Anonymous campus confessions raise questions about online community building
Jessica Klymchuk, News Editor Ω
Students were invited to admit their dirtiest, filthiest secrets online and they didn’t hold back. The eruption of turmoil in response to the behavior of students online hit last week, but the controversy had been building for months.
Campus confession pages attract thousands of students. TRU’s Student Confessions page was relatively small with its 2,000 likes in comparison to the University of British Columbia’s, which has over 13,000, and the University of Alberta’s, which has over 9,000. Chasing the pages has university officials playing whack-a-mole, but there’s no doubt that the digital bathroom stall walls are a popular outlet for students.
“We talk about ways to engage students through social media, and boy we sure had students engaged through social media,” said TRU dean of students Christine Adam.
For some students, it becomes a place to identify with others and share common experiences, something of a community. But Adam said TRU Student Confessions is less of a community and more of a group of people going “wink wink, nudge nudge.”
The popularity of confession pages on college campuses can’t be ignored, said digital strategist Josie Ahlquist. The doctoral student studying leadership in higher education at California Lutheran University said the essence of these pages is the idea that the page is set up by the community, for the community. But when they incorporate anonymity, instead of celebrating the community it will lead to negative and hurtful outcomes.
“Open forums are a great resource for online community building, engagement and dialogue, but confession pages are none of these things,” Ahlquist said via email.
TRU Student Confessions was an anonymously administered Facebook page that invited students to submit confessions that were then anonymously posted. The page garnered over 2,000 likes before being removed on March 26. The content of the page recently attracted negative attention and backlash from students when it began posting “confessions” that targeted minorities, particularly South Asian men.
Post 458 from the now deleted page read, “To the Brown guys at CJs. Back the fuck off. Seriously. My being there and maybe showing a bit of skin is not an invitation for you to put your hands all over me.”
There were several posts of this nature, and lengthy comment feeds that had students in heated debates over whether or not the content was racist. One post requested that international men to stay away from local women. Posts were also becoming increasingly sexually graphic, sexist and often bordered on identifying specific people.
It was the second TRU Student Confessions page to appear. The original was created during the last academic year and saw the same decline into controversial territory. When a “confession” was posted in the fall about an identified TRU student’s sexual preference, people responded in anger and attacked the anonymous post for being homophobic. Around the same time, the page was attracting suicidal confessions and increasingly disturbing confessions of self-hate and depression.
A screen shot taken on Nov. 8, 2013, documented the administrator of the page responding to concerns, saying he or she would no longer be posting confessions that target individuals and requested that submissions omit any identifiers.
“Furthermore, if you are in extreme emotional duress and are posting about being suicidal, expect us to respond to see how you are doing, and perhaps even contact someone on your behalf,” the post continued.
This was around the time that the university started monitoring the page. Adam said she was becoming quite concerned about the nature of the comments. Duane Seibel, the director of judicial and student affairs, reached out to who they thought was the administrator of the page. Although Adam said she couldn’t characterize that conversation, what resulted was the initial site being removed.
The second page was up right away, this time encouraging students to submit their most “heartfelt, disgusting, hilarious, filthy, raunchy and embarrassing confessions.”
On behalf of the university, Seibel again advised the administrators that the university was concerned about anonymous posts being made about students that could be considered harassing, humiliating or defaming. He told the administrator to consider the content of the posts and ensure they weren’t contrary to university policy or Canadian law.
“I was concerned about, we all were concerned, about the anonymous nature of the postings, and particularly the instruction at the top of that group that encouraged students to confess their raunchiest, filthiest whatever. So, I think it emboldened people,” Adam said, adding that there was no way of indicating that the posts were coming from people within TRU.
“We do have an admission that, in some cases, they were created by the administrator just to get people frothed up,” Adam said.
Although she agreed the administrators had no consideration for the institution, Adam said people were involved in it by virtue of being associated with the institution and that worried university officials.
When the second page was removed on March 26, a new page was created within hours. When The Omega reached out to the current administrator for comment, the anonymous person said the page’s purpose is “helping students to bring their voice in front of everyone while standing behind the walls.” He or she wrote, “It’s true that by keeping the face of the confessor hidden and allowing anyone to post anything can bring some controversies and that’s what happened because of the previous page.”
The anonymous administrator said they were not the administrator of the previous page and that they disagreed with the removal of the page because it was “stopping the student’s voice.”
Whoever they are, they aren’t alone in this opinion. Fourth-year business student Abijah Gupta wrote a letter to The Omega last week, saying the characterization of the page was distorted by the media and its removal was an act of censorship.
The frequent reference to “brown guys” wasn’t a direct reference to a certain race, since many races share this colour, he wrote in opposition to the accusations of racism. In an email conversation with The Omega, Gupta said although he condemned the posts that directly identified people, he believes the page brought everyone closer. Of the over 460 posts, many were people admitting crushes or public apologies for various things. He said the platform promoted free speech, and that was its value.
“It provides a ‘safe cover,’ enabling people to speak out without the fear of repression,” he wrote. “It also acts as an information forum as people were not afraid to post details since their name wasn’t attached to the post.”
But Christine Adam said the anonymous nature is what is most concerning because the page becomes a place where people feel comfortable expressing hate, racism or homophobia without being called to account for it. When people can’t be held accountable for their actions, there is no valuable civil discourse taking place, she said.
In an email to The Omega, Seibel said he appreciates the positive aspects of online communities, but there will be a need for an ongoing dialogue and education to assist students in understanding the potentially negative impacts of inappropriate social media communication.
The new TRU Student Confession page, with 374 new posts by April 5, is more heavily moderated that its predecessors. The administrator wrote that he or she won’t be posting anything that targets a specific community, race or person.
“This page is owned by all TRU students and I am only posting their confessions after filtering and making sure nothing disrespectful gets posted,” the administrator wrote, adding that none of the posts thus far have caused controversy.
In response to being contacted by the university, the TRU logo has been removed from the page.
“I think what’s up there now is a little bit better,” Adam said.