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What’s the point of Humboldt confessions?

Musings on student use of anonymous media

by Victoria Olsen

Anonymity: a real-life invisibility cloak. Students at Cal Poly Humboldt enjoy the freedom of online anonymous spaces by creating “confession pages” specifically for CPH students on various social media platforms. Students use these platforms to talk about professors, express frustration with university administration, freely give their opinions on other students, or just share random thoughts about the Humboldt experience. 

I saw a post recently on an HSU confession page reminding students to go out and talk to people and make friends, because most of us are in the same lonely boat. I wondered why that person felt it needed to be an anonymous post; it was a harmless, even uplifting, statement. In instances like this one, it seems that the poster is using the page for its platform and audience rather than its built-in anonymity. 

I don’t take any issue with students forming a community on anonymous platforms; posts like this one prove that the bad reputation of anonymous sites is partially undeserved. It becomes problematic when people use these platforms to bring attention to specific individuals without their knowledge or permission. I’ve witnessed this, and in my opinion, it’s where anonymous posting crosses the line.

Whenever I see a post about someone being weird in the J, my initial thought is always, “was that me?” I’m sure other people think the same thing, and then we walk around campus paranoid and uncomfortable because no one wants to be the next one someone is making fun of behind the protection of anonymity.

If you search for “HSU confessions” on Twitter, some old tweets dating from 2009 to 2013 come up. At that point an HSU confessions page on Facebook was already active and popular. From the tweets, it doesn’t appear that people were particularly happy with it. Some people felt that they were being personally called out, while others were entertained. Today, students carry on the tradition of confession pages via Instagram. At the moment there are two accounts where students post mostly random “confessions,” opinions, and feelings. Another site that I noticed growing in popularity lately has been YikYak, an anonymous messaging app where users create and view posts within a 5 mile radius.

I remember in middle school and high school people would use anonymous platforms like  ASKfm to “rate” each other on personality or looks. A popular trend was to solicit a “tbh” (to be honest) or “ngl” (not gonna lie) where commenters would give their honest opinions. Sometimes people were kind and commented on how good looking and nice people were. Other times you’d see people take the opportunity afforded by anonymity to call someone ugly and just generally bully them.

I’ve noticed that most anonymous posts are related to burning opinions students have about Cal Poly Humboldt, whether they concern the university itself, the faculty, or other students. But the thoughts being voiced online are not ones I think the anonymous posters would own up to in real life–they can be hateful, shameful, or embarrassing. This results in an especially toxic online community on many anonymous platforms. My overall problem with anonymous confessions is that there is a huge lack of social accountability, which encourages antisocial and sometimes downright cruel behavior. We stress the importance of being aware of cyberbullying, but when it comes to anonymous platforms it almost feels like we collectively let it slide to some degree because there is no name to instantly and directly trace those harmful comments back to. 

Maybe I’m assuming the worst in people. There is some humor in a post every now and then. These sites are not created for the purpose of being harmful, it just comes with the territory of anonymity. But I would encourage students using these sites to really think before they post, and ask themselves why they feel it’s necessary to be anonymous. And to anyone reading them, don’t assume it’s you they’re talking about.

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