POSNER: Anonymity and the Ivy

Out of Line

Anonymity is undoubtedly the zeitgeist of Yale’s current social media activity. In the last few months, a fresh set of confession-centric pages has cropped up, most notably “Elihu Yale (Bulldog Admirers)” and “Yale Compliments II.” These pages offer students a platform to express admiration, respect and adoration for fellow students with a wide audience, minus the pressure or intimacy of signing their names. They’ve both taken off, with dozens of submissions that fill a spectrum from clever puns to sincere romance.

PosnerCThere’s another anonymous platform, though, that’s slightly older and significantly more intense: Yale PostSecret. The site takes its name from the PostSecret community, an art project begun in 2005 in which anonymous individuals mail blogger Frank Warren their personal secrets on handmade postcards; the cards are then photographed for display on the project website. Yale PostSecret, like the original project, allows Yalies to make anonymous confessions via Google document for display on the platform’s Facebook wall. Unlike the original project, which moderated the postcards for artistry and sincerity, the Yale confessions range from intimate tragedies to bad one-liners.

But with Internet anonymity, as we all heard in middle school, comes a number of concerns — and Yale PostSecret is certainly not exempt. A chance at invisibility, coupled with the promise of a wide audience, manifests itself in many forms: multi-paragraph monologues on feelings of desire, objections to campus stereotypes of full-tuition students, regrets about sexual relationships with teaching fellows. It’s also given rise to an alarming number of posts about suicidal ideations, lack of self-worth and episodes of humiliation. The heavier posts share a home with thoughts that make a mockery of the anonymous confession project: Right below a post confessing romantic infidelity is the status, “I kissed a squirrel and I liked it.”

The anonymous platform seems like it has inherently good aims, and the opportunity to express personal strife isn’t necessarily dangerous or bad. Casper Daugaard ’13, a frequent commenter on Yale PostSecret statuses, says he is “sure that for every confession that someone makes, there are hundreds of other Yalies who feel the same way, about academics, sexual identity or an evil ex.” The responses to many confessions speak to the affirmative, with students — in this case no longer anonymous — echoing the sentiments of their peers. “It can be really comforting to see you’re not alone, and benefit from any advice folks post,” Daugaard says.

Perhaps that’s the most insidious issue with this site and others like it, though: the propensity of students to try taking on the roles of counselors and even psychologists for their peers. It’s benign enough to offer words of comfort, assent, and appreciation in mild situations. The scenario is complicated, though, when students attempt to respond to posts like the several recent confessions of depression and suicidal thoughts. Some students smartly recommend outside resources like Walden and Yale Health. But emoticon-riddled messages of compassion, well-intentioned as they may be, aren’t a substitute for real counseling; making a confession to Yale PostSecret cannot replace seeking a qualified counselor, therapist or psychiatrist.

On the whole, though, it looks as though Daugaard is right — anonymous posts offer a means to express campus concerns and personal thoughts, and allow other students the assurance of knowing peers share their feelings and situations. The darker side of Yale PostSecret is certainly important, because it emphasizes the proportion of Yalies silently grappling with emotional suffering and can serve as a catalyst for further action to improve student well-being. It also provides a model for the kind of services better equipped to deal with these concerns. The relative ease and security of Internet communication have made live chat programs increasingly popular among emergency hotlines. If Yale Mental Health and other counseling institutions followed suit, perhaps we’d have a better concept of the numbers of students suffering and encourage better treatment practices.

As for other topics of confession, I hope that the presence of difficult and controversial sentiments online doesn’t stop at Yale PostSecret, but can carry over into personal interactions. Though the anonymous forum might be a solid start for normalizing the discussion of issues like class and race, it’s limited to a small audience of subscribers and confined by the nature of Facebook commenting. These are the topics we need to pick up in our conversations about improving campus culture. Yale PostSecret can speak to the problems on students’ minds, but that’s not enough to make real progress. For that, we will need further conversations — ones that aren’t anonymous.

Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Her columns run on Thursdays. Contact her at caroline.posner@yale.edu .

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