Anonymous online forums have long been an internet staple, but collegiate versions can be particularly unruly. Give a relatively small and insulated community an unmoderated space to say as they please and things will inevitably get messy. With social lives increasingly lived online, the intensity of those messes multiplies. Such is the case at Oberlin College, where an anonymous confessional forum accessible only to students is rife with hatred and harassment. The administration says there's nothing they can do.
Cate Minall spent her first semester at Oberlin, a top-ranked private liberal arts college with only around 3,000 students, partying pretty hard. So she wasn't all that surprised when she found her name on Oberlin Confessional, an anonymous online forum that required an Oberlin email address to comment where students gossiped about their sex fantasies and messy roommates — and talked major shit about one another without any repercussions. (Oberlin alum Lena Dunham once wrote about the time a poster called her a "stupid whore.")
At first, Minall said, it wasn't that big a deal: sure, people were calling her a slut, but everyone got called a slut on Oberlin Confessional during that 2006-2007 academic year. But then things spiraled out of control. Anonymous posters wrongfully accused Minall of spreading STDs, stealing boyfriends, and sleeping with professors in order to pass classes. A 60-page thread piled up overnight that was dedicated entirely to Minall's sexual exploits, some accurate but most completely false.
"It got to the point where I couldn't go anywhere on campus, because everything I said in class would be posted and torn apart," Minall, now 24, recalled. "It wasn't just on the computer anymore." Friends and prospective love interests were scared away by the rumors. One night, her room was broken into and trashed. Someone found her address and posted it online, threatening to contact her family and let them know what their little girl had been up to — or, rather, what Oberlin Confessional thought she was up to.
When Minall eventually reported Oberlin Confessional to the administration, she was told they couldn't do anything since the site was run by a student. Even her mother and attorney uncle couldn't convince the school to shut the site down. Feeling like she had nowhere left to turn, Minall withdrew from Oberlin in the fall of 2007. She thought about transferring, but decided to give Oberlin another try and returned the next year. Oberlin Confessional was gone, but a new site for student-only anonymous confessions called Obietalk popped up to replace it in 2009. Her name started showing up again; posters even found out that she was a guest blogger at an international law website and posted Obietalk links there in an attempt to ruin her professional reputation.
Why was Minall the butt of such nastiness? "I was an easy target because I put myself out there" as an 18-year-old, she said. "But if it hadn't happened to me, it would've happened to someone else."
She's right; anonymous college confessionals are nothing new. The most famous is arguably JuicyCampus, which hosted forums for over 500 college campuses at its height and was eventually shuttered due to financial issues, not on the basis of its content. Wesleyan alumni Peter Frank sold the College Anonymous Confession Board (ACB), which originated at Wesleyan but, like Juicy Campus, eventually served over 500 schools (JuicyCampus actually redirected there for a period of time) for what he called a "healthy profit." I'll always remember a comment someone wrote about me on UC Berkeley's AnonCon: the poster said I was stuck up and used to be skinny but now had a double chin. It still kind of makes me cringe to think about.
Last year, the website's content became particularly racist, homophobic, and misogynistic: "We'll rape the faggot out of them n string the nigger from a tree" was one of the nicer comments in a collection of screenshots sent to me by a student. Three students even made a documentary about Obietalk called "SLUT/BITCH/CRAZY" in December 2011.
One student featured in the video, Sophia Yapalater, told us in an email that she had been subjected to "an unusual amount of personal, social, and sexual harassment on the site — constant posting of my name, evaluation of my weight/attractiveness, attacks on my sexuality, slut-shaming, talking about my sex life (both in truth and falsified), evaluating every single one of my facebook pictures, claims that they would save a suggestive photo of me from a campus publication and send it to my employers" over the past three and a half years.
The administration told Yapalater exactly what they told Minall: that their hands were tied. But official complaints from students and parents continued to pour in and they finally proposed a self-monitoring community monitoring system near the end of April. "I don't think the administration should be monitoring Obietalk," Dean of Students Eric Estes told The Oberlin Review in the article announcing the proposal. "I think the key is empowering students to help shape acceptable discourse for themselves."
Some students disagreed. "Does [Vice President of Communications Ben Jones] have any understanding of what it's like for someone to read that they should be 'put in the fields to pick some cotton to get your lard-ass into shape', as a recent post told a certain individual to do?" sophomore Ruby Turok-Squire, a contributor to Oberlin's official Student Life blog, wrote last April, pointing out that most of the posts on Obietalk targeted women, minorities, and freshman. "Does he understand that as soon as hate speech has been published online, the damage is done? Moderation comes after the fact. All it really takes is one comment to deeply hurt someone and ruin their lives at Oberlin." She wondered why Oberlin didn't do more to combat the hate.
"[President Marvin] Krislov also told me that he's never been on Obie Talk," she wrote. "He doesn't want to know what's going on. The administration turn a blind eye and pretend that the problem has gone away."
Obietalk mysteriously disappeared soon after the administration's moderation proposal, but, as of this week, it's back. Right now, the site tells visitors that "Obietalk is only accesible to students on campus at the moment. Student email login will be added shortly..." but yesterday, before I spoke with Obietalk founder Will Adams-Keane, anyone could access it.
Adams-Keane, the 22-year-old senior who created Obietalk when he was a freshman, told me he took the site down for a few months so he could rewrite it and include some form of community moderation. Now, students can "report" posts to add them to a moderation queue. "Obietalk will automatically review reported posts and if deemed offensive through a sentiment analysis, then they will be immediately hidden until further review," he wrote in an email. "Otherwise, they will remain visible until I can take a look at them."
As of now, Adams-Keane is the site's only moderator. A banner warns users that offensive comments naming names will be deleted, but when I checked it yesterday, one post said someone was "a gigantic mark of shame on Oberlin as both a school and a community," there was a list of the "Hottest Oberlin virgins" and someone had commented on "some fine ass minorities in the freshman class." There were tons of first and last names up there for everyone to see.
Adams-Keane said he felt bad for students who had been hurt because of his site. "While there are a number of forms of anonymous communication at Oberlin, it seems that Obietalk has been more widely used and I wish that students would have the same respect for their peers on Obietalk as they do in real life," he wrote. "I've always been willing to remove anything if someone asks me to, but I know that even just seeing it once can be damaging enough."
Why did he make it in the first place? To replace Oberlin Confessional — the site that forced Minall to withdraw back in 2007. "I thought it would be cool to make a replacement for it and improve on some things," he said. Cool, indeed.
Dean Estes told me in an email that sites like Obietalk are "often unproductive," and suggested we check out the new Oberlin Compliments Facebook page, which allows students to anonymously compliment others. Estes said the administration had "zero purview" over Obietalk, no more control "than we do over Facebook or any other public networking site. It isn't housed on our server and Obie isn't trademarked." He suggested that concerned students contact Adams-Keane, who "has said all along that he will remove flagged posts or posts students contact him to remove. I know that isn't good, but it is what it is…"
Why is Dean of Students at a private college advising legitimately fearful undergrads to get in touch with a rather dispassionate 22-year-old?
"It's Oberlin," said Minall, who is now a paralegal in Manhattan, studying for the LSATs. "It's a liberal school. They want to protect the rights of students."
It's understandable that Oberlin would be wary about restricting free speech by, say, blocking Obietalk on campus. But Oberlin students and their families pay $44,905 a year to take classes like "Visible Bodies and the Politics of Sexuality," not to be forced out of school by internet trolls; the administration should work more actively to bar hate speech from the site than suggest students police it themselves. Will Obietalk's new moderation system actually work? Moreover, how long will it take the administration to notice?
Photo via baslow's Flickr.