Student Debt Sucks and the Interconnectivity of the 21th Century: Social Media and Empathy

Social media is revolutionary; the graphic above was made in 2010, describing the interconnectivity of Facebook friends around the world, using a sample of 10,000 friendships. Social media has been able to connect people from all over, and can break the barrier of distance, which is a very new concept to our modernizing society.

Image of Albert Wu holding the sign. Taken from his Facebook account.

Image of Albert Wu holding the sign, taken from his Facebook account (2016)

Albert Wu, a former classmate of mine, has recently found fame through the use of social media—or in his case, Venmo. Albert is a college freshman at the Washington University in Saint Louis, and is pictured above holding a sign that was viewed by many through the CNN pre-debate broadcasts. Albert’s sign reads “Student Debt Sucks. Venmo @albertwu97.” While at first this seemed a little juvenile, it has taken the internet and conversations about student debts by a storm. Within a week or so, he has made around $600, and is now a mini-internet celebrity. One of the election debates was in a  town-hall style, and held at the WashU, a prestigious university known to have an incredibly high tuition. Costing around $68,000 per year, and at an increasing rate of around 5%, WashU is unaffordable to most families in America.

The reason for the outbreak of support for Albert has to do with student debt being a national issue.  An article written by Carla Javier titled “Here are the key issues Trump and Clinton didn’t address during Sunday night’s debate” outlines how student debt, among other national issues, needs to be addressed this election season (Javier).  In the article, she mentions how “according to the Fusion Issues 2016 poll, 40% of 18- to 35-year-olds have taken out one or more loans to pay for their education. Six in 10 of those polled said student loans are a source of stress in their lives” (Javier).  This sheds light on how prevalent this issue is, and how little is done to reduce student loans.

Venmo screenshots (1)

Venmo screenshots (1)

Venmo screenshots (2)

Venmo screenshots (2)

Pictured to the left are screenshots I took from looking at Albert’s Venmo account.  Many of the messages sent are inspirational and intend to grant support for him.  The reason for the massive amount of support: every American who has recently gone through college has faced the incredible amounts of debt and loans and stress placed on students—debts that take years and years to pay off.  Empathy is so strong in this situation because people don’t have to imagine themselves in Albert’s shoes, because they have already lived in his shoes.

According to Stanley Feldman and Marco Steenbergen’s “The Humanitarian Foundation of Public Support for Social Welfare,” the humanitarians of this world are focused “more on the disadvantaged” rather than the actual distribution of wealth; their goal is to support the identifiable people at the bottom, rather than the whole system (661). This can help explain why my old classmate Albert received so many Venmo donations. When the public saw this image of Albert, holding a sign that read “Student Debt Sucks. Venmo @albertwu97” it was easy to identify him, and to help him. A humanitarian would rather directly help Albert than assist in removing student debt. Feldman and Steenbergen also mention that, “in fact, because humanitarians feel personally responsible for the plight of others, their first reaction may be to engage in philanthropy. Public policy takes away the opportunity to directly assist others in need,” (Feldman and Steenbergen, 662). There are two ways to look at this analysis of humanitarians and Albert’s situation. The first is that it is good how Albert was able to make $600 through his mini-campaign for lowering student debt. However, the other viewpoint is how it would be more effective for people to try to lower student debt, than to help one individual. In the long run, while one could argue that Albert’s actions were selfish—he could have instead tried to fix the problem, than targeting the humanitarians in our society—in the end, they did re-spur the debate of student debt, one that we should be focusing on this election season.

Through Albert’s campaign, he was able to bring together a group of individuals from across the country to support his cause. He used social media to invoke empathy, uniting people with common beliefs, making him an instant internet mini-celebrity.


Works Cited:

Butler, Paul, and Mark Zuckerburg. Graphic of 10,000 Facebook friendships across the world, 2010. Digital image. Digital Trends. N.p., 14 Dec. 2010. Web. 7 Nov. 2016.

Feldman, Stanley, and Marco R. Steenbergen. “The Humanitarian Foundation of Public Support for Social Welfare.” American Journal of Political Science 45.3 (2001): 658-77. Web.

Javier, Carla. “Here’s What Trump and Clinton Should Have Really Talked About On Sunday.” Fusion. N.p., 11 Oct. 2016. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.

11 thoughts on “Student Debt Sucks and the Interconnectivity of the 21th Century: Social Media and Empathy

  1. Before I begin talking about how my article fits into your essay, I would like to say that your external source takes on a really cool modern angle in explaining how empathy can be seen in Albert’s case.
    My source dealt with how the internet affects one’s ability to empathize with people. It concluded that empathy has been diminishing for the past 30 years. While this empathy has not diminished directly because of internet activity but because of the social isolationism that comes along with it. I got the feeling that when my article was addressing the Internet’s effect on empathy, it was targeting empathy for bad things that happened rather than progressive ones like your case presents. Because of this, I don’t find my article to be too relevant to your case, but I do feel that empathy should definitely be felt for this kid.
    My article suggests that the Internet has the capability to enhance the development of empathy and society, so from this angle, your case is extremely relevant. The author of my article would likely agree that Albert Wu’s case is looking to better society and a serious economic problem that faces it and through this problem, it enhances our ability to empathize with people such as Albert.

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