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 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.

It’s interesting to read the site’s explicit goals and terms of use, and compare it to how it’s being used. From the Terms of Use:

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.

There are moderation tools on the site – you can report any post or comment as inappropriate, sending a message to the site owner to be deleted. But there are dozens of threads that violate the terms of use that have been up for days, so clearly the self-policing is not working on the reporting and/or administration end. I’ve reported some posts that I found offensive and inappropriate, but they’ve not been removed. And since the site is hosted outside of the Middlebury community, there seems to be little incentive for the owners to take an active moderating role.

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…


4 Responses to “Anonymity and its Discontents”

  1. 1 Joe Bergan

    I love the idea of Middlebury Confessional. There are some really great threads seeking answers to prepubescent questions that should have been answered long ago (see: “I’ve never kissed or made out with someone, what do I do”).
    I guess the problem I have with the site, and a problem with anonymous quotes in general is authenticating the sincerety of a post. Is that a young student who is confused about entering the world of love, or is he a prankster, creating an avenue to create a joke thread lambasting the phantom poster?
    I’ve talked recently with some grads of Vassar, where a similar site blossomed and fizzled three years ago. They told me several of their friends started: “Who’s the gayest dude at Vassar” threads, only to nominate and call out each other as “big gays” in an Apatowian joke exchange.
    I guess what I’m saying is don’t worry about the content. Most of the posters probably are not racists or homophobes. Gen Y has been raised on South Park and Grand Theft Auto – for many, the site represents a place to test the limits of hate speech free of judgement.
    Confessionals are going through a time of growth and change. Hopefully, they will lead us to a moment when we can be more confident and can ask these questions with our names attached. Until then, the pranksters will have their day.

  1. 1 Media Technology 2008 » More thoughts on Midd Confessional
  2. 2 On Rye » Bloggers Anonymous
  3. 3 Middlebury Confessional: Our Problem « Midd Blog

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