Blue Valley Northwest senior Alyson Youngdoff’s phone glowed. Facebook was notifying her that she was mentioned in a post.
She was catching up on homework that night at home after missing a week of school because her dad had just died after suffering a heart attack.
“It was really, really unexpected,” Youngdoff says. “It changed my family right away.”
She picked up her phone to view the notification and fought back tears.
Alyson Youngdoff I don’t think we’ve ever really met, but I just wanted to tell you how much I admire you. I can’t imagine everything you’re going through, but you still come to school every day with a smile on your face. I have no idea where this positive spirit comes from, but I am in awe of it. I keep praying for you and I just wanted to tell you that you seem like a strong, wonderful individual.
Youngdoff’s reply:You have no idea how much this comment means to me! Thank you so much:) I really couldn’t do it without all the positive people I know at Northwest
The post came from Bvnw Compliments, an anonymously run Facebook page that displays supportive thoughts from anonymous Blue Valley Northwest students to their classmates.
“It was so powerful and exactly what I needed,” she says. “Knowing I had support from so many directions, even from people who don’t know me, meant everything.”
She works quickly, skimming over the text. An occasional smile rolls over her lips, but she only pauses when Facebook asks for a security code.
“If you post too many times in a row, I guess it thinks you are a robot,” she says.
The Blue Valley Northwest junior is the anonymous webmaster of the Bvnw Compliments Facebook account. Most of the school’s 1,700 students are one of the account’s 1,070 friends.
The concept is simple: Participants privately message the Facebook page, then Bvnw Compliments forwards the message to the intended recipient. Bvnw Compliments posts the compliment, while tagging the person who is receiving it, so it will be visible on both accounts.
The webmaster started the account last spring after the school’s annual diversity seminar.
“One of our student body leaders said, ‘If anyone ever needs something or is going through something, just call me,’ ” she says. “And you could just feel the positive energy in the halls that day. People were talking about it, and I wanted every day to be like that one.”
A new student at the time, she knew the clique-filled hallways could be threatening.
“Most of (the students) had known each other forever and went to grade school together,” she says. “It can be hard to break into something so tight-knit.”
She leaned on her mom for support, but her mom could say little to make her feel better.
“When I talked to her, sometimes I thought she was saying things because she had to,” she says. “Because she’s mom.”
So she decided to use social media to make her school feel a little smaller, a little nicer.
While cyber-bullying and teens using technology for sexual exploitation are pitfalls of the digital age, young people are beginning to use social media in a kinder and more positive way. And the Blue Valley Northwest site is leading the way.
The site is a part of a growing movement across the country in the past few months. Blue Valley West and Olathe Northwest also started “compliments” accounts in September. Neither have risen to the popularity of Blue Valley Northwest’s account, but the Blue Valley West compliments page has more than 400 friends, while the Olathe Northwest page has more than 100.
The sites have even popped up on college campuses as large as the University of Kansas.
Ben Linnan, a Blue Valley Northwest senior, opened his laptop before school one morning to find a compliment.
Ben Linnan I don’t know you well at all. But I’ve been around you enough to know that you are definitely someone to thank. Beyond the obvious things like always smiling, and always being positive, you also embody the smaller things. Always holding the door open for others, raising your hand in class when no one else does … Maybe you think those little things go unnoticed but I’m here to tell you that they truly don’t. All I have to say is thank you. Our class of 2013 is blessed to have you!
Linnan’s reply: What a nice thing to wake up to, thank you very much!
Ben says the confines of the school allow for “surface-level” communication and compliments but not much more.
“It is a good high school, and it’s a place where people will tell you ‘Good job’ for getting 100 percent on a test, but it’s not a place where someone will openly tell you how smart they think you are,” Linnan says. “Those are things that are easier to say if you are anonymous.”
The webmaster walks into a Johnson County library. She has agreed to an interview only after a series of Facebook messages, and she won’t tell her name, even though she has been promised anonymity. (But in shaking hands with a photographer from The Star, she accidentally introduces herself, a habit of politeness. Don’t worry, her secret is safe.)
She wears a gray T-shirt and looks like any Blue Valley Northwest student, which is exactly the point. The webmaster is the same as all the other students and could be any one of them.
“It means more that way,” the webmaster says. “I don’t need to take credit for it. I get credit when I hear people talking about it at lunch or something, and I just kind of smile to myself. It’s more fun that way.”
Her anonymity protected, the teenager we’ll call “the webmaster” agrees to tell her story, of what led her to start Bvnw Compliments.
About a month into her first year at Blue Valley Northwest last school year, she received a text message from a close male friend who went to her previous school in the South.
“Hey,” it said.
Busy and distracted, she did not reply. Days later, her phone rang. It was her friend’s sister. She said her brother had died, but wasn’t able to say much more.
“I just kept saying ‘What? What do you mean, what do you mean?’ ” she says. “I just talked to him.”
Her friend’s father took the phone. “He killed himself,” he said.
The webmaster says one of the hardest parts was not knowing something was wrong. Her friend smiled, laughed and seemed healthy.
The Facebook account was still months away, but her old school had a compliments account of its own. After the death of her friend, she began looking at the account and viewing the website sixbillionsecrets.com, in which people anonymously post what you might see written inside a bathroom stall: thoughts, positive or negative.
And at her school, she started listening. Among her new friends she noticed recurring conversations filled with sarcastic and insulting comments. She realized she even occasionally did it herself without thinking.
“It’s my pet peeve now,” she says. “But I’d hear someone say, ‘This makes me look fat,’ and then their friend would say, ‘Well, it’s OK, you always look fat.’ And you could see it hurt.”
She began to see a need to post the polite comments students left unsaid. When walking the halls at Blue Valley Northwest, she no longer saw strangers trying to keep her out. She saw vulnerability.
“I looked at people, and I started realizing that they may smile and laugh like my friend did, but you don’t really know what’s going on because it can be hard to say sometimes,” she says.
That idea became more real when a Blue Valley Northwest student committed suicide last year. She did not know the student but felt the grief and empathy of those who did.
“I’m sure they were just like my friend or just like me,” she says. “You could feel it in the school.”
It was then she began thinking about creating the Facebook page. The night of the diversity seminar, inspired by the idea of every student having somewhere to turn, she sat down at her laptop and started typing.
“I want to start off by saying who I am doesn’t matter. But who we are does; we are one of many,” she wrote in the ‘About’ section. She then started friending.
Nervous at first, she felt relieved when students began sending her compliments to post anonymously. After the school’s TV program ran a story about the website, hundreds of requests poured in.
Her rules: Students must be Blue Valley Northwest students, and the posts must be nice. She has turned down posts that would jeopardize the site’s integrity, recalling a time someone tried to send multiple compliments to himself. She has also denied friend requests from people outside the school, but encouraged them to start a similar account.
She receives about five compliments a day and tries to post at night when Facebook receives the most traffic. She stays online as long as it takes to post all the compliments.
A recent computer virus kept her from posting as frequently, and she noticed that in recent months the compliments quit coming as steadily. There’s a pattern. The more she posts, the more fly in.
“I’m most surprised when people send me compliments, and they’re people who are labeled jocks, or people who I’ve heard say mean things,” she says. “But when I see those messages, I know they’re only mean because they think they have to be.”
Lauren Coady, a Blue Valley Northwest senior, checked her phone after winning a basketball game.
Lauren Coady we don’t know each other very well but I have to say that you are someone admirable. Every time I see you, you always have a smile on your face and your (sic) always willing to help me out. Just a well deserved thank you and keep doing what you’re doing!
Coady’s reply: Aww thanks to whoever wrote this! Definitely made my Friday!
“High school in general can be a tough place,” Coady says, “Even though I wasn’t going through anything at the time, it’s nice to get recognition.”
She has not sent any compliments of her own but says she would like to if she can figure out the wording.
“It’s one of the few places where it’s strictly positive things about people from your school,” Coady says. “I don’t know who sent in my compliment but I don’t feel like I need to know. Thinking it could be from anybody makes it cooler.”
At the end of November, a compliment Facebook account was started at the University of Kansas. Within a week, the account had more than 1,300 friends.
The KU account owner — anonymous like the Blue Valley Northwest webmaster — says she started the account to follow the model of Queen’s University in Canada. Students there started an account in September.
She says she wonders if the number of accounts skyrocketed in November because it was the month of Thanksgiving, and it was already a popular trend for people to post a Facebook status about something they were thankful for every day of the month.
“A high school friend of mine started one for their school a couple week ago,” she says. “We always liked doing random acts of kindness together, so they convinced me to start one here.”
The account takes hours to maintain, with friend requests flying in faster than the owner can accept.
“I’ll get 50 friend requests and tons of messages.”
She says she tries not to think about the amount of time spent, supplementing homework in between her Facebook visits.
Traffic is expected to slow after a while, but the owner does not plan on letting the account go away. She says she might pass the account on to someone else so it can be updated.
“I’m willing to keep it up no matter what, as long as people are still sending compliments in,” she says.
Nerves controlled Shane Smith, a Blue Valley Northwest senior, as he hit the enter button. Tonight was the night he told everyone in his life he was gay.
“I had been thinking about it for awhile,” Smith says. “The feeling of having all these people who don’t really know who you are — it was a big secret.”
Smith chose Facebook as a way to tell everyone while controlling the message.
“It was a way to let everyone hear it from me,” he says.
Smith says it was the best decision he has ever made, and a few days later he checked his Facebook to find a compliment commending his courage.
Shane J. Smith is by far the most courageous, trustworthy, sincere and positive person I know. My day is brightened just by seeing you. He gives me hope that someday, society will change for the better. Shane, you are amazing and I love you for everything.
Smith’s reply: Thank you so so so much! This really has been like the best day of my life. I now realize how amazing my friends and family are. It’s people like you and all of the amazing people that surround me that give me courage. Hopefully I can play a decently sized role in the change. I love you too
The webmaster joined the conversation.
Bvnw Compliments Shane, I would like to personally say that I admire you so much and it is so amazing to see that you have so many people that love you and support you. You are an amazing person.
Smith replied: It really means a lot, you have no idea. You are an amazing person and I can say that without even knowing who you are!! The fact that you start something like this says sooo much about you. You truly are an amazing person as well.
Lots of people “liked” Shane’s post and many commented to support Smith.
“I still look at it a lot,” Smith says. “I was so worried people would say something mean to me or look at me the next days at school, but people were really supportive. I knew I chose the right friends.”
Smith began complimenting his friends using his own Facebook page.
“It’s usually from a few of us,” he says. “We try to do it when we know someone is having a rough time.”
The Bvnw Compliments webmaster tries to compliment people daily.
She has a successor lined up to take over the account when she graduates next year. And though the account has become her legacy, she says has no plans to take credit for it.
“I know I’m not necessarily changing lives, but if it’s the little things that make a difference, or brighten someone’s day just a little, that’s something that needs to keep growing,” she says.