Widgets Magazine

Q&A: Alina Utrata creates community through quotes

Class of 2017 alumna Alina Utrata left behind more than the memories of four years of college upon graduation; she also left a Facebook following of over 9,000 people on her page “Things Overheard at Stanford.” Created in her freshman year, the page showcases one to two line phrases overheard on campus, and has caught the attention of not only Stanford students but viewers worldwide in India, Singapore, Canada and Italy. For Utrata, the page began as a hobby. Hearing humorous tidbits of conversation around her, she thought, “Why not start posting them somewhere?”

Alina Utrata (AU:) I created my freshman year, and it was during a period of time in which “Things Overheard at NYU” was really popular, and I think you get into a certain mindset when you read a page like that where things happen, and you’re like “Oh my god, that needs to be on Things Overheard at Stanford,” which has definitely been true of the past four years of writing the page … I initially just started it because things would happen that I thought were really funny or very indicative of the Stanford experience.

At the page’s inception, Utrata kept her identity as its creator a secret, only telling a few close friends. As the page steadily gained popularity, keeping her identity a secret would become more and more difficult.

Things Overheard at Stanford: Posts

AU: It’s funny because again, in the first years it wasn’t very popular until my friends knew I ran the page, and they thought it was really funny. But then a weird thing started happening where other people would like the page, and then years into our friendship, I’d be like, “You know, I run that page,” and they’d be like “What?” and I think there was a sense of disillusionment that went along with it. I remember that I was in an abroad program and somehow something came up where I think I was on the page in class, and somebody saw that I was updating it…I think among people who didn’t know that I ran it from the get-go, there’s this sense of authenticity to the page as if there [were] legions of “Things Overheard at Stanford” people who go around campus listening to conversations and when [they find out that] it’s just me updating things, there was a crushing sense of like, “Oh my god, this isn’t real!” But it is real, of course. It’s reflective of the [Stanford] culture, but those are the two [two kinds of people who reactions come from]; the people who’ve known that I’ve updated it all along and the people who are horrified and shocked when they discovered the true wizard behind the curtain.

So, that’s where the page all began. But the story doesn’t stop there. Utrata believes that the page itself highlights intricacies of the Stanford community: how people within it interact with each other and the things that are understood even when they’re never spoken aloud.

Humor gives us a look into how someone thinks. And sometimes, it can show us how a community thinks, as Utrata says.

AU: I think the page reflects–and I hope makes people think a little bit about–the culture of Stanford. The posts that do well are the ones which are like, “I am so stressed out I am going to die,” and those tend to be very popular. Or over-emphasis on personal achievement at the expense of personal health … this ambivalence about the way that we connect with people at Stanford, and the kind of awkward use of professional or achievement language to discuss our relationships. So things like “Ugh I was going to go on this date but I’m not trying to do long-distance,” or like “I have a schedule for our date,” or…”I would’ve swiped right on Tinder but too far to bike to,” things like this. This sort of weird way that we connect to people and the language we use with connection. If you read these and you’re in a bad mood, they’re not funny, they’re kind of depressing. That’s what I kind of hope for the page, is that people who are like I’m gonna go and mindlessly go through [life] and just do all of the things that i’m supposed to do and get the job that pays the most money and not really have a rich internal life are thinking about how [they] want to operate in the world or impact, or [think more about] my social interactions. It’s sort of reflective of that sort of experience that students have.

But where does she find all of these quotes? Utrata does have a Google form that allows people to submit quotes, but this isn’t the only way the one-liners end up on the page.

AU: I would say a good portion come from just organic conversations that I’ve had with people. And you will find that exhausting about being my friend, is someone will say something funny and I’m like “Oh my god, that’s going on ‘Things Overheard at Stanford’ right now” and then I update it in front of them. It’s very, very disconcerting for a lot of people. I think there’s something about language in conversation that lends to these very pithy quotes.

Things Overheard at Stanford: Conversations

Maybe 5 percent [of the quotes] are from conversations that I’ve actually overheard. Those do appear, but there isn’t an army of minions [listening for them].

Working on the page itself has changed how she views the community, as well.

AU: It has made me a little bit more thoughtful and it’s been a nice tracking mechanism of time at Stanford. Because especially when I flip through the page, I remember when [this or] that happened, or I remember that post or what was happening around that

Utrata will move on to graduate school next year, but since most of the quotes came from undergraduate life, she decided it was time to leave the page in the hands of someone else.

Things Overheard at Stanford: The Future

AU: I didn’t think about it that much because I was finishing a thesis [at the end of the year], and then I was sort of toying with the idea of the last post being like “No one is as funny as me,” but then I thought [it would be] sad if things peter[ed] out and die[d], so I have an anonymous person who I have identified as the next admin [for the page], so hopefully this person will do a good job.

The page will live on. In the hands of whom? Only Utrata knows. But it won’t be an army of listeners. Just one person with a knack for picking up tidbits of conversation.


Contact ZaZu Lippert at zazulippert ‘at’ gmail.com.