PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic— “Oh my god, that’s me twerking!” Emily cried in muffled alarm, as she pushed her cellphone across the table to her friend.
The video, shot in a darkened room, was a shaky mess of gyrating body parts choreographed to a chorus of cheers and hoots. It wasn’t surprising that Emily didn’t remember her late night twerkfest. Earlier that day, I saw her stumble headlong into a palm frond umbrella, then slump to the ground like a sack of wet laundry.
But even in her rum-punch haze, Emily had the good sense to not post her twerking video directly to social media. Instead, she deleted it from her phone the next morning at breakfast and, just like that, it never happened. No whistle, no foul.
It may not seem like it from afar, but the Snapchat generation has some semblance of rules and etiquette when it comes to social media. And as digital natives, millennials understand—far better than the older generations of digital converts—that each social media platform has its own voice and dress code.
Facebook is buttoned-up, shirt-and-shoes required. Instagram is PG-13, some skin but nothing vulgar. And Snapchat is about letting it all hang out because snaps disappear in 24 hours and mom and dad have no idea how it works.
“There are different tiers to social media,” says Amanda, a 21-year-old spring breaker from Lehigh University. “Facebook is about family. My grandma likes everything I post there. Instagram is the next level, but no alcohol. And Snapchat is a free-for-all.”
Those distinctions are of paramount importance on spring break, when many college kids behave slightly naughtier than they would normally. It’s a week of excessive fun in the sun, but graduating seniors don’t want to get burned months later when they’re applying for jobs in the real world.
Yet even on Snapchat, the wild west of social media, there are some unspoken rules. Says Alyssa, a 21-year-old spring breaker from Connecticut, a good story should be a series of 3-second snaps that doesn’t exceed 60 seconds total.
“I’ve seen people do like 200 second stories,” she told me at the pool bar, a little louder than I thought necessary. “Personally I don’t get upset about that, but some people do.”
In addition to counting your snap seconds, you’ve got to make sure that you’re appearing to have wild fun, and that everyone around you is too. One bored face could kill the whole mood. That’s particularly true on spring break, I’m told, because there’s stiff competition among groups of students who go to different foreign locations, especially the Dominican Republic and Mexico. You don’t want people to think you’re on the loser, J.V. squad spring break while others are having the times of their lives in a better country. Your reputation would never recover.
Social media anxiety isn’t just about Snapchat. It’s also a real thing on Instagram, which is regulated by its own set of unspoken rules—i.e. No more than one post per day, and quietly delete pics that don’t reach your minimum “like” count, which for most cool kids is 100-150 (or, in my case, 6).
“If you don’t get 150 likes, you’re a loser,” Janelle explained to me matter-of-factly, unintentionally destroying my self-confidence.
The rules are slightly different for those belonging to Greek organizations or sports teams. Members of those groups say they have to be even more careful about posting Instagram photos that show any skin or alcohol, even if it’s others drinking in the background.
For many Greeks, it’s a learned self-censorship.
“When we initiate pledges into our fraternity, we’re not even allowed to bring out the cellphones because of all the anti-hazing rules,” a frat bro who wished to remain unidentified (even by school) told me. “And for spring break, nothing goes up on Facebook. My dad checks that.”
On the other hand, Greek organizations have social media benefits, too. It seems particularly true for women who pledge a sorority and find out there’s no faster way to boost your like and follower counts than by joining a sisterhood of 120.
“The sororities make all the girls follow each other on social and like every photo they post to Instagram,” Sam tells me. “So if you’re in a sorority, it’s automatically double the like count on your photos.”
Those who have to work harder for their likes need to put in a little extra effort to compete on an uneven playing field. In some cases, that requires lots of thinking and careful planning to compose the perfect Instagram pic.
“I’m Georgia. I’m 21. I love social media. And I’m addicted to Instagram,” the senior told me, as if introducing herself at a 12-step program. (Thanks, Georgia.)
“I planned what I was going to do on Instagram for two weeks before spring break started,” she told me, my eyes widening in mild incredulity. “I bought these sunglasses for $12 so that I could take this picture in them on Instagram, but I’ve already had 100 likes in 45 minutes so it was worth it.”
Georgia continued her story, unprompted, telling me how once she drove more than two hours just to buy a certain type of donut so she could take an Instagram picture with it. The photo got several hundred likes and was a good investment of her time and energies, she assured me. But at this point in her story, I was staring silently into the middle distance, sadly contemplating just how woefully inadequate and ill-prepared I am to participate competitively on Instagram.
“I’m up to 102 likes in 47 minutes,” Georgia said of her epic sunglasses pic, interrupting her other story about photogenic donuts. “I’ll probably get more than 200 likes.”
With that, I gently excused myself and fell into the pool.
At the swim-up bar, I jovially struck up another conversation about a relatively new spring break social media phenomenon: the post-party hip hop video. No quality spring break, it would seem, is complete without hours of post-production video editing to produce what is essentially a YouTube music video highlight reel. It’s the role that MTV used to play back in my spring break days, in the Middle Pleistocene.
The music videos range in quality and mixing, but they’re all surprisingly polished.
All the videos seem to have a similar narrative arc and nearly identical ingredients. They typically open with a scene shot in the airport or from the window of a landing airplane (to show people you didn’t drive to spring break in your Honda Accord), then there’s the triumphant arrival at the beach, dancing near the pool bar, slow-mo wet hair whipping in knee-deep surf, drinking from a coconut, dancing on a booze cruise, taking shots, and twerking at various speeds.
They are major productions that require all involved to do their bit. For some, it’s also a source of moderate stress.
“We have 12 girls here on spring break, and we’re all shooting video on GoPros and iPhones. We got a lot of good video on the catamaran cruise today, so that will be a big part of our video,” Janelle told me. “One of our friends will edit it all together when we get back.”
Had they picked out a song yet, I was dying to know. “No, we’re discussing that,” she said, naming a few songs or perhaps artists I’ve never heard of.
“Basically anything by Rihanna,” adds her friend. I nodded at the name recognition.
With students focused on video production, Snapchat and Instagram, other forms of social media become less important on spring break, especially hook-up apps like Tinder.
“Dude, I crush Tinder but it’s no good here because all the girls are at neighboring resorts and my dad said if you go off campus you will get killed,” the same frat bro from paragraph 15 told me.
Others, however, say even social media deserves some time off on spring break. Indeed, there’s a small and seasonally luddite group of countercultural dissenters who don’t think it’s important to bring their cellphones in the pool.
“Seventy percent of social media is about bragging rights. And I get it, our generation sucks, we’re always on our phones,” says Maria, a 21-year-old spring breaker who, incidentally, wasn’t on her phone. “But instead of always trying to look like you’re having fun, people should put down their phones. I haven’t charged mine in 24 hours, and it feels great. I think if you’re not snapping, that’s the real sign you’re having fun on spring break.”