Anonymity and its Discontents
Over the past week or so, the Middlebury College campus has been abuzz about the new site Middlebury Confessional. The site is part of a chain of Confessional sites that started at my alma mater, Oberlin College – this article outlines some of the controversies surrounding other incarnations of the sites. I’m quite interested in this phenomenon as an example of what new media forms can offer, and the downsides of such models as well.
The basic idea of the site is to create an anonymous board to post thoughts and questions that you wouldn’t want to be tied to your name. In some ways it mirrors Post Secret, although the posts are rarely as artful or heartfelt. More importantly, each post starts a discussion thread on that topic, leading to a string of anonymous comments. Topics range from the emotionally serious (confessions of closeted homosexuality, experiences of being raped and abused, lamentations of stress and depression) to the practical (good/bad faculty, politics, advice on sticky situations) to the lewd (every sexual topic you can imagine, and some you can’t) to the defamatory (hating on minorities, rich kids, poor kids, athletes, musicians, etc.). Not surprisingly, the conversations have drifted from the serious to the lewd and hateful over the course of the site’s short existence.
To call it completely anonymous is a bit misleading. If you click on the link to the site and are not on the Middlebury College campus, you will discover how it is not an open community – to access the site, you either need to be on a Middlebury IP address or need to get an authorization code for your browser delivered to a middlebury.edu email address. So immediately the site is linked to a physical place and affiliation, a rarity for the web. But while the site requires a physical or email link to the institution, that is the only explicit marker of user identity – each posting and comment is anonymous by design. So while everything posted is specifically anonymous, every poster is the member of a fairly small community. And that matters intensely – as you walk around campus, you’re left to wonder which one of these people might have posted what. And it’s certainly changed my perceptions about the student body.
Please try to maintain some semblance of dignity and intelligence when posting. Think about whether or not what you have to say is interesting, useful, and/or kind. Confessions and comments that are personal attacks, blatantly mean, obscene, rude, untrue, have been reported as inappropriate, and/or are in violation of these terms are subject to deletion at our discretion. Do not pose as someone else. MIDDLEBURY Confessional is a community based project and we are trying to echo the MIDDLEBURY College community. Let’s be accepting, open minded, and kind to one another. Everyone on this site is your peer, they are people you go to class with, people you dine and even go to the bathroom with. Treat the confessional as a public space. Please, be respectful.
From the actual site: a thread on why financial aid students ruin Middlebury; threads about possibly gay athletes that savage both athletes and gays/lesbians; threads about hottest students or body parts in any possible category; and a thread that starts “Sometimes, at parties, I hit on ugly chicks. To mock them.” Let’s just say that browsing the site does not paint the most flattering picture of Middlebury students.
So there’s been a lot of talk about what to do about this site, both among students and the administration (as well as on the site itself) – an interesting discussion emerged on the blog for my Media Technology course. The possibilities for shutting it down are limited and unlikely – a firewall blocking access to the site, forcing the owner to remove Middlebury from the URL, appealing to the owner to close shop. Even if any of these were tried, it could easily reemerge in another form, and I’m doubtful that the administration would want to take such forceful measures as to squash an outlet for speech explicitly.
My own take is that we need to put the site in perspective. Like any other medium, it follows Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of its content is crap. But there are important functions being served as an outlet for students to say the unsayable, ask for help and seek solace in a group. The danger is that the site devolves into such an antagonistic place that people will be less likely to actually confess for fear of mockery, even if anonymous. There’s a good chance that once people get the juvenalia out of their systems, the more productive uses will dominate – but there’s also a chance that the site’s reputation will be exclusively as the place for raunch, flaming, and pranks, driving away any serious uses.
Here’s a modest proposal: a group of Middlebury students who believe in the positive potential of the site could adopt it, taking a more active moderating role and providing more accountability to the community. They could set local norms of participation that would encourage productive dialog, discourage naming names and flaming, and model the way that an anonymous web forum does provide a needed outlet for many members of the community. I imagine the administration could do a similar ownership claim, but I would be that what the institution feels is productive and appropriate wouldn’t fit the students’ own sensibility, and it would fracture the bottom-up possibilities enabled by such web projects.
So what do students think? Is anyone willing to take over managing the site to make it a more productive and community-based outlet? Or is it just more fun to let it continue down the path of raunchy excess that makes Middlebury appear to be a far less accepting and thoughtful place than I believe it to be? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts…
Filed under: Middlebury, New Media, Not Quite TV | 4 Comments