By Jane Bowden
When Jennifer Massa, a junior special education and English dual major, wanted to sell a few pairs of her used sneakers back in October, she had a range of options. Online resale stores such as ThredUp and Poshmark had thousands of customers nationwide, while local thrift shops like Plato’s Closet offered convenience with a 15-minute drive.
As a college student on a budget, every dollar and second mattered to Massa. It could take months for her shoes to sell online, and even then, most retailers only give back 15 to 40 percent of how much they sell, according to ThredUp and Plato’s Closet.
That was when Massa turned to tcnj-snap.
Tcnj-snap is an unofficial, student-run account on the popular multimedia messaging app, Snapchat. Students at the College often advertise club events, items they are selling and more for no charge on the account’s Snapchat story, which receives more than 4,000 views per story, according to the owner of tcnj-snap who has agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. The owner is a College graduate, according to Massa.
In order to receive the promotion, students must message tcnj-snap via Snapchat, at which time tcnj-snap will post the advertisement on its story.
However, when Massa reached out to tcnj-snap to sell her three pairs of shoes, the organization would not post the advertisement until she paid $12 to “TCNJ M” on Venmo and claimed that the charge would be given to other clubs and organizations on campus. Without proof that the money from the charge was going back to the College, Massa was hesitant to accept.
Months later, news of tcnj-snap charging students like Massa sparked outrage across the campus, causing many to question if the platform has the right to sell promotions and if the money is being donated to the College.
“When they have the word ‘TCNJ’ in their Snapchat, a lot of people thought they were affiliated with the College, but that’s not true at all,” said Abhi Vempati, a freshman computer science major after he was charged $12 to sell an iPhone X on tcnj-snap in December.
“What’s the guarantee that the money goes back to the College?” Vempati asked.
Vempati also claimed that he learned through experience that if the student’s item does not sell after three weeks, tcnj-snap still keeps the money it charged.
“Doing that means they’ll get the guaranteed sale and they keep your money,” the computer science major said. “That’s what quite bothered me at least.”
Although news of the charges only became public in late February, senior biology and public health double major Justine Wilson said tcnj-snap’s charges are nothing new.
In February 2018, Wilson asked tcnj-snap to promote the Biology Club’s T-shirt tabling event, where the sales of the shirts were being donated to charity. However, when tcnj-snap said they would not post the advertisement unless it was paid, Wilson stopped answering.
“I didn’t ask how much, because I thought it was an abuse of their platform to charge students to advertise things,” Wilson said.
While many students followed Wilson’s footsteps in refusing to comply with the charges, others took matters into their own hands.
On March 5, a student at the College — who wished to remain anonymous — created tcnj.news on Instagram in retaliation.
“I was in the Library Cafe and overheard some girls having a conversation,” the owner of tcnj.news said. “They were saying that tcnj-snap was charging them to post about their organization’s philanthropy event. That kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Why should organizations have to charge to post about events that will help out our community? The previous owner of tcnj-snap didn't charge, so why now? On a whim, I sat down in one of the cubicles in the library and started the account.”
A week after the account was created, tcnj.news reached 1,000 followers. It receives approximately 10 requests a day from students asking to advertise on its platform. With its intention of remaining free for students, tcnj.news believes its influence on the College’s campus will only grow.
“Since we are on Instagram, the thing that makes this platform unique is that we can go on student's stories,” tcnj.news said via email. “If they have something we think would be valuable for our community to see, we shoot them a (direct message) and ask if we can post it. After all, our account was created to help out the TCNJ community.”
In response to the outrage from students like Wilson and the creation of tcnj.news, tcnj-snap posted on its story to address the outrage.
“It has come to my attention that many feel this account is not transparent enough,” tcnj-snap said via its Snapchat story. “In the next couple of days, information will be provided to show exactly where the donations have been given and to alleviate any concerns regarding where the funds are ending up. I’m sorry for any misunderstanding.”
Tcnj-snap also added that students would be able to participate in a scavenger hunt at the end of the spring semester, where those who had donated would receive free publicity on tcnj-snap and win prizes.
According to tcnj-snap, students who wanted to sell items through the account were offered a price of $3 to $5 per item, but the charges were not forced. If students accepted the deal, they would Venmo the money to “TCNJ M” and their advertisements would be promoted through tcnj-snap for three weeks. After the allotted time, the students would get their money back through Venmo if their items didn’t sell.
As far as where the money from the charges was going, tcnj-snap said via Snapchat that the profits were being donated to the College’s food pantry.
As of Monday April 1, the TCNJ Food Pantry Fund did not receive any donations through the TCNJ Foundation that would indicate that it is a contribution from tcnj-snap, according Michell Lin, assistant director for Stewardship and Donor Relations for the food pantry.
Despite tcnj-snap’s clarification, students were still questioning if tcnj-snap could be trusted.
“I think it’s great that they want to help out the community, but as of right now, (students) are just going off of their word,” tcnj.news said via email. “If they can provide proof that the money is going to important causes for the school, then that in my opinion is perfectly acceptable.”
On March 15, the College graduate and owner of tcnj-snap stepped down due to lack of time and the backlash.
Later that day, the new and current owner of tcnj-snap, a student at the College who asked to remain anonymous, made an announcement saying that students would no longer be charged.
“This is supposed to be a resource and fun, and charging students turns viewers away,” tcnj-snap said via Snapchat. “My goal for this account is to promote (events) but also be used as a resource for students to find out about things happening on campus and stay informed.”
Tcnj-snap also added that there would be changes to how the account is utilized.
“I want to make it more student friendly, so I want to incorporate funny videos at events and parties for example, and to also give info about events and parties happening on campus.”
On March 19, tcnj-snap said that the previous charges — which totaled $350 — had been donated to the College and sent a screenshot via Snapchat that showed a confirmation email from John P. Donohue, executive director of TCNJ Foundation.
Donohue could not be reached for comment.
Since the announcement of free promotions, tcnj-snap has seen a spike in student outreach.
“Some of (the students) were still scared that they would have to pay after asking, but when I said no, they were very grateful,” the new owner of tcnj-snap said.
Although students like Wilson — who said she is unsure if she will ever promote on tcnj-snap in the future — remain hesitant, Massa said she will definitely be reaching out to the platform to sell more items.
“I think it’s better this way,” Massa said. “No one should be making money off a free app unless they pay taxes.”