When rising sophomores Ashton Cofer ’24 and Teddy Solomon ’24 were admitted to Stanford last year, most Americans were just several weeks into lockdowns spurred by the pandemic. At the time, the idea of a virtual fall quarter seemed out of the realm of possibility for many frosh.
But when the University announced in August that it was canceling fall plans to house students on campus, reality set in for Cofer, Solomon and the thousands of other undergraduates who would be forced to study away from Stanford.
While the two are close friends now, they didn’t know each other until they moved into a rental house with four other frosh in Scottsdale, Ariz. to simulate the traditional dorm environment. Despite efforts to meet fellow Stanford students during their frosh year, Cofer and Solomon continued to feel a disconnect and began envisioning ways to foster community.
What they built in the months they lived together would become Buzz, a social platform that allows users to share anonymous posts in virtual communities designed for college and high school students across the country.
“We wanted to create something that our friends could use but also something that could benefit the university community,” Cofer said. “We’re hoping Buzz can be the glue that holds the student body together.”
The app, which launched at Stanford on July 29, has been embraced by both students living on campus and those away for the summer. In the span of a week, more than 700 users — approximately 10% of the undergraduate student body — have joined the Stanford Buzz community. This brings the total number of users across all schools on the app to over 1,500, according to Solomon. And based on the discussions in Buzz, a mix of all class years are participating, including incoming frosh.
Buzz joins several anonymous discussion platforms already used by Stanford students, including Stanford Missed Connections on Instagram and Librex, which launched at the University in March.
Solomon said the Buzz team has been “overwhelmed by the positive feedback” that indicates the app has played a critical role in helping bridge the communication gap between students. But perhaps its most lauded feature, he said, is the ability for students to see real-time updates of events on campus.
Posts on Buzz have mostly centered around quips, confessions, social and athletic events and questions about academics and campus life. But the app has also served as a forum for discussion surrounding current events.
When local health authorities announced a new indoor mask mandate to stop the spread of the contagious delta variant, the heated topic was debated by Buzz users. Some users expressed anti-mask sentiments. But other users pushed back and maintained that mask-wearing is an effective measure to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Despite the contentious nature of these specific posts, most students said they felt their experience on the app has been mostly positive. Aubrey Lemer ’24 said Buzz has provided her and her friends a safe and easy-to-navigate virtual community that allows students to be more connected to what’s happening on campus.
When housing assignments for the upcoming fall quarter were released last Friday, Lemer said she saw many post their assigned residences on social media, but she did not know how to access hers.
“I honestly didn’t know where they were seeing this,” Lemer said. “But then I went on Buzz and saw exactly where to find it.”
Students said the anonymous aspect of the app is a benefit, not a drawback, because of the opportunity for more active engagement. Lemer said anonymity on the app fosters a “low stress and casual way to ask questions about classes, getting around campus or just any tips,” especially since she has not yet had the opportunity to live on campus.
For Heidy Badillo ’24, Buzz broadens her social circle by allowing her to converse with students beyond close friends and those in her dorm. Badillo said most of her interactions with students on campus have been with those who live in Ng House, where she currently resides.
“What I found cool about Buzz is that you’re building a sense of community with these people who don’t live with you,” she said.
Though other student forums exist, the co-founders said the complete anonymity behind Buzz ensures that students can speak their minds without exposing their identities. They added that while other platforms claim to be anonymous, some students may be hesitant to sign up because their identity is not masked to the account owner.
To access Buzz, users are required to enter their phone number and select a school to join its virtual community. According to Cofer, “phone numbers are only used for account verification on our end and all user data is encrypted on our backend.”
Though anyone can currently join the Stanford community on Buzz, Cofer and Solomon plan to activate a feature in the fall that would require students to be located on campus. In response to concerns about the safety of the platform, Cofer said users can join one school-specific forum at a time and are barred from repeatedly switching between forums.
In addition to Cofer, who manages app development, and Solomon, who oversees business development and marketing, a moderation team monitors posts for abusive behavior. Posts are scrubbed from the platform if they include personally identifying information or targeted acts of harassment or bullying. Cofer also said the app restricts the use of certain keywords in posts.
As Buzz grows, more moderators will be added to ensure users are following the app’s community guidelines, Solomon said. So far, only 10 posts out of more than 2,000 posts have been removed by moderators.
Before launching at Stanford, Buzz was piloted by test groups of around 500 students at Cornell University and the University of Chicago. The co-founders said they selected these two schools specifically because they had allowed most students to return to campus. Before launching at Stanford, Cofer worked to implement the feedback they received, adding a direct messaging feature and flairs to characterize post categories.
Moving forward, Cofer and Solomon said that given the initial success of Buzz’s introduction to Stanford, they are eager to launch Buzz at several other colleges in the U.S. in the fall.
“We want to build our team and expand to as many schools as we can,” Solomon said. “But we are taking it one step at a time because we know there are always changes and ways we can improve the app and our team.”