Rattner ’15: Our dependence on anonymous communication

Opinions Columnist
Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Brown community is missing out on important conversations and opportunities to start and strengthen relationships. Too often we settle for anonymous communication: buying a cappella Valentine’s Day grams, sending roses or posting to anonymous Facebook groups. Last school year, students created Brown University Confessions, Brown Admirers and Brown University Compliments as outlets for anonymously sharing thoughts with the community. But using secret messages makes us less likely to raise disagreements or appreciate friendships, and it even prevents some relationships from ever starting. The result is a more isolated and lonely student body, lacking self-esteem and deprived of valuable experiences.

In the wake of New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly’s visit to Brown last fall, many students took to Brown Confessions to share their reactions. On Oct. 29, one student posted, “I’m ok with racial profiling, as long as it stops terrorism.” Another wrote, “I agree with Ray Kelly’s policies. They are proven to be effective, and save human lives. Yet I can’t voice my opinions at this school, I should protest you all.”

Instead of confronting our friends over controversial issues, we settle for Facebook, content to voice our opinions without having a true argument. Posting on a message board may elicit dozens of comments, but it is not the same as discussing these issues in person. Kelly’s visit raised questions, but it did not spark all the debates it might have. While President Christina Paxson’s public forum in Alumnae Hall formally opened the dialogue, far more conversations should have occurred around Sharpe Refectory tables where people kept quiet, scared of being called racist or conservative.

Nowhere is the loss of valuable experiences clearer than with secret admirers. There have been over 3,500 posts on Brown Admirers. Most contributors include some variation of, “If I had the courage to go up to you, I totally would,” “One day I’ll get the courage to walk right up to you and brush your sweet soft cheeks and then show you what the purpose of life is,” or the simple “I wish I had the courage to tell you to your face that you’re a beautiful woman, inside and out.”

While these sentiments are beautiful, and many of the comments are more than “Oh, you sexy, delicious beast. That is all,” they have minimal impact on the non-digital world. For all the poster knows, the feelings may have been reciprocal. How many flings, relationships and stories were forgone because people settled for an anonymous post rather than actively pursuing an interest?

I can empathize with fears of rejection, but surely friends should not require Brown Compliments to share basic emotions. Yet one student was uncomfortable saying, “Thanks for being absolutely the best. I’m so glad you’re my friend.” Anonymous compliments carry a fraction of the weight of a thoughtful letter or conversation. I am sure the friend’s day was a little better because of that post, but the friendship was largely unchanged, and the recipient was unable to return the compliment.

Open communication can foster powerful friendships. The “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom was strengthened by the personal bond between Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt. The two leaders exchanged over 1,700 messages between 1939 and 1945, many going beyond their professional relationship. On the eve of D-Day, Churchill wrote Roosevelt, “Our friendship is my greatest stand-by amid the ever-increasing complications of this exacting war. … I am here near Ike’s headquarters in my train. His main preoccupation is with the weather. There are wonderful sights to see with all these thousands of vessels.”

In some instances, these Facebook pages may help students feel normal. They may want to know others have similar depressing thoughts or uncommon fetishes and feel validated by affirming comments. Plenty end in, “Am I the only one?” Other posts are simply funny comments that would lead to conversations happily forgone: “I’m relieved when a bathroom at Brown has paper towels and not just a hand dryer.” And I believe part of the thinking behind these pages was to create fun forums where we can all enjoy others’ positive sentiments, especially when people thank the entire band or the stranger who returned a wallet.

But anonymous messages have made us at best complacent, and at worst depressed. Indeed, a University of Michigan study last year found that reading about others’ happiness on Facebook — or, for example, scrolling through Brown Admirers posts looking for one about yourself — actually makes us sadder. More importantly, all we have to do to be happier is speak in person or over the phone.

Too many teenagers and young adults desperately need a little more self-esteem. Some could use less. In 2008, then-President Ruth Simmons spoke at Collegiate School’s high school graduation in New York City. Not appreciating that the young men in the audience were more often called arrogant than humble, she urged us to be more confident. It is the lack of communication, of open appreciation, that undermines our morale. Too many George Baileys are walking around not realizing their significance.

The three anonymous Facebook pages are not unrelated. The student who has the confidence to disagree with his teaching assistant is probably also okay asking out strangers. The University cannot directly inspire students to share their feelings. But fostering a community of intellectual openness will boost many students’ emotional openness.

Ultimately, if we want to learn from each other and foster strong relationships, we should all summon a little more courage to discuss issues that make us uncomfortable and express our feelings for friends and crushes. With the holidays just behind us and Valentine’s Day around the corner, now seems as good a time as any to open up a little. Let’s start off slow. No need to pronounce your love for the girl on the next treadmill in the Jonathan Nelson ’77 Fitness Center. But maybe start by telling someone his friendship is a “stand-by amid the ever-increasing complications of this exacting war.”


 James Rattner ’15 will not reply to anonymous comments but can be reached at

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  1. '`*-.,_,-*'`*~-.,.~*'*~ (2014) says:

    there was no shortage of people expressing their opinions on the ray kelly drama in connection w/ their real names, on facebook or (if you’re talking about communicating to a wider audience than just your ‘friends’) BDH ‘letters to the editor’ (is that how you pluralize that?)

  2. pretty weird my friend says:

    “How many flings, relationships and stories were forgone because people settled for an anonymous post rather than actively pursuing an interest?” I mean, probably like none? I don’t know anyone who’s decided not to go through with something because these dumb Facebook groups exist now. I think it’s nice that yr so invested in all of us finding sexual partners tho 😉

  3. This is rich... says:

    A call for transparency and honesty in everyday communication from the son of an investor barred from Wall St. for back door dealing and who helped oversee the massive socialization of private losses.

    You may not be papa Steve, but growing up in the 0.01% in the embrace of the government, financial, and academic elite has left you mistaken on the need for anonymity. not all of us can do and act with impunity.

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