From Behind the Screen

Two new online phenomena spreading to college and university campuses raise questions of how much information is too much -- and who has the right to share it.

February 26, 2013

"i got laid in my hometown because i wore my brothers princeton sweatshirt and she thought i was a neurologist. just wanted to say thanks.”

“I'm in love with my girlfriend but I cheated on her to even the playing field in case she ever cheats on me.”

“To the guy, with the mohawk/fohawk in Intro to Eng, you're cute. i want you, im afraid to talk to you.”

These are -- verbatim -- just a few of the secrets disclosed on the increasingly popular “Confessions” Facebook pages springing up on various college and university campuses.

The format is simple enough: students send “confessions,” ranging from the mundane (“I love beer”) to the bitterly intimate (“I want to talk to you about what you did to me, but I also don't want you to think I care enough about you to talk to you.”) to the page administrators, who then post them anonymously on the Facebook page -- but while the person who submitted the post is anonymous, some of the subjects may be clear to those on campus.

“We do our best to post all of them as long as they are not mean about someone,” said the administrator of Tufts University’s confessions page via Facebook message. “Sometimes the posts get lost in the survey website because there's a maximum, but we encourage people to resubmit posts if they do not see them up there and they're not mean." (The site administrator and other "confessions" administrators agreed to talk without their names being used.)

For student affairs administrators who were thrilled when Juicy Campus -- a website with similar approaches -- disappeared, the new websites may be a rude awakening.

Another trend has popped up alongside the confession sites: college “make-out” Twitter feeds, which feature candid, apparently unsolicited photographs of college students kissing -- typically shot in bars or at large parties. Among the institutions with active sites are the University of Notre Dame, Kansas State University, Louisiana State University, Eastern Illinois University and the University of Alabama.

Anonymous online oversharing is not new; PostSecret, which features anonymous postcards detailing the senders’ secrets, first came into being in 2005, and confessions in a similar format are popular on the Tumblr microblogging platform. Similarly, the “make-out” Twitters come across like a PG-13 rated version of Reddit’s infamous “creepshots,” photographs of women taken without their consent. Pages specific to colleges and universities, however, have been gaining popularity far more recently. Some of the most recent additions include Tufts, Harvard University and University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the colleges where these sites are turning up, traffic to them is high (judging from Facebook statistics) -- and so are complaints. Brendan Conron, president of Tufts Free Compliments, which recently launched its own anonymous submission page (for people who want to say nice things), told the student newspaper Tufts Daily that "people need to realize responsible usage" of online forums of this nature.

The administrator for the University of New Mexico page said he believes the reason for the recent popularity is that “they pertain to a very specific audience and not a broad one”. The administrator added that confessions on the Facebook pages “generally tend to be more funny and entertaining rather than melodramatic."

“I think they’re gaining steam because [they are] university-specific, so the confessions are more personal and more exciting,” said the Tufts administrator. “Students already spend a lot of their time on Facebook, so it's natural that they'd spend time on a Facebook page as opposed to a similar page on a different website."

As is often the case with online communication, some have expressed concern about the potential implications of such pages; Bill Oglesby, who teaches media ethics and law at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that the majority of the confessions, “while in some cases potentially embarrassing, would fall into the category of protected speech.” Oglesby added that there are “stronger ethical issues” in any format where contributors are anonymous. “If someone's reputation or character is damaged,” Oglesby said, “he or she may have a cause of action for libel, if the person who posted the defamation can be identified.” The Tufts administrator added that there is an effort not to make individuals identifiable. “People are pretty good about not outing other people's secrets,” she said, “but we don't post any that we think might.”

And what if a student took advantage of the anonymous format to confess to illegal activity? “Underage drinking and the use of illicit drugs will go unreported [to authorities] as I do not have enough hours in the day to try and stop these failed prohibitions and enforce laws I personally think are asinine,” said the New Mexico administrator. “As for, let’s say, [if] someone confessed to planning a bombing or mass shooting, I would not hesitate to get the proper authorities involved.”

While the administrators might feel bound to report such activity, Oglesby said, they probably would not have any such obligation legally. “If the administrators function as ‘gatekeepers’ or are on notice about some particular legal issue that continually arises, they may be judged to have some liability,” he said. “Generally, however, administrators who merely provide the venue are not held responsible for postings that are made directly by the public.”


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