Columns, Opinions

Steinman ’19: Dear Blueno, from Clare

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 14, 2019

At first glance, it’s easy to see the appeal of a forum like Dear Blueno — an anonymous submission form whereby confessions, advice and assorted musings can be transmitted to over a thousand Facebook followers and, from there, to the wider Brown community. Though we are a small campus, we are also a multifaceted one, and it’s easy enough to be caught up in the bubbles of our own social media feeds. A page that transcends friend groups, clubs and class years has the potential to disseminate productive information more widely, tying us together while overcoming social barriers. But — unsurprisingly, for those of us who remember the toxicity of middle and high school years on Formspring, Ask.fm or YikYak — anonymous forums are a natural habitat for slander and spite. Dear Blueno is no exception.

I don’t doubt the good intentions of the anonymous Dear Blueno moderators, nor those of the vast majority of submission authors. What I do doubt is the ability of an online space to remain productive under the cloak of anonymity, with no accountability. It happens in comments sections on websites across the world, including this very newspaper (looking at you, Man With Axe). Without the weight that comes with attaching our name, we can say anything we want, to anyone we want, without regard for personal consequences. And while this has played a significant role in breaking down power structures and in providing an equal platform regardless of access and stature, it has also allowed hateful, unproductive discourse — in a word, cyberbullying — to spread. Though taking on the dark chambers of the Internet is beyond my ability, we can and must do better here on this campus.

Where Dear Blueno truly crosses the line is in its publication of posts that target individuals, often in terms so specific that they can be easily identified. Whether mocking a group of women for their looks or ranting about hallmates, these posts range from blatantly abusive (the former) to passive-aggressive and unproductive (the latter). Before this type of forum, the solution to loud dorm parties or hallmates practicing musical instruments was a simple conversation, polite and in-person. The pursuit of these anonymous false solutions, even when not actively hurtful, is antisocial and divides us even further. On a campus that claims to promote empathy and tolerance, the normalization of this behavior — calling out a classmate without the courtesy of a face-to-face conversation — is disturbing. Posts written in the heat of the moment stay up forever, and the ad hominem attacks in so many of them could preclude any kind of resolution from ever taking place.

For nearly two years, as Opinions Editor of The Herald, I played a similar role to that of the Dear Blueno moderators. While the content and range of submissions I oversaw were dramatically different, I grappled with the same questions of transparency, of freedom of speech and of productivity of discourse that I am sure the moderators also do. In that role, I took the implications of the pieces I saw through to publication very seriously. I knew I was accountable for the words that were published under my watch, whether my name was at the top of the piece or not, and I had to answer for them to friends and professors, in classes and in my email inbox. While no one should expect a Facebook page to be held to the same standard as a newspaper, I can’t accept the idea that the moderators — by virtue of their anonymity and their lax publishing guidelines — bear no responsibility for the words on their page or the damage they cause.

The Dear Blueno moderators are complicit in allowing lies, insults and uncorroborated stories about individuals and organizations to remain on the Internet for anyone to see — and with little regard for the trauma caused by these attacks. In a Feb. 6 Facebook post, a Dear Blueno moderator acknowledged their role in disseminating hateful messages and defended that activity by writing, “if we censor absolutely every piece of hate we receive, then this hatred still lurks in the darkness of College Hill, never challenged, never discussed… we decided to publicize some of the posts we receive that have hateful sentiments. We don’t want to give hateful messages the light of day, but these thoughts deserved to be condemned and seen by the Brown community.” This is an irresponsible abdication of responsibility. Hate always has a way of getting around, but one-sided attacks do not provide much of an opportunity for discourse when presented without context. Furthermore, the asymmetry presented by an anonymous post refuted by a Facebook comment — often attached to a specific user profile — undermines the idea of freedom and equality in open discourse. Forcing those who are attacked to defend themselves in the public sphere, while their attackers remain in peaceful anonymity with their credibility unquestioned, creates an imbalance of power. The Dear Blueno moderators are lying to themselves if they think this is a productive service to the campus.

There can be a role for a space that promotes collective impact and helps people identify common grievances. For example, I do not question the often-justified right to criticize campus organizations, and I acknowledge that opportunities to do so in a way that reaches a wide audience are often unavailable. But the anonymous nature of Dear Blueno means that demonstrably false claims, submitted by students who may or may not have any familiarity with their subjects, are allowed to be posted and remain online.

I urge the Dear Blueno moderators, and those who turn to it for call-outs, to consider the effect of their words. Slander, cyberbullying and thoughtless negativity should not be intermixed with innocuous questions about meal plans and study groups. Taking ownership of our words and searching for productive solutions through communication are critical steps in solving issues and strengthening ties. Dear Blueno represents a major step backward for both.

Sincerely,

Clare

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.