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Fuzzier, More Intimate Online Controversy

April 30, 2008

Those wishing to go to confession can find comfort, anonymity and a sympathetic ear on the Internet. Many, many sympathetic ears -- and perhaps a few mean-spirited ones, too.

Students and administrators are gradually confronting that reality with the latest batch of anonymous message boards to crop up at colleges, to the chagrin of those targeted by online vitriol and those charged with mollifying campus critics. This time, it's 11 campus-specific sites, originating with Oberlin College, which encourage students to "share thoughts, debate ideas and communicate ... anonymously," according to the official Facebook page. But remember: "NO NAMES," the site reminds users as they post comments.

Inevitably, however, students' names have seeped into comments, setting off debates at the various liberal arts colleges with "Confessional" Web sites, as they're dubbed. At least one institution, Sacred Heart University, pressured its site to shut down, while Amherst College is reviewing legal options.

Unlike JuicyCampus, which has stirred major controversy at the many campuses where students regularly post vulgar, demeaning and sexually provocative statements -- often calling students out by name -- the students who run the "Confessionals" attempt to weed out slanderous posts and strive to maintain a more intimate, civil atmosphere. Rather than a back-door approach at introducing purposefully offensive content to campuses that would bristle at another JuicyCampus, the Confessionals actually predate that site, with Oberlin's first launching at the end of 2005.

After an initial uproar, the site became restricted only to those on campus -- which could mean students, faculty or anyone else with access to a library computer -- or those off campus with an Oberlin e-mail address. It was taken down for a few months in early 2006 amid the controversy until its creator, a current student, handed off the reins to two other students. One of them, Shibo Xu, a senior, handles flagged posts or comments -- those that users have signaled may contain inappropriate content. Xu deletes all reported postings that have students' names (even those given in a positive light, he says) or make the identity of a person clear enough through descriptions.

But that doesn't mean that all potentially slanderous postings are reported. At Amherst, where that was a problem earlier this semester, the college's attorneys are planning to contact the Massachusetts attorney general to discuss possible legal avenues in light of New Jersey's actions against JuicyCampus, said Ben Lieber, the dean of students. He said the college was interested in whether the attorney general would "take action either in conjunction … or independent" of the New Jersey investigation, under that state's Consumer Fraud Act.

Lieber has also written to the site's founder and to students, asking them to ignore the site, to no discernible effect. "We’re a population of about 1,600 students," he said. "Virtually all our students live on campus. Of the students who live on campus, virtually all of them eat in the same dining hall three times a day if they don’t skip breakfast.... People see each other all the time, people are very, very visible to each other. It’s bad enough to have this kind of thing happen at a big university where the degree of anonymity that people have is much greater, but to have it in a place where there’s less anonymity is I think even more problematic."

To Xu, that's the point. At close-knit communities like the small liberal arts colleges that have Confessionals, he said, the sites "[give] you anonymity in a place where there isn’t much anonymity." He still said he would be open to expanding to larger colleges, although the costs might be prohibitive.

Even without using names, the content of the sites can get racy. At Oberlin Confessional, one of the most popular threads (with over 500 comments and counting) asks students to photograph their own genitals and post links to the pictures online so that others can rate them. They have, and they are. Other postings are more innocuous, like "super secret crushes and be honest" -- whose comments section is still full of names -- or: "Post whatever's in your clipboard right now. GO. CRTL-V [sic] (or apple-v if you're REALLY cool) LIKE THE WIND."

The fear that such postings could get out of control has spurred some colleges, like Amherst, to react. Oberlin initially responded with conversations with students and hosting an on-campus dialogue about the issues the site raised, according to a spokesman. At Sacred Heart, a student who created a Facebook group for the Confessional said he was "threatened with suspension and forcible removal from campus if the site wasn't shut down," in a posting to the official Facebook page for the sites. Xu said the student wasn't even involved with the site. When the student contacted him, Xu shut it down to prevent further trouble.

"It is ridiculous to believe that Sacred Heart University threatens its students. The site in question was fostering slander by anonymous authors. This is contrary to the mission and purposes of Sacred Heart University. Therefore, the student responsible for the site was asked to shut it down in the interest of civility and decency on campus," wrote Funda Alp, the director of communications, in an e-mail.

Xu said that he hoped the level of discussion on the Confessionals wouldn't degrade to the point where the sites would be viewed negatively. “I don’t want it to become like JuicyCampus, in a way,” he said.

 

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