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Secret keepers: Looking inside Brown’s online anonymous communities

Kiki Tapiero ’17 was scrolling through her Facebook newsfeed when she noticed a post: “Hearing people snap their approval of things makes me nauseous.”

One of many anonymous posts on the page Brown University Confessions, the message resonated with Tapiero. Though it may have seemed a light-hearted and inconsequential confession, she said she saw it as evidence of certain, deeply human feelings that connect students — even if they never say them aloud.

“Even though we generally say we are accepting, I think people are still afraid to say whatever they really feel,” she said.

Anonymous online pages such as Brown Confessions are part of a growing trend among the Brown community and nationwide over the past couple of years. Many contributors choose these forums as places to divulge their innermost thoughts without facing the potential repercussions of expressing them in public.

Various anonymous pages associated with Brown attempt to use anonymity for positive ends, like affirmations or affections, or as outlets for people to disclose personal issues or concerns.

But the process of de-individuation, or the loss of one’s individuality, is not without consequence, for it could allow someone to normalize exemption from punishment, said Bertram Malle, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences. On such forums, people are “more willing to be destructive, racist and harmful,” he explained.

And because the nature of each page is shaped by the content submitted and chosen for publication, moderators of these pages are faced with the challenge of creating a space that balances the freedom of expression with the safety and comfort of students.


‘No ulterior motive’

Pages like Brown University Compliments and Brown Admirers seek to create positive spaces by allowing students to anonymously send praise to or express romantic interest in a particular person.

Paige Morris ’16, who has received posts on both Compliments and Admirers, said the anonymity strengthens the impact of the compliments, making them more meaningful than those from friends.

“(When) friends compliment me, I think of course they would have to, there’s a bias,” she said. “But if you get an (anonymous) post, … there’s really no ulterior motive, so I take that more seriously.” She occasionally submits posts about her friends, she added, hoping her admiration will yield the same feeling.

William Janover ’15, founder of Compliments and a BlogDailyHerald writer and its former editor-in-chief, proudly noted that his page was the “original one,” launched in November 2012,  when online anonymous compliment pages were becoming popular on college campuses.

Though Compliments led the trend, many students interviewed agreed that Admirers has garnered greater attention over time.

A moderator of Admirers since 2013, Jonathan, a senior who requested anonymity to ensure people continue to feel comfortable submitting to the page, attributed the popularity of his page to the “raunchier” nature of the posts.

The tone of Admirers “is more relaxed … (and can) break that barrier more easily,” Janover conceded.

But while followers of the page may have a relaxed relationship with it, the moderators are anything but laidback. The moderators must read and filter submissions carefully but are also wary of filtering “too much,” Jonathan said.

Working virtually, each of the three Admirers moderators individually judges and discards posts that clearly go against the page’s purpose, and for questionable posts, they consult one another. In rare cases of posts that could be considered offensive, moderators send a message to the recipients requesting their permission to post the submissions publicly, Jonathan explained.

“We’ve gotten angry messages from both sides — ones telling us to post more submissions and others saying, ‘I can’t believe you posted this,’” he said, acknowledging that sometimes the moderators’ original judgment fails and they must delete posts. When a recipient or sender expresses discomfort and requests that a post be taken down, the moderators do so, and sometimes, a sender changes his or her mind and contacts them prior to publishing, he said.

The filtering process is more straightforward for the Confessions page. Whereas posts on Admirers and Compliments generally have a targeted recipient, posts on Confessions lack such specificity, said Sam, a senior and a moderator of the page who requested anonymity to ensure people continue to feel comfortable submitting to the page.

“If someone is being named (in a submitted post), we don’t post that,” he said, adding that they don’t want to compromise anonymity for either side. He and the other moderator of the page also automatically discard posts that are self-promotional or advertise products, he said.

“We are the vehicle for people to post — we’re not trying to put or say anything else,” Sam said, adding that they manage the page in the “most unbiased fashion possible.”


Deepening the conversation

But since the founding of the page in February 2013, that mission has become a greater challenge. Recently, some confessions have taken on “more serious materials,” Sam noted, adding that one of their challenging tasks was going through posts related to sexual assault when it garnered significant campus attention in April. At the time, it was “harder to make the judgment calls” due to the gravity of the issue and the high number of submissions, he said.

Some of these submissions exhibited one disadvantage of anonymous posts: “People take commentators’ comments less seriously,” Malle said. With less pressure to provide evidence and fewer repercussions for voicing opinions, readers “question the … gravity of the comment,” he said.

But for pages like Admirers, anonymity and levity seem to go hand in hand, as anonymity reinforces the entertainment value of the page, Jonathan said. “It’s a specific page with a specific purpose — a fun thing for Brown students to see and do.”

But even a seemingly harmless page like Admirers can cause discomfort.

“When I see other posts that are explicitly sexual, I personally feel uncomfortable, but when I look at the comments from the (recipient), he or she … jokes it off, so I try not to inject my personal feelings into that interaction,” Morris said.

Jo’Nella Queen Ellerbe ’15, who has received several Admirers posts, offered a different perspective.

In the spring of her sophomore year, an anonymous person, referring to the fact that she is on the women’s rugby team, inquired about her sexual orientation and relationship status. Another post this summer ended with the question, “Any chance you’re into white guys?”

Though Ellerbe found the comments somewhat flattering, she sees them as problematic and objectifying, saying they delve into things she would not “necessarily want in the public sphere without putting that out myself.”

Ellerbe raised the question of how freedom of speech can be used in ways harmful to those feeling marginalized and unsafe.

“Not to equalize the concept of this page to any larger form of oppression that people face,” she said, but the free speech argument “has been used to justify oppression towards people of marginalized identity. … That should be reevaluated.”

The Confessions page also raises questions about anonymous freedom of speech.

As the page evolved, Sam noted a trend among the posts: They were often either quirky, entertaining and absurd or serious, personal and even triggering.

Though Sam expressed some concern about sensitive content, he said he has published such posts with the trust that those who visit the page already know what to expect from it. “I’m not so worried about the readers because I know that we have a steady number of followers,” he said.

Ellerbe, on the other hand, suggested that including disclaimers or trigger warnings at the start of a post or a set of posts dealing with sensitive topics could be helpful.

While some might appreciate such warnings, Tapiero said she is drawn to these sometimes deeper posts because of their intimacy.

Recalling a post in which a person disclosed his struggle with a constant and profound feeling of loneliness, Tapiero said, “That’s what I feel sometimes.”

“When you read a post that resonates with you and has gotten 200 likes, … those 200 people agree to some extent,” she said.

“It reminds you that we’re all sharing this one human experience.”


A lasting imprint

And this positivity toward the pages — whether due to feelings of companionship, flattery or catharsis — is exactly what the founders hope for.

Though Janover acknowledged that the Compliments page has recently received and published fewer posts than it did when it was first created, he still considers the page a success.

“Something like this can leave an impression even if it doesn’t last forever,” he said. “It becomes part of your Brown experience.”

And some newer pages, such as Brunonian Crushes and Brown University Micro/Aggressions, that springboarded off the model of Admirers, Compliments and Confessions may leave a similar impression.

“Even if those sites went away,” Tapiero said, “they’re still things that people are thinking in their minds.”


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