@oberlin_in_the_00s and The Art of Normalcy

On some placid afternoon in the early-to-mid-aughts, someone took a photograph in Stevie. There are round Stevie tables and onion rings—mournfully, we remember the onion rings—and tired, collegiate eyes and someone’s fringed haircut. You can smell its ethnically ambiguous Stevie smell just looking at it, though it appears to have been captured on disposable film before it was a stylistic choice. Hell, it appears to have been taken before you bought your first pair of Ben Franklin shower shoes or had your first Financial Aid email debacle or box-dyed your hair in Barrows or even slapped those cute little admission stickers on your laptop as high school began to finally recede into the distance. In our time of constant strangeness and disruption, the scene is delightfully drab. It tells us more about another time than any toothy group photo. It’s pre-, well, everything. So, in other words, it’s ancient! Perhaps even B.T.T. (Before TikTok)! It’s one for the history books! It’s a little window into another mundanity. 

And it lives online now. It resurfaced in September of 2020, our year of plagued politicians and Zoom birthday parties, as one of almost 300 other posts on the Instagram oberlin_in_the_00s. “This was lunch once” reads the caption, a rare note on an Instagram of mostly captionless posts; a museum of anonymous photos from anonymous sources presenting to us an array of anonymous faces—except for the excited presumed alumni in the comments that seem to shout the names of old friends from the stands, typing in enthusiastic tags. User percussion_galadriel comments “woahhh…Kim! Justin! Nathan!” as though calling them over at a party, as though they might hear from within the photograph, look up from their meals, and smile obligingly. Everyone seems to know someone, but those of us who don’t watch from the sidelines, charmed just by vague association.

Indeed, to current students and alums alike, oberlin_in_the_00s has proved to be universally endearing. It came to be only about six months ago in April 2020 and has since amassed over 1,500 followers and hundreds of likes per post. It is simple and with an air of uncurated sincerity. Email your fifteen-year-old CVS disposable of some nose-ringed character and see it join the others without a word. The comments and likes do what the caption doesn’t, which makes me wonder if this air of uncuration is a true one, or perhaps, inversely, there is curation in its lack thereof. Or maybe it’s simply just a quarantine project, a little photo album for everyone in the know, anonymous yet richly intimate. It is personal—many photos are candids—yet universally beloved by those associated with Oberlin because, well, Oberlin is Oberlin.  

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And, say what you will about Oberlin College and Conservatory—if you’re reading this, what you say will probably be of merit—but one cannot deny there is an unmistakable Oberlin energy that, though shifting with the times and student body, never goes away. Oberlin_in_the_00s is evidence of this fact. I was first acquainted with this account when, lunching with friends, a smartphone was waved in my face and I immediately began to be interrogated as to whether this boyish twenty-something in a great vintage jacket looked like So-And-So or, maybe, Other So-And-So We Know Who Also Looks Like This? And both instances were equally correct and fascinating. Oberlin students are Oberlin students to such a degree that it makes one wonder if it is Oberlin that attracts the Obies or the Obies that make Oberlin so stubbornly Oberlin. It would be a fun chicken-or-egg situation if the solution weren’t an obvious one: both are true. Oberlin students of the aughts—and the Obies that enticed them to move to a funny little place —crafted the Oberlin that made us all want to become Oberlin students. Sure, we’re sort of all the same—almost comically so. The satirization possible at this juncture is nearly endless—but that’s the point. Oberlin, though incredibly imperfect, is a haven for the strange, the frazzled, the goofy. And it seems to have been for generations. 

In one photo, a hand-painted sign is raised. It reads: “OBERLIN QUEER MECCA.” In another, a dozen limp, strangely-clad Obies pile like tired puppies in a single tiny dorm bed. I send it in a groupchat. “This could easily just be Barrows not even a year ago” I type, grinning. And it’s true. Though styles are different—though narrowly, since we all seem to dress like it is 2003 these days. This is a separate article, however—the photos on oberlin_in_the_00s are timeless. They aren’t just timelessly collegiate either, but eternally Oberlin. Behind the cigarette-lipped cinema studies majors, shy punks, grinning geeks, bold eyeliner statements, Big Parade floats, She/Theys locked at the lips, sweat, and hair dye, there are the same dorm door frames and Midwestern, American Football-esque white clapboards we still walk past everyday. It’s an art project and a textbook page.

I couldn’t get in touch with the artist(s?) behind oberlin_in_the_00s to write this article. I assume this is due to a great number of submissions in the designated email address made specifically for this page. But I feel most of what I cherish about this account is not in need of an email statement. It is as impactful an Oberlin time capsule, especially right now, as one can get on social media. The 2000s, too, are near yet far. They do not yet belong to a vintage shop yet; perhaps just a Goodwill. Us Obie contemporaries are connected yet just distanced enough from the lives lived on this campus before ours to realize where we come from. It is a bright spot of artful normalcy in this strange liminal space we currently occupy, and for that I am grateful.