“I wasn’t able to have many friends over when I was young,” Allie M. Walsh ’18 writes on Facebook. She writes that her childhood in Danvers, Massachusetts was marked by widespread alcoholism and drug abuse. Drunk driving and neglected children were commonplace. A photograph of Walsh leaning against a graffiti-covered pole accompanies the text. “I slept with a baseball bat under my bed, which is still there,” she writes. The post has more than 700 likes.
Walsh is one of the dozens of students who have shared intimate stories on social media through The Unfiltered Network. Unfiltered is one of many photo-based campaigns that have sprung into existence on social media over the last few years. Participants often describe struggles with racial identity, sexual orientation, and mental health—topics they usually wouldn’t discuss publicly online.
Walsh was initially unsure how her story would be received or how this virtual-world decision might affect her real-world interactions. But, she says, it turned out to be the right choice. “It gave me the right platform and a very receptive audience to listen to what I had to say,” Walsh says.
Zena K. Edosomwan ’17 founded The Unfiltered Network last year and has been working on it full-time since he graduated from Harvard. Edosomwan, along with his friends Christopher E. Egi ’18 and Sydney C. Altschuler, decided to “build a community around the idea of being yourself” through social media.
Now supported by a team of 11, The Unfiltered Network spans the Ivy League. With more than 5,500 Facebook followers and 1,900 Instagram followers, it’s looking to expand across the country and internationally––reaching out to schools in Kenya, India and the UK.
Posts like Walsh’s usually require a two-part process: a photography session and an interview, though the group also allows participants to submit their own pre-written text and photographs. For the project’s pictures, Altschuler, the project’s head of photography, says that the most important part of her job is to “get an honest portrait of someone.”
“I love to sit and talk to someone and understand how they are as a person and go from there,” she says. Staying true to the project’s name, Altschuler does not airbrush or Photoshop the images, although she does sometimes adjust the lighting. “Why would you be airbrushing a photo when it’s supposed to be about something that’s more than skin deep?”
Central to the project’s identity is the question of authenticity on social media. The project’s title makes a provocative promise, as any content posted on a social media account—even one that is purportedly “unfiltered”—involves some process of curation. For those at The Unfiltered Network, the campaign’s title speaks to a commitment to telling imperfect stories on platforms that often privilege “perfect” images.
“They’re letting people present a part of them that they wouldn’t normally feel comfortable sharing on their own platforms,” Walsh says.
Edosomwan says inclusivity is a primary goal of the campaign, which gives participants the opportunity to discuss marginalized identities and experiences. Eli J. Lieberman, a sophomore at Princeton who identifies as nonbinary, contributed to The Unfiltered Network with hopes of getting viewers to consider the complexities of gender.
“I think I just want people to see that nonbinary people exist,” Lieberman says. “I want people to examine what lies they’ve been told about their own genders, and I want them really start thinking about what an authentic sense of gender might mean to them. It might be more complicated than you think.” After Lieberman’s post was published, friends and strangers at Princeton reached out with messages of support.
Still a fledgling project, the feel-good campaign is also expanding financially: Richard B. Cooperstein ’88, CEO at Media Investment Group, is a new investor in the project.
Edosomwan says he has a “vision for a global community of students.” How does an initiative that prides itself on intimacy go about expanding worldwide? By “keeping the integrity of what it’s doing and maintaining trust,” he says. “That’s what makes it special.”