke or offering one -- the moments of sharing a cigarette or plucking it from someone’s lips to make way for a kiss -- still communicate feelings of intimacy and languor, even for audiences that remember seeing the blackened lungs of smokers in health class and have never doubted the surgeon general’s warning.
The students whose behavior Mimi Nichter analyzes in Lighting Up: The Rise of Social Smoking on College Campuses (New York University Press) are in a similarly untenable position. They feel the allure while knowing better. “Young adults have the highest prevalence of smoking of all other age groups,” she notes, “with approximately 35 percent reporting that they currently smoke.”
At the same time, the undergraduates whose rituals and folk culture interest Nichter (a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona) recognize the stigma attached to smoking. Bogie’s aura has faded. The smoker has become a pariah: unwelcome in restaurants and other public places, a menace to the health of others through secondhand smoke, at best the pitiful dupe of Joe Camel and other shills for Big Tobacco.
So how do they handle the cognitive dissonance? The short answer is that they make a distinction between enjoying a few cigarettes in social situations while in college and really being a smoker, i.e., someone addicted to nicotine for life. The contrast parallels that between social drinking and alcoholism. Social smoking is occasional rather than compulsive, something done in groups, never alone. No stigma need apply.
The comparison works at another level, since most of the social smoking discussed in Lighting Up takes place at parties where cigarettes go with alcohol “like cookies with milk,” to use one sorority girl’s expression.
As an anthropologist, rather than a psychologist, Nichter is ultimately less concerned with the rationalizations for smoking than the group situations and norms in which it is embedded. Besides conducting surveys and drawing on the work of other researchers, she has gathered detailed accounts of social smoking from native informants (freshmen and sophomores) and checked her ethnography by presenting draft chapters to her classes: “Students have told me that my descriptions of student life and smoking and drinking on campus are quite accurate.”
The picture that emerges is in some respects familiar to anyone who has ever been on a college campus in their late teens. Smoking, like drinking, is one of the behaviors perennially available for asserting the adult right to make decisions, which makes it appealing even for those who hadn’t been rebellious enough to try it in high school.
But Nichter’s inquiry also finds in effect now a common attitude towards social smoking as something to do while in college, but only then. It’s something you can and will quit once in “the real world.” Giving it up sooner would mean the loss of both a stress reliever and a set of routines useful for sociability. There are benefits to being able to introduce yourself via bumming a cigarette, to go outside for a smoke with friends at a party and to collect your thoughts before saying anything by pausing to light up.
Nichter’s respondents understood their smoking as “a habit that they engaged in when they chose to, at times when they and others seemed appropriate. ...Being really addicted, defined as ‘needing your cigarettes wherever you are,' was associated with those who were weak of will or had real problems. In contrast, many college students saw themselves as needing to smoke but only in a limited number of contexts.”
It’s not clear from Lighting Up’s otherwise very detailed account just when this cluster of attitudes and behaviors emerged. But occasional remarks by the author suggest that the antismoking public-service announcements of the past 20 years or so had a lot to do with it. Depicting smoking as addictive -- and reminding the public that tobacco companies have done research on how to make their products even more so -- seems to have had the paradoxical effect of encouraging young people to prove themselves able to light up while remaining in control.
But there are problems with such limit-setting efforts. One is that there is no definite threshold at which nicotine becomes addictive. The difference between smoking only at social events on weekends and low-level daily smoking (one or two cigarettes per day) begins to blur quite rapidly with students who begin unwinding on Thursday afternoons.
And while the undergraduate social-smoker ethos may be prepared to go cold turkey after the senior year, current trends make graduation less of a decisive transition point than it once was:
“Many grads today are stepping into an uncertain future, where the prospect of finding a good job in a timely manner is unlikely. Their 20s may be characterized by multiple moves (in and out of their parents’ and friends’ homes) and compounded by multiple stressors, not the least of which is finding oneself in a time of high unemployment and low wages. Moving into adulthood is now an elongated process, as markers of ‘settling down,’ like marriage, edge upward into one’s late 20s, if that. For those who have come to depend on the comfort of cigarettes during their college years, this array of life stressors may make cutting back or quitting more difficult, despite their intentions and understandings of the harms of tobacco.”
Smoking as a deliberate and controlled way to enjoy oneself is completely different from developing a nasty habit tinged with a death wish -- or it can be, for a while. The cigarette companies depend on people overestimating how much time they really have, and they're in no real danger of losing money on that score.
Submitted by Jeff Rice on January 26, 2015 - 3:00am
Yik Yak accesses posts within a 10-mile radius. From where I live at the southern point of Fayette County, I am in luck. I live eight miles from the center of the University of Kentucky campus. This banal point means that I can continue to follow Yik Yak conversations even when I am away from the physical space of academic life. I can feel close to the students we work with even as I prefer to live away from them.
If I open Yik Yak at my children’s school – which is closer to campus – I am blocked from using the service by the app’s geofencing. Yik Yak, and the content it shares, is not for kids. Yik Yak, a free social media app that allows users to leave anonymous posts, has sparkeddiscussion within the last year regarding its content.
In 2015, a high school student pleaded guilty to posting on Yik Yak a threat to his New Jersey high school. In December 2014, the president of the University of Kentucky sent an email to all faculty and students condemning student Yik Yak responses to a campus die-in protest as “hate filled slurs” and “narrow-mindedness.” A January 2015 Huffington Post story traced a number of Yik Yak incidents in which racist posts followed a variety of campus events across the country at different universities and colleges. Such events sometimes lead to calls for banning Yik Yak. Yik Yak, this narrative argues, is a hate speech forum.
To my knowledge, Yik Yak is not banned anywhere on any college campus in Kentucky. On a given day, I open Yik Yak on my iPhone and am exposed to college conversations. The conversations vary: Sexual exploits. Bathroom antics. Grade anxiety. Moments of getting high. Reflections on Netflix. Loneliness. Support for the basketball team. Comments on classes. So little of what I see is hate-based. When I ask the students in the course I teach about Facebook how many of them are actually on Facebook, no one raises a hand. But many of them do use Yik Yak. In addition to Yik Yak, I am on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Google+. I am not sure how many of my colleagues are on Yik Yak. I know of one colleague who is. He’s the one who introduced me to the app.
Some yaks (posts) I read as I wrote this are:
“Y’all motherfuckers remember mood rings back in the day?”
“I’m a decent looking girl, but I can’t get a guy to text me or like me or shit.”
“Do only girls work at fazolis in palomar.”
Despite the public attention on hate or racist speech, many college student yaks are banal: nostalgia, anxiety, questions about local fast food chains. Like other social media bursts of expression, yaks reflect of the moment thinking. A thought or idea pops into one’s head; the urge to write that feeling down in a public space follows. In that sense, yaks are no different than any other moment of written expression – from the invention of the essay to the popularity of the blog post.
Some other yaks I’ve recently read:
“I love Kentucky sunsets!”
“How old is too old to join a fraternity?”
“Curse you Mad Men marathon, curse you.”
Yik Yak is about proximity. A user of Yik Yak either assumes proximity (those near me will read this) or creates proximity (we are not physically near one another, but you are now close to what I am thinking). The media theorist Marshall McLuhan proclaimed proximity as a central tenet of new media logics. Information brushes against information, he wrote. Out of that proximity, ideas are formed. Italian theorist Michel Maffesoli framed the network need for proximity as a question of secrecy: we are never really sure why items interact or why we create proximity across networks. What’s our motivation? What do we hope to gain?
In the university, we encourage proximity. We ask faculty to develop relationships with students. We ask students to feel a relationship with the university (for retention purposes; so as alumni they will become donors; for networking purposes as each graduating class seeks employment). When we engage with social media, however, proximity sparks fear. Now we are too close. Now we know too much. As soon as we know what others are thinking, we get scared. Or offended. Or outraged.
“Yik Yak Opens Window to College Students’ World,” an Orlando Sentinel headline reads. The student world is a mystery to most faculty. Students are so close to us in the classroom, yet so far away emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. How do they study? How do they choose their courses? Why do they major in one subject as opposed to another? How do I get them to take my course? How can we get them to answer their email? Why are they failing? How can we help them?
On a given campus like ours, 30,000 people congregate daily. Some come to campus to live and study; others to just study. Thirty thousand people is a small town. And like all small towns where people are in immediate proximity to one another, gossip, hate, fear, prejudice, and insensitivity exist, often for reasons that are not clear. McLuhan’s main point about the global village, the space where media brings information and people into proximity, was that it is not a nice place. The global village, whether enacted on Yik Yak or in a dormitory, can be a pretty difficult place to live in. That difficulty can exist in anonymous posts (aggressive, racist, sexist) or in faculty attitudes toward those with whom they work closely (attitudes expressed publicly in conversation and not in confined platforms like Yik Yak).
Why do we fear, though, talk – albeit digital talk? The hallways on the floor of our campus building are traditionally quiet. There is so little talk. Behind each office door, I assume, a faculty member works, answers email, grades, reads, drinks coffee, daydreams. Some are exasperated with their students. Some are exasperated with their colleagues. Some are exasperated with me, the interim chair of the department.
Our offices, after all, are in proximity to one another. We work closely together. What would a faculty Yik Yak look like on our office floor if all of my colleagues, behind their closed office doors, were typing their thoughts into the platform several times a day? Probably not that much different from what students write.
Faculty typically become outraged at college expression, particularly that which embraces sexuality, alcohol, or disgust with college. Such expression, we are told, is indicative of a morality problem. “How do you solve a problem like Yik Yak?” The Washington Post asked in 2014. “The theoretical appeal of Yik Yak is in two things: total anonymity and close proximity,” the Post’s Caitlin Dewey notes. She follows that observation with the caveat: “People thumbtacking a notice in a public space are still obligated to follow certain social norms.”
While I have only cited the banal on Yik Yak, I have encountered yaks that supposedly fall outside of social norms as well:
“Is 9:30 too early to get drunk by yourself at home on a Thursday night?”
“Ladies. How old are you and how old a guy would you bang on a date?”
“What’s your favorite type of porn to get off to?”
“I like to cover myself in Vaseline and slide around on the floor pretending like I’m a slug.”
Yik Yak is admission that there is no private without the public. Social media have always been a space that – because of the sense of proximity – feels private, but is, in fact, public. Whether we are discussing Anthony Weiner’s embarrassing bathroom selfies, Lucas Oil’s Charlotte Lucas’ racist tweet, or Cee Lo Green’s insensitive tweets about rape, we recognize how quickly private thought is made public. Even former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s private phone conversation becomes a public moment as the recorded discussion is duplicated and circulated to news outlets, blogs, and other sites.
College students are hardly the only people thinking the uncomfortable or the offensive. All around us uncomfortable thought exists. Eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are not the only people who make private thought public on a whim. We all do. My Facebook feed is proof. The majority of my Facebook friends are, after all, academics. They seldom hold back on their thoughts.
I am a Yik Yak lurker. Between meetings, walking to class, or heading to the parking garage, I might open Yik Yak and follow a string of yaks. I don’t upvote or downvote the yaks, but I pay attention to those yaks that earn many votes.
When I lead department meetings as interim chair, I doubt my colleagues are on Yik Yak, but some are posting to Facebook. Some are complaining that the meeting is going on too long. Some are changing their profile pictures. Some are discussing what they will have for lunch. Some are mocking other colleagues at other universities. Those private acts are quickly made public if we are Facebook friends.
At some point, my newsfeed will show me the post. Each post is time-stamped. Because the post is proximate, I will know that the very important point I was making about an upcoming assessment seminar no one will attend likely went unheard. Nobody, though, fears being discovered for posting during a meeting. Among academics, in fact, it is almost expected to complain about department meetings in a public space or a social media platform. Among academics, it is expected that we complain all the time in public spaces. Whether we do so on Yik Yak, Facebook, or Twitter is not important.
Maybe the reason I don’t post to Yik Yak is that I fear the potential, public fallout if I do post a yak: “Professor caught on Yik Yak complaining about colleagues’ eating habits and preference for fast food,” a headline in our local paper might read. We don’t expect faculty, that is, to post to Yik Yak because the discursive norm on Yik Yak is assumed to be abnormal behavior. Facebook, for the adults, is an accepted space for academic complaining. Yik Yak, because of popular discussions that exaggerate its utterances, is not.
If I did post to Yik Yak, I am sure that I would express my distaste regarding faculty preference for Chick-fil-A or that someone keeps dumping coffee in the men’s urinal on my office floor or that I hate Pink Floyd. But for now, I have Facebook for such posts. Facebook is the accepted norm for a discourse of complaint. And on Facebook, the private has always been public.
Jeff Rice is professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of Kentucky.