These student-run Twitter pages promote—but also shame—illicit college drinking

Social media is ubiquitous in the lives of the millennial generation, and its use is still evolving. That’s why some recent Twitter innovations will surprise those who know little about how young people use it.

Twitter is known as a forum to broadcast one’s life in 140 characters or less, but it has other uses. A Twitter page in North Carolina posts photos of students who have passed out from drinking. It’s called NCSU Passouts. As the name suggests, the page is a place for NC State University students to find photos of other students (or themselves) in unflattering positions while unconscious from alcohol. The page requests submissions via email or Twitter.

After the Pope Center sent an email asking for the identity of the NCSU Passouts administrator, someone going by “Bob” responded that the page is run anonymously.

NC State’s is the most popular and active passout page in North Carolina, with 3,700 followers, but other schools have them, too. Appalachian State has one called AppState Passouts. UNC-Chapel Hill has a page called Tar Heel Passouts, but with fewer followers than NCSU Passouts, and the account has been dormant since February. ECU Passouts, for East Carolina University, has had no activity since early 2013. However, photo evidence of binge drinking remains even on dormant pages.

A Google search reveals that similar Twitter accounts exist for schools across the country, including flagships like the University of Missouri, the University of Arizona, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Paul Cousins, NC State’s director of the department of student community standards, told Triangle-area TV station ABC11 he has been monitoring the Passouts account, but cannot punish people for posting photos. (The school can punish the unconsciously photographed students, but has not done so yet.)

WNCN News, another Triangle-area station, broke the story about NC Passouts. It quoted an NC State senior, Drew Warash, who uploads photos to the NCSU Passouts page weekly, including photos of his friends, for the entertainment value. He said the page has a different effect on different people. “Hopefully it will teach them a lesson. Maybe they can learn how to hold their alcohol a little bit better and won’t be in that situation again,” Warash told the station.

Warash himself was featured on the page. He said, “It kind of just taught me to slow down, more or less.”

UNC-Chapel Hill students have found other innovative ways to connect—and cause mischief—on Twitter. An account called UNC Confessions operates as a middleman through which students are encouraged to speak anonymously and publicly about whatever tickles their fancy. TarHeel Makeouts, with over 4,300 followers, shames public displays of affection the way passout pages shame those who cannot handle their liquor. Other popular accounts targeted toward Tar Heels include UNC Humor (almost 25,000 “likes” on Facebook), Carolina Hotties, Heard at UNC, UNC Problems, and UNC Crushes (all are as their names imply).

All of these are in addition to anonymous “bulletin board” phone apps such as Yik Yak, a service that is growing in popularity at college campuses and has caused a stir for providing a forum for online gossip and cyber-bullying. Yik Yak restricts the conversation to a user’s local community by using GPS to detect other users within a 1.5-mile radius.

While the passout sites glorify binge drinking, another alcohol-related site is more like a radar detector.

ALErt Carolina, encourages UNC-Chapel Hill students to report sightings of Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE) agents. Created anonymously in April, the site does for underage drinkers what smartphone apps like Trapster and Waze do for speeders—warn them when authorities have been spotted cracking down on their illicit activities.

The “ALE” in the page’s name is a play on two organizations. First, the agency, which is a division of the department of crime control and public safety that is tasked with enforcing the rules of North Carolina’s Alcoholic Beverage Control. Second, UNC-Chapel Hill’s “Alert Carolina” emergency communication system. The page description reads, sardonically, “Thankfully this isn’t as slow as the real ALERT Carolina.” ALErt also parodies the emergency system’s logo, superimposing a beer mug onto it.

One of ALE’s primary jobs is to enforce underage drinking laws. ALE agents inspect businesses that hold alcohol permits and cite any violators they find. (ALE also now enforces laws against banned drugs, tobacco, and gambling, and oversees the administration of the Boxing Authority and the state bingo program.

Students who spot ALE agents are encouraged to note, via an online form (warning: obscene language), where they spotted the agents, and as a bonus, what they looked like. Once the submission is in, ALErt Carolina will send the warning to its followers. Examples include: “ALE spotted at the Rec Room,” and “Undercover cop sitting between Thrill and Pulse.. Word has it y’all should be fine though.”

Passout pages and those pages warning of law enforcement activity may shock some reactionaries; but the phenomenon warrants deeper consideration.

While this is probably not their intention, people who expose their friends on the Internet may unwittingly be encouraging moderation. Especially those who know they cannot tolerate alcohol will want to avoid being the next online sensation at their college.

At Carolina, one Twitter user, who goes by the handle “Abby Normal,” tweeted the following: “Basically the only reason I avoid getting super drunk is because I am terrified of ending up on @TarHeelPassOut1.”

As for pages like ALErt Carolina, even if created out of scorn for police and intended to save underage drinkers from arrest, they may bring abstinence to underage drinkers—involuntary abstinence, but abstinence nonetheless.

In the same way that alerting motorists of speed traps slows them down—at least temporarily—alerting bar patrons of ALE presence reduces unlawful drinking, at least for awhile. Even if their hearts are not changed, and law enforcement gets a little less revenue, the social problem the law is meant to address is mitigated somewhat.

Dr. Karen G. Weiss, the author of a book Party School: Crime, Campus, and Community (a book George Leef reviewed on this site), writes in her conclusion that to reduce excessive drinking among students, reformers should “challenge their value system.” She goes on to say, however, that such a transformation “would have to come from students’ own peer groups.” That is, not from college administrators like Paul Cousins, not from ALE, or the legislature, but from the students.

Young adults will probably always drink, and in the foreseeable future they will continue to do so to excess. If Weiss is right, however, that students will be the drivers of their own changing values, then Twitter services like NCSU Passouts and ALErt Carolina could serve as an example of her thesis. That could be true even if not by design.