Faces of Michigan: An Obituary

Connie Ly

In the spring of 2014, I decided to launch a personal project with a friend of mine. I was concerned with the growing sense of isolation on college campuses. If you think about it, college campuses are very odd places. For (typically) four years, a multitude of high achieving individuals are hand-picked to gather into one space, blasted with academic and extracurricular expectations, topped with the (possible) pressures of transitioning out of a familial support structure into one of more independence. If you stretch it out a bit, I wouldn’t be surprised if college was mistaken for an installment of the Hunger Games.

With the excitement of university experience comes a darker, less glamorous shade of life. It was these two different sides of the coin that I wanted to blend together. I was concerned with reminding people of their shared experiences and sparking the human spirit, something often destroyed by comparison, stress, and a multitude of other forces. I asked myself how I could leverage social media sharing as a tool to intentionally bring people together (I’m sure original intentions behind social media were to connect people, but the growth of highly visible highlight reels and the such have often resulted in disconnect). Being a photographer, I thought it be best to utilize my resources and start a photographic blog. I looked no further than to the highly celebrated “Humans of New York” by Brandon Stanton.

My partner was a fellow artist with a similar passion for cutting through the noise and connecting people-to-people through real experiences, thoughts, and feelings. After putting our heads together, we launched our Facebook page, Faces of Michigan (FOM), with this intro:

Whether you develop a coffee addiction, fail that Spanish exam, or find the love of your life, your time in college is prime so we thought it would be an excellent idea for you to get acquainted with some other college counterparts that you may or may never get to meet, those who are probably developing that same coffee addiction or failing that same exam, or (let’s hope not) finding that same love of their life.

Thoroughly inspired by the highly appraised photoblog, Humans of New York, we set out to capture the feels and souls of our very own community but with a heavier emphasis on the university lifestyle. We want to give a face to the multitude of voices, ideas and opinions that exist here on this campus. There’s a whole treasure chest full of stories and lessons to be explored and it’s sitting right outside your door, right next to you in your Psych 111 lecture, right beside you on the Bursley-Baits Bus…you get the point. We hope Faces of Michigan can serve as a platform for campus mobility and improvement as well as raise awareness about the student experience here at the University of Michigan.

It was so exciting! We were going to be the Brandon Stantons of Ann Arbor, Michigan and it was going to be revolutionary.

And they lived happily ever after………*record scratch*.

Hold up. Connie, this is the most recent post on the feed. What’s all this about?

Let’s rewind back to the very first sentence of this story, shall we?

Spring of 2014.

So if we do the calculations right…

Uh oh.

Yes, it is true. Our beloved project lasted a mere three months. (Cue sad emoji.)

And no, we did not fall out of love with our passion for sharing human experiences. If anything, my partner and I were driven and diligent in exploring the campus, talking to strangers, curating a collection of stories to be told for those happy three months. We never planned to halt the project that quickly, or even ever. So then, what happened?

Faulty assumptions.

We had began dreaming up ideas and going out and doing work for this project without thoroughly considering many components of the project, including longevity, social burn-out, and even summer break.

We assumed that we would be able to not only juggle school work, social life, rest, and Faces of Michigan but successfully sustain all of this between just the two of us across time and space.

We assumed that all people would be open to talking to a complete stranger about their personal experiences and feelings. We underestimated the challenges of earning trust from our interviewees. Most conversations ended up okay but required much more effort and training than we had originally expected.

We assumed that we could sustain the project beyond our university semester (specifically beyond summer break). More specifically, we assumed that I would keep the project going alone since my partner would be leaving for the summer season. But we overlooked the important role she had in the project: the pusher. I often stepped out to talk to strangers with the help of her push, so when she left, so did my courage.

And one of the biggest assumptions for myself was that I’d be able to muster the courage to talk to strangers for months at a time. Adrenaline from the first leg of the project launch allowed me to overcome fear in the early stage, but I soon hit a social burnout. I had underestimated the sheer effort it took to walk out into campus and try to strike a genuine conversation with a stranger.

And lastly, we assumed we’d be able to pass on the project to up and coming underclassmen, ultimately creating a sustainable model for a transient community. We had received messages about collaboration and personal submissions, but because we were still tinkering with project details, we did not have the capacity to add on members. And because we wanted a system of quality control, we denied submissions. All in all, we refused to expand the team so as our capacity faded, the project died with us.

And this is the story of how FOM died.

It was not our passion, our resources, or even our desire to grow the series that had vanished. It was the lack of cognizance towards our faulty assumptions that led to our downfall. If we could rewind and address these issues, maybe FOM could have lived a little more life. But alas, many other projects are in dire need of TLC (and attention to assumptions). Onward bound!

Connie Ly

Written by

Connie Ly

Ex-figure skater. Avid tea drinker. Dipping my toes into UI/UX, one piggy at a time.

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