This spring, a wave of potential future first-years will excitedly join Brown’s online community. The Facebook group “Brown University Class of 2021 - Admitted Students” will be their gateway social media drug, with “likes” and “follows” of other groups not far behind. Along the way, some will inevitably wander into the many anonymous confession and submission pages that current students populate.
Brown Bears Confessions, Brown University Class Confessions, Brown University Confessions, Brown Bears Admirers, Brown University Memes and Brown Dank Stash of Memes for Unproductive Teens (a personal favorite of mine): Each group occupies a unique niche and attracts a certain following from students. Brown Class Confessions, for example, presents itself as representing “the unique experiences, problems and insight of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.” Brown Bears Admirers is, in the words of a friend, a “true cesspit of thirst.” All of these pages feature anonymity and student-run administrative control. The results range from vitriol and online debates to hilarity and yes, thirst. Some of the Brown groups are better than others. The Brown Bears Admirers page, thanks to its focus on content and tip-top administrative work, is cute and pretty much harmless. Other general confession pages, on the other hand, post everything from the mundane to the downright discriminatory, and we should be weary of these unproductive conversations that can be fostered by anonymous pages like these.
Anonymity has always been a touchy subject in the virtual world, and it often leads to the most controversial content. Yik Yak, an anonymous forum specifically for college students, was all the rage a while back, until its creators realized the harm it was causing on campuses and beyond; app users are now tagged to personalized IDs to prevent abusive cyberbullying. Research shows that people tend to be meaner when they get to hide behind a virtual mask; combine this with a character limit, and you’ve got a recipe for toxicity. That’s not even the furthest end of the spectrum: Reddit’s 4chan and Tumblr — usually thought of as occupying opposite ends of the political spectrum — are both rooted in anonymous commentary and often bring out the trolls from their dark hiding spots, emboldened by anonymity. I can’t imagine how many of them have posted in Brown’s online community, but I think there are at least a few.
One thing is certain: These anonymous pages, almost ubiquitous on college campuses nationwide, aren’t going anywhere. As the New York Times reported, they’re actually getting more popular.
I understand where some of these groups may be coming from: Anonymity can be used to bring light to important issues that aren’t covered in the mainstream, as seen with Brown Class Confessions. If done right, they can give a microphone to people who might not normally get a voice. But what I’ve also been seeing recently is a lot of in-fighting and bickering in the confession pages. Anonymous responses are published to anonymous posts, followed by personal call-outs and complaints. This kind of online debate is not productive, anonymous or not. These pages are becoming a central way that we communicate with other students outside our normal friend groups, and that’s a problem.
There’s also a deeper issue to think about when we consider the politics of the anonymous internet: Anonymous submission boards run the risk of normalizing what kind of content we believe should be shameful or hidden. Anonymity is powerful, but it is also counter to progress. Are posts about mental health, financial destitution or political ideas only meaningful if confessed or secretly shared? As one poster in Brown Class Confessions wrote: “I hate that I voice my thoughts and feelings on this anonymous page more comfortably than the real people who I’ve been living with for years.” Reading a Facebook page can make us more attuned to the socioeconomic problems on campus, but it also deprives low-income students of a tangible presence because they’ve become this anonymous idea. We “like” in solidarity, but in the end, confessions just become more posts swept down in a nearly endless scroll on our screens. These issues need to be solidified and debated in a better forum so the University can become better attuned to fixing them.
We should work on taking the most important content and using it to develop real face-to-face conversations and solutions. These pages and their contributors need to engage in more meaningful ways, not only with the students that frequent the spaces, but also with those who don’t, like the administration and general public. We also need to double down and consider what this media is good for and what it will always fail to do. Otherwise, we risk cementing in our minds that some topics really only should be talked about anonymously. And that would be a shame.
Mark Liang ’19 is waiting for his Brown Bears Admirers post and can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.