Unfiltered Network

Growing up, Michelle Alozie ’19 was always “that black girl.”

In Advanced Placement classes, in the National Honor Society, on her sports teams: She was the token minority student. Now a forward on the women’s soccer team who was named co-offensive player of the year, Alozie continues to sense that people judge her activities in the context of her racial identity. She shared this story as part of an expanding social media platform for Yale students to share their own personal, poignant stories.

Alozie was integral in bringing #Unfiltered — a project hatched by Zena Edosomwan, a former forward for the Harvard men’s basketball team — to the Yale community. The project encompasses a Facebook page, Instagram account and website, and it features intimate self-written portraits of students at schools around the country. Less than a year old, #Unfiltered has now spread to 55 college campuses, started a documentary series and most recently teamed with The Yale Layer, an undergraduate magazine devoted to mental health.

“I want people to be able to hear these stories and learn, be able to empathize and sympathize and understand, be able to step into other people’s lives,” Edosomwan said. “It’s so interesting to see people you know on campus and learn things you didn’t know about them — sometimes they are your best friends — and hopefully these stories can spark deeper conversations than the typical, ‘What’s your internship?’ or, ‘Oh my gosh, I have so much work to do.’”

Initially a Harvard-only network, #Unfiltered first spread to Yale through Edosomwan’s friendship with Alozie. Tasked with expanding the online reach of the platform, Alozie helped unveil profiles of 17 Yale students in mid-June, with each person revealing their “personal truth.” The #Unfiltered page has garnered more than 5,600 likes on Facebook and over 2,200 followers on Instagram.

But for Edosomwan, the venture — fittingly — began as a failure. Early in his senior year, he began working on a video project centered around the concept of “I am one, we are one,” connecting people from different backgrounds. But his video editor backed out, and the format proved unsuccessful.

After poring through the content, Edosomwan felt that there was a disconnect between the portraits he had compiled and the banal conversations he experienced on a daily basis — and he wanted to reach beyond that “filter.”

OPENING UP

After the basketball season, Edosomwan launched Harvard Unfiltered: a series of Facebook posts featuring pictures of students in front of red doors alongside personal anecdotes. The page amassed significant attention, and soon Edosomwan reached out to Alozie to expand #Unfiltered beyond Harvard’s confines.

“I was really interested in the project because you get to hear so many people’s stories and see how they’ve developed from that,” Alozie said. “Some of my friends who wrote for Unfiltered [shared] stories I didn’t even know about them … It was just so interesting to have people open up to you.”

In her own post, Alozie catalogued how categorizations and judgments of her blackness followed her to Yale. Her role in activist movements on campus, like the protests surrounding the renaming of Calhoun College, she wrote, became a reflection of “how black I am.”

Alozie said she had never substantially talked about about her role in the black community at Yale with her friends, so the post represented a significant step outside her comfort zone. To her surprise, she received some negative feedback about her comments, though she said it was a “warming feeling” to have others approach her who had experienced something similar.

Although #Unfiltered specifically aims to connect people from all parts of campus, athletes make up a sizable portion of the profiles. Alozie recruited 17 Yale students to write posts in June, and more than half of the posts featured current or former varsity athletes. For Edosomwan — who came off the bench to score 15 crucial points for Harvard in its 77–64 victory over the Bulldogs in Cambridge last February — the experience of being an athlete was a key motivating factor for his project.

“I know it can feel like you don’t necessarily belong at an Ivy League institution,” Edosomwan said. “To hear people’s stories, perspectives and insecurities — sometimes as an athlete you’re perceived to be so mentally strong and mentally perfect, but we’re still human beings. It’s nice that people are opening up that way.”

Trey Phills ’19, guard for the men’s basketball team, battled Edosomwan on the court during the Ivy League campaign. Yet he similarly embraced the platform as an outlet that stimulated deeper self-reflection about experiences and values. After ruminating over his post for a week, Phills relayed a story about how a black faculty member approached him early in his first year to introduce himself and say, “It’s just nice seeing a young black student like yourself around.”

This interaction prompted Phills to reflect on the ways in which privilege can function at institutions like Yale, given his experience attending a small private school in Charlotte.

“The feedback was a lot better than I expected,” Phills said. “A couple conversations stemmed from it after people read it … [#Unfiltered] gives students an opportunity to have the courage to put something out there — I feel like a lot of students that wrote would not have shared what they shared if they weren’t given the opportunity. It’s just a stepping stone for people to get them talking about things that are important to them.”

ANTI-SOCIAL MEDIA

The depth of the content on #Unfiltered may seem jarringly discordant compared to the typical posts one finds on Facebook, but this was by design. Edosomwan wanted to reach students where they already were — on their phones — to make the site part of people’s daily lives.

Moreover, social media sites allow word to quickly spread and reach people from other schools. Alozie, who is in charge of outreach for #Unfiltered’s social media presence, said she recruited writers at other schools by reaching out to people who commented on or liked the Facebook posts.

But the #Unfiltered team nonetheless faced a challenge: It had to reconcile its mission of articulating vulnerability on platforms such as Facebook that more often showcase staged content. Sydney Altschuler, a graduate of Lesley University, serves as the head of photography for #Unfiltered, and she works to convey a sense authenticity in her portraits.

“You want to have a raw version of the person based on the identity of the brand,” said Altschuler, who now works as a freelance photographer and designer in Cambridge. “In the beginning, I was taking more editorial-style photos [for #Unfiltered], [but] as the project progressed I [now] don’t edit my photos at all. It fits the idea of the project: imperfections, flaws — all those things don’t need to go.”

Altschuler has adopted this approach for all of her work: She no longer edits any of her photos, countering what she deems a prevalent “Instagram culture.” The rawness of her content — “showing people who real people are” — has helped Altschuler differentiate herself, she said.

But for Aerial Chavarin ’20, #Unfiltered’s social media presence was initially intimidating. When her teammate Alozie approached her, Chavarin demurred, given that she typically does not share much information on the Internet.

But ultimately, Chavarin decided to post. She wrote about the assumptions people make about her given that she is a black athlete from Oakland.

“I realized that maybe it’d be a good way to let people see another side of me,” Chavarin said. “People aren’t able to do that often, especially on social media, where … you’re not putting your flaws out, usually, so it’s a really powerful movement.”

Franny Arnautou ’20 grappled with similar questions as Chavarin, even as she examined a very different set of assumptions and circumstances that defined her own life. A setter on the women’s volleyball team, Arnautou prefaced her post by acknowledging the advantages with which she was born: “I ooze privilege,” she wrote.

Arnautou said she attempted to “walk the line” between acknowledging this privilege while also carving a space for herself to articulate her struggles and insecurities. #Unfiltered, she said, created a platform in which common vulnerability could emerge out of dissimilar life experiences, across lines such as race, gender and class.

“It is really cool to read stories and words of people that you don’t outwardly think you’re very similar to, and find similar threads of camaraderie there,” Arnautou said. “Some of their more internal struggles are things that I’ve thought about or things that I’ve experienced.”

This unifying effect exemplifies Edosomwan’s vision for #Unfiltered.

“I like to call it anti-social media social media,” Edosomwan said. “We use social media platforms to tell stories, but [on #Unfiltered] it’s in a way that’s way more authentic than what people are used to seeing.”

CREATING A DIALOGUE

After graduating, Edosomwan founded #Unfiltered Network with Richard Cooperstein, the CEO of Media Investment Group, who previously held positions as the chief of global marketing at Facebook and the former chief financial officer and chief operating officer of Disney.

#Unfiltered is now expanding its engagement with video and more journalistic projects. The platform released “A Seat at the Table,” a 15-minute documentary profiling a series of Harvard students at the end of August. The video included an original song and music video with the same title. Most recently, the #Unfiltered video team produced a feature on Nicky Maxwell, a Harvard student who became the first amputee in NCAA history to compete in Division I track and field.

#Unfiltered announced its latest collaboration with Yale students this past Sunday in a post on Instagram, featuring Edosomwan and the founders of The Yale Layer, a new student magazine dedicated to mental health. The Layer formed over the summer after a group of students, among them Anna Hope Emerson ’20 and Bebe Thompson ’20, sought to make the subject less “taboo” through this creative outlet.

The link to #Unfiltered, then, was natural.

Thompson — who said her focus on mental health stems from her experience as a female athlete on the swimming and diving team — was first exposed to #Unfiltered after a number of her friends posted on the site at Alozie’s invitation. As an editor at The Layer later on, Thompson reached out to Edosomwan to interview him for the new magazine.

“Once the idea of Layer came up, I connected the two in my head,” Thompson said. “Unfiltered is creating a dialogue about mental health, and that’s what we’re trying to do, in a different way, through a magazine, through creative writing, through photography, through more objective journalistic articles. [I thought,] how cool would it be if I did an interview asking how he created this sort of discussion at Harvard, because we want to create one here.”

That interview transformed into a collaboration, as Edosomwan proposed that the two platforms work together on a video series. Edosomwan and his video crew came to New Haven earlier this year and interviewed Emerson, Thompson and other members of The Layer to help tell the magazine’s story and explain their personal connections to mental health.

Thompson said The Layer gave #Unfiltered “creative range for how they want to release it,” but said she expected #Unfiltered to produce a series of approximately minutelong video segments featuring a dialogue of Layer contributors.

And #Unfiltered, after all, has always been about conversation and collaboration, regardless of platform or medium. In both its content and its vision, #Unfiltered has unified platforms and people around a common thread of dialogue and authenticity.

“Sometimes by telling your story, someone else will be like, ‘Man, I went through the same exact thing, and it feels to know that I’m not alone,’” Edosomwan said. “There’s a community past the facade.”

Steven Rome | steven.rome@yale.edu