The allure of online anonymity is nothing new to St. Olaf students – or to anybody anymore. Cyberbullies and sexual predators hiding behind their computer screens have become popular points of discussion among sociologists, psychologists, the media and worried parents alike.
In recent weeks, a new online craze that has been reaching college campuses across the nation swept into St. Olaf: anonymous Facebook posts.
Last December, a lone student created the first of several St. Olaf Facebook pages allowing students to anonymously publicize their intimate thoughts: Ole Compliments.
“Individuals can send a message to Ole Compliments, specifically complimenting another person,” said the page’s moderator, who also remains anonymous. “I, in turn, post that message as my status, tagging the individual who was meant to be complimented.”
The moderator of Ole Compliments said that he or she borrowed the idea for the page after seeing a similar one for another school. So did the founder of St. Olaf Confessions, the somewhat less warm-and-fuzzy anonymous outlet that emerged on Feb. 20.
Modeled after a page started by University of Wisconsin- Madison students, St. Olaf Confessions contains a link to a Google survey in which students can type a “confession.” These responses are then sent to the group’s moderators, who post them on the public page.
Some peer institutions have similar confessions pages that are entirely uncensored, but St. Olaf Confessions is not a free-for-all.
The moderators have made it clear to other Facebook users that they will not post any racist, sexist or antigay comments or any personal attacks.
The page’s “constitution” also advises students to visit the Wellness Center to discuss more serious confessions, especially those related to anxiety and depression.
“We would prefer for this page not to ever start big arguments. We want to keep things friendly and not offend any social [or] cultural groups on campus,” Moderator D said. “We should be able to stop any problems before they happen because we have final say in what goes up and what is better left unseen.”
After a little more than two weeks, the page already boasts more than 1,000 “likes,” or Facebook followers. Macalester Confessions, by comparison, has fewer than 100. After a few days of existence, the page’s original moderator enlisted the help of two friends, all of whom now access the site, posting confessions submitted to the anonymous survey. They refer to themselves as Moderators A, B and D.
“We created this group half-jokingly, and half-seriously,” said Moderator A, the group’s original creator. “We kind of wanted to get the group to be pretty big, but didn’t expect it. This is actually quite a surprise.”
Vice President Greg Kneser said that the administration, too, is aware of the rise in popularity and visibility of these pages, at St. Olaf and also at peer institutions.
“In some of these cases, people admit to sexual assault, make racist statements and discuss how they harmed other people,” Kneser said. “If I were a student, I’m not sure I’d want to be linked to this, because even when we believe we are being anonymous, we leave a permanent electronic message trail. It might be anonymous today, but not tomorrow.”
Because of concerns on the part of both students and administrators, the Student Government Association SGA Senate added a discussion about the page to its agenda for the meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 26.
Senators, along with Kneser and Dean of Students Rosalyn Eaton-Neeb ’87, discussed the implications that St. Olaf Confessions might have on individuals posting, as well as the reputation of the school as a whole, and whether or not it is the responsibility of SGA to take any action.
The conversation centered on not only the social implications of such a page, but also what this phenomenon says about student health.
“I feel like this is kind of a wellness issue as well,” Sen. Kari Swanson ’13 said.
Sen. Olivia Slack ’15 agreed, pointing out that if students think the best outlet for expressing depression and anxiety is an anonymous Facebook post, there is a larger problem at hand.
“[Wellness Center peer educators] are anonymous,” Slack said. “They are the same as this page, but they are a real human being.”
Ultimately, Senate agreed that the immediate goal is to foster discussion among students about the ramifications of such a page without taking any drastic action to attempt to change or remove it.
Many senators noted that this page is not a reflection of St. Olaf, but rather a reflection of deeply rooted social and cultural issues.
Sen. Timothy Lillehaugen ’13 expressed his frustration with the pervasive belief in “freedom of speech without responsibility of speech,” which is the basis of almost all anonymous Internet forums.
Sen. Kevin George ’13 added that these sites are certainly not exclusive to St. Olaf and will not be removed or censored by a small initiative on campus.
“Anonymous forums are here to stay,” Sen. Austin Martin ’14 said. And a look at Facebook today would prove him right. Inspired by St. Olaf Confessions and following closely in the page’s footsteps are St. Olaf Flirts, St. Olaf Dates, St. Olaf Complaints and a slew of other anonymous media.
St. Olaf Flirts operates in much the same way as Confessions, with students filling out an anonymous survey and Eva the page moderator’s pseudonym posting the comments. Many Flirts have students’ names attached, but others do not. Eva views the position as moderator of this site as a way of giving back to the community.
“I realized that since LikeALittle [an anonoymous flirting website for college students] went down mid-summer, nobody has had a place to anonymously spill their feelings to the world – or at least the St. Olaf student body,” Eva said. “I wanted to give that back to them.”
St. Olaf Dates takes Flirts one step farther. “I was inspired by reading the posts on Confessions about how lonely people are,” said the creator and moderator of St. Olaf Dates, who has lonely Oles send a Facebook message to the page, assigns them a profile number and posts this profile to the page.
“Whenever someone finds interest in a person, they will message me here and give the number of the person they are interested in and I message them back with that person’s email address name,” the moderator said.
Despite the serious attention being given to these pages, students have not failed to see the humor in this latest campus craze. St. Olaf Pets, launched on Feb. 26, asks Oles to “anonymously submit your funniest stories, happiest memories or most desperate cries for attention,” advertising that, “we won’t even ask if they’re true!”
The allure of the Internet is tempting, and St. Olaf students have certainly bit into the apple. While discussion about the issues that St. Olaf Confessions and its contemporaries raise is necessary, the pages’ moderators assert that there is plenty of good in them as well.
“It provides humor, lets people get things off their chest and has been a pretty decent vehicle for giving people advice, even though that’s not how it was originally intended,” Moderator B said.
The moderator of St. Olaf Flirts also views these pages as a mostly positive thing. “It makes me feel like the student body is united by something more than the unsteady bonds of campus cliques,” she said.
While students may never look at the Kildahl lounge or the Ellingson showers in the same way again, perhaps some will gain the courage to finally talk to a campus crush or be inspired to visit the Wellness Center simply to talk – to a real person.