[Informative Yet Clever Headline]
A Facebook page founded by Rob LaVohn has become a popular outlet for alumni to share news and opinions — and a gazillion images of owls.
By Lynn Gosnell
In his professional life, Rob LaVohn ’92 teaches high school English, striving to create a community of learners that is, by all accounts, positive, respectful and — according to one colleague — “seriously fun.” These are much the same qualities he brings to his role as founder and moderator of the officially unofficial Rice Facebook group, “Let’s Be Honest: We Can’t Get a Million Fans for Rice University,” a social media experiment that started “as a lark” 13 years ago.
In 2010, LaVohn was feeling cut off from Rice, where he earned degrees in English and sociology, participated in the MOB for four years, and was a devoted Wiessman. Setting up the page “was a joke,” he recalls, one that echoed a popular Facebook meme called “A million fans for [insert name of college].” LaVohn shared the page with a few Rice friends and then watched in astonishment as its followers grew every day. “I’m like, are you kidding me? Well, if we’ve got this thing going, let’s have a little fun with it.”
To keep the group engaged, LaVohn started throwing out topical requests such as asking followers to share memories: their favorite dorm room “build-up,” a rule they broke or a haiku describing Beer Bike. “It was neat seeing how much people were still invested in those memories,” he says.
LaVohn not only reconnected with old friends and made new ones but also built a sounding board for a wide variety of hot topics involving Rice policies, current events and administrative decisions. In summer 2010, Rice leaders announced plans to sell KTRU to the University of Houston — a sale that was finalized the following year. LaVohn summed up followers’ sentiments at the end of 2010: “Rice still does not have a million fans. It does, however, have about a million people ticked off about KTRU.”
More challenging discussions have ensued, including ongoing loops about Rice Athletics and the fate of the statue of founder William Marsh Rice. The latter debates became increasingly tense in 2020, as painful instances of racial injustice roiled the nation. Also during this period, Rice’s Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice, chartered in late 2019, began to share historical research that revealed the founder’s deep, complex and unacknowledged entanglement in the region’s slave economy. Followers not only had opinions but also had opinions about other people’s opinions.
“Even Rice alums forget from time to time that they’re talking to real people online,” LaVohn observes. However, “most of the time, a gentle reminder is all it takes to restore positive discourse.”
In 2017, Anastasia Bolshakov ’15, then a law student, volunteered to help moderate the growing group. Bolshakov proposed posting some ground rules for participation and also helped connect younger alumni to the group. “She continues to be a guiding force in the site’s success,” LaVohn says. Other moderators have included PJ Abrams ’92 and friend Philip Owens. All the moderators have worked hard to maintain a space that is respectful of free speech but does not descend into personal attacks. When commenters violate rules prohibiting hate speech or bullying, for example, they may be — and have been — suspended.
On a more entertaining note, the page revels in owl photos — the feathered types far outnumber the human kind. “So many owl photos,” LaVohn sighs. Ever see a video of a snowy owl flying straight at a traffic cam? Yes? Well, here it is again.
Then there’s the enduring “meta thread,” which LaVohn describes as a long-running reflection on social media and Rice, in which every meta-comment appears in brackets. It started when LaVohn jokingly posted statements like “[ambiguous statement designed to cause a debate]” and “people immediately picked up on it and started giving me the same sort of generic responses that were dominating the internet,” he says. It eventually became self-mocking: “[back when the meta-thread was cool]” recently drew a number of laughs.
Today, nearly 6,500 fans follow along for the near-daily photos of owls and — if the moderators have their way — civil and open discussion about a beloved and evolving institution. No one is more surprised than LaVohn at the group’s longevity. “I mean, I made a joke and people laughed at it. And they’re still laughing at it.”