University has a place for everyone, but are all places made equal?
If you’ve been at university for more than a year, there’s a good chance you’ll have heard the term ‘BNOC’. Often, it is accompanied by a tone of sarcasm or derision. Being a ‘Big Name on Campus’ involves a certain notoriety within the university, and can be interpreted as complementary or insulting, depending on who you ask. When you find the abbreviation on Urban Dictionary, you’ll receive advice to stay away from anyone who self-identifies with the term. That’s because when you enter the world of higher education, most people realise that classroom social hierarchies are dead; there’s no defined food-chain in a pool of 15,000 students. A friend may lovingly or loathingly call you a ‘BNOC’ for one reason or another and no one would take it seriously, and that’s why I would contest that ‘BNOC’ culture is not a real or harmful phenomenon. If we all acknowledge the term as a joke then it cannot develop into a culture or have any power attached to it. One term alone used in this context cannot counteract the multitudes of acceptance anyone can find between the hundreds of societies, courses and housemates that differentiates campus from school. There’s no place on Earth better at deconstructing visible irrefutable hierarchies than a university ecosystem.
However, this doesn’t mean higher education precludes another person’s life breeding envy or sadness when compared to your own. Hierarchy can go silent, unspoken and unacknowledged but still have personal weight in your own head. It can still hurt your image and self-esteem. Is ‘BNOC’ culture not a contributing factor, then? No. Everyone who has been called a ‘BNOC’ must be popular to some degree, but not all popular people are ‘BNOCs’. It’s usually slapped onto someone for behaving like they’re popular, which is difficult to define but easy to recognise in a person. But for as long as society places worth on interpersonal relations in their most numerous and shallow forms, the individual will face toxicity that far outstrips a one-word acronym. If we all stopped using the term ‘BNOC’ tomorrow these issues will not disappear. The only treatment is long term self-acceptance and that’s a difficult skill to hone. Everyone struggles to feel content with themselves including all those who have been the subject of another’s envy. Popularity is an endless ladder to climb, always seeing the person above you but never considering the person above them.
Does being labelled a ‘BNOC’ have any substance then? Does it affect your life? To delve into a little A-Level sociology, it can function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. You ask who “Jimmy Lannister” is, and your friend tells you he’s a bit of a ‘BNOC’. You’d say the same thing to another friend now, should they ask about “Jimmy”. Word gets around. The Tab recently had a public vote to determine the biggest ‘BNOC’ on campus, and I had never heard of the winner; that obviously doesn’t mean they’re not an immensely liked person, but it just goes to show that campus is impossible to fully permeate. Such superficial name recognition means very little to anyone without narcissistic tendencies anyway. However, it can have an interesting effect on electability to bodies like society executives, JCRs or the Student Union, where name recognition can win decisive votes. When was the last time someone described an individual to you as popular? What about as a ‘BNOC’? We don’t acknowledge popularity and hierarchy openly at university, but we don’t hesitate to use the latter. It’s a joke but it implicitly gives reputation and recognition, and when student elections have weak turnout and poor emphasis on experience or policy, the winning strategies are motivating your friends to vote and being the name familiar to voters. Your popularity can grow your group of friends but a ‘BNOC’ status spreads beyond that. Maybe that sounds like an exaggeration, but I asked SU President and runner-up for biggest ‘BNOC’ – George Nuttall – and he attested that he believes that being a ‘BNOC’ did help him get a job. And if you see that in a negative light, he added that “you never feel alone on a night out or on a module” which is quite lovely. Popularity begets security. It’s a sweet notion.
Should we be bothered by it then? Student politics is broken enough as it is without trying to blame the social reaction on a campus joke. Don’t give the term power and focus on being happy with yourself, and it can never hurt anyone.